Collecting and utilizing items from the wild has long been a hobby and passion of mine. I have been extremely fortunate to have many outstanding teachers.
First on the list would have to be my father, Dr. Frank Manzer, a retired Plant pathologist at the University of Maine. He introduced me to identification and utilization of various weeds, berries, and fungi. While my mother and I did most of the collecting, our entire family got in on the act.
My wife’s parents, who were struggling farmers in impoverished central West Virginia, were also avid foragers largely out of necessity. I enjoyed collecting nuts, greens, berries, and other native bounties in West Virginia with them.
In college I was also lucky to have at my disposal two highly renowned plant taxonomists in Drs. Faye Hyland and Charles Richards. These two were indispensable in my gaining proficiency identifying all types of wild plants.
While I (purposely) haven’t addressed any edible fungi in this column, I owe gratitude to the late Dr. Richard Homola. He taught me mycology and was an all around great guy. Through his tutelage I learned the importance of collecting spore prints and studying the entire sporophyte, not simply a section of it.
The reason I don’t wish to include mushroom foraging is simple. It’s too easy to make a mistake and one error could cost a life. The common meadow mushroom (Agaricus campestris) is nearly identical to the commercially raised ones (Agaricus bisporus) in all the grocery stores. It is completely safe and very good. Some people call them the pink bottom mushroom. One problem is that they closely resemble the destroying angel (Aminita verna), which is also white, but with a white spore print and not a black one.
Aminita also has a cup-like base called a volva that holds the mushroom. Both species have cream colored caps with scales and a ring on the stipe. The genus Aminita accounts for about 90 percent of mushroom related deaths.
What is a spore print? It is like a fingerprint for mushrooms; that’s one more identifying factor. The spores may be light or dark colored, so it’s helpful to take a print on both white and dark paper.
Separate the cap from the stem (stipe) and lay it gills down on the paper. In a few hours the spores will be released and the print will appear. Note the color and don’t take any chances.
One destroying angel in a whole basket of meadow mushrooms could be enough to kill. The two species are often found growing in the same areas at the same times.
There are numerous common, safer, and less confusing species, but unless someone is a serious aspiring student of mycology I suggest avoiding wild mushrooms. We have so many wild greens, berries, and nuts, why take the chance?
Most of the best greens are available during the spring, fall, and winter. Berries abound in the summer, and grapes, nuts, paw paws, and persimmons are plentiful in the fall. I’ll continue to cover them as their seasons’ progress.
Ted Manzer teaches Agriculture at Northeastern High School