The West Kootenays are home to a vast community of mushrooms and people who love them. Foraging for mushrooms is a popular and occasionally profitable hobby for people who appreciate these secretive and subtle fungi. Mushrooms can come in all shapes, sizes, and colours, making them an exciting forest treasure.
Not all mushrooms are safe to eat. As more people venture into the woods, the chances of harvesting and ingesting toxic mushrooms also increases. Mushrooms often have several sub-species that are very similar in appearance. However, most mushrooms usually have multiple characteristics that can be used to identify them. Three characteristics can be used to help identify the species of mushroom — the cap, the gills, and the spores.
The shape and size of the cap (the top part of the mushroom that looks similar to an umbrella) varies from species to species and it protects the gills and spores underneath. Spores are like seeds; they are dispersed to start new fungi or when eaten and dispersed through feces. Even the stalk (stem that supports the cap of the mushroom) can be used for identification. It is crucial to know these mushroom parts in order to properly identify them.
Wouldn’t you know it — there are more than just us that eat mushrooms. There are a variety of other animals that rely on mushrooms as a food source. Squirrels, deer, bear, and insects are just a few examples of animals that rely on having a supply of mushrooms for food.
Over-harvesting of fungi by humans is seen as discourteous to others who would like to enjoy mushrooms and it is also problematic to wildlife. The effect of picking all the mushrooms in one spot has not been definitively determined to be negative or positive for mushrooms or those that eat them. For some wildlife, their small home range leaves them vulnerable to hunger if this food source is cleared entirely in a given area.
The mushrooms above ground that are visible to the human eye are only the fruiting bodies of the fungus. The rest of the fungus lives below the surface, unseen. Picking the fruiting bodies doesn’t kill the mushroom. Similar to picking apples and berries, the plant remains healthy depending on how you’ve picked those fruit of the plant. If you break branches on an apple tree or excessively dig up the ground for the mushroom, you’ve caused unnecessary damage to the organism.
Fungi fruit at various times, depending on many environmental factors, and new ones will pop up all the time. Some mushrooms like morels are spring mushrooms while lobster mushrooms fruit in fall. Sometimes it seems no matter how many mushrooms you pick, you find more just around the corner.
Commercial mushroom pickers entering fragile forest systems can cause a lot of damage, not only to the root network of the fungi, but to the forest as a whole, by compacting soil, leaving detritus behind, and damaging relationships with locals who resent having their forests picked clean.
Mushroom roots, known as mycorrhizae, are the main part of the mushroom that lives in the soil year round, nearly everywhere there is forest. The fruiting body that we pick and eat is actually a minuscule part of a mushroom. Some fungi species form a symbiotic relationship with the other plants in the forest, facilitating transmission of nutrients and information throughout the entire forest. These roots are mostly unaffected by harvesting mushrooms, but care must always be taken to not dig mushrooms up or disturb the roots.
With courteous attention, there will always be enough mushrooms for everyone and the entire forest can continue to benefit from them. Remember to be a respectful part of nature.
Cheyanna Shypitka and Yvonne Gregory are second year Recreation, Fish and Wildlife students at Selkirk College in Castlegar.