PHOTOS AND TEXT BY DAVID FISCHER, mushroom expert and coauthor of Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America: A Field-to-Kitchen Guide and Mushrooms of Northeastern North America. Go to Americanmushrooms.com for about a zillion more mushroom fun-facts.
It’s always exciting to find some chanterelles because they grow symbiotically on tree roots and can’t be cultivated. I found some the other day behind a cemetery. They’re very expensive to buy. Wegmans, a huge grocery store near my house, has them for $39.99 a pound, presumably picked wild from the Pacific Northwest. The Golden Chanterelle [pictured] in particular has a wonderful fruity odor, much like apricots, and it tastes delicious. But please note that all wild mushrooms must be cooked before you eat them!
Stinkhorns smell like rotting flesh and are very phallic looking. The Impudent Stinkhorn [pictured] almost looks like it has a testicle down at the base, and the Elegant Dog Stinkhorn looks like, yup, a canine penis.
Believe it or not, when they’re still in the egg stage, stinkhorns are considered delicacies in some parts of the world. They slice them open, and what’s eventually going to become stinky slime is, at this early stage, high in sugar and very sweet.
These are umbrelloid mushrooms with a cap and stem, but instead of gills on the underside they have a layer of downward pointing tubes. It looks like sponge because you’re seeing the open ends of the tubes. The cool thing about them is that they bruise blue. If you break off a piece it turns from yellow to blue before your eyes due to oxidation. Some of them make great edibles, but others are poisonous. No boletes are psychoactive, though.
When you’re really lucky and you have fresh specimens, if you sit in a dark room and let your eyes adjust, these have a green glow-in-the-dark hue. There are a few other mushrooms that glow in the dark too, like the Luminescent Panus. I’ve had inquiries about glowing mushrooms from people who live near nuclear power plants. They’re always disappointed when I tell them that these are common species and not radioactive mutants. They can look a lot like chanterelles, but they’re poisonous. You have to be careful because you can’t always see the glow.
This is one of the world’s deadliest mushrooms. It’s very common and it’s very poisonous. A few years ago a man in Buffalo died from mistaking them for grocery-store-variety white button mushrooms. It’s not a good way to go. There are no symptoms for up to 24 hours and then you get flulike feelings—nausea, diarrhea, chills. Then it subsides and you think you just had a 24-hour bug. Meanwhile toxins are rapidly destroying your liver. You turn yellow from jaundice and you shoot to the top of the liver-transplant waiting list. Congratulations.
This is a widely cultivated mushroom that has a wonderful flavor and potent medicinal values. It’s full of vitamins and minerals and is used to help the immune system. It also has antitumor potential; it can be used to treat certain forms of cancer. Somewhere in the Catskills they’re building a huge windowless indoor Maitake-growing facility right now to supply restaurants. They can be very abundant. I’ve seen single large oak trees with 100 pounds of Maitake growing around them.
This is one of the first mushrooms that my dad taught me about as a kid. We had one growing in our backyard. It’s just a big, round, white ball. They have an unusual texture—light and spongy, yet firm and dry. You have to be careful cooking them. They can smoke a lot if you use high heat, and you might keep adding more and more oil until you end up with a greasy mess. Be careful with the small puffballs because they can resemble a button-stage Destroying Angel. I recommend sticking with puffballs at least the size of a softball. They can even grow to be several feet in diameter.
The fly agaric, or Amanita muscaria, is the mushroom most commonly illustrated in children’s storybooks. The red-capped variant that grows primarily in Siberia and northern Europe has potent psychedelic effects. In 1967, R. Gordon Wasson wrote a book about the fly agaric called Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality, which precipitated the mushroom revolution in Western civilization. In Siberia, the wealthy will buy and eat fly agaric for its psychedelic effects and then urinate into a pot and place the pot outside their front door allowing other, poorer people to come and drink the urine to get high. None for me, thanks.
At a high dose—which is just a few mushrooms picked off a cow patty—psilocybin delivers a very powerful hallucinogenic experience. It’s a totally different trip from fly agaric. In 2006, two different papers involving double-blind studies were written about using psilocybin as a therapeutic pharmacological agent. It’s not a new hypothesis: In the 1950s, Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson experimented with LSD and thought it and psilocybin might help recovering alcoholics and addicts to have a spiritual awakening so that they could follow the 12-step program. It can also be a magic bullet against acute OCD.