Mushroom Hunters

I was going to post this in my homelearning blog, but I’m enjoying the activity so much I decided it would be appropriate here.

Mushroom Hunting – it all started with DD who, on a trip to the bookstore with her father last year, chose as her “one book that you can buy today” the National Audobon Society Pocket Guide to Familiar Mushrooms. Last fall we went on a couple of mushroom walks through forested parks to try and identify mushrooms, and even attended a mushroom show put on by the local mycological society. We took up the activity again this fall.

It helped that my friend J and her three homelearning boys were interested in mushrooms as well (her 8 year old took up the hobby). We’d been finding our pocket guide rather lacking and J recommended All the Rain Promises by David Arora (which had been recommended to her on their recent visit to a mycological society show). We set up a date to get together and go on a mushroom hunt near her home. Plastic bags in tow the kids gathered a full freezer-sized ziploc bag full of mushrooms. It was so much fun for the kids, but J and I were just as enthusiastic.

We found several specimens of Purple Cort, a truly beautiful mushroom. Some were huge – the caps over 6 inches in diameter! The sheer variety of mushrooms we found was almost overwhelming, but we dutifully collected as many as we could and headed back to J’s house to identify them. We laid them out on the table and got out our mushroom books but by then the kids had had enough and went off to play – fair enough, they’d been at it for a couple of hours. But J and I wanted to see what we’d found, and we made a discovery – mushrooms can be very hard to identify!

Up until this day I’d been photographing mushrooms, often just getting the top view of the cap (especially if it was uniquely coloured), thinking this would be sufficient. But I’ve now learned that several other important bits of info are needed, many of which weren’t obvious in my photos. You need to look at the gills – size, attachment to the stem, and colour. You need to examine the stalk for a sheath or ring, and sometimes the difference between two similar species can only be decided by looking at spore colour. It can also help to note the kind of tree it’s growing next to. Arora’s book has a handy flow chart to make identification easier but even so J and I, two university-educated women, had a hard time of it!

We noticed that some mushrooms had nice rounded, photo-perfect, caps whereas others, especially the really big ones, had caps that were concave (like an umbrella turned inside out) and wavy-edged. J later went online and confirmed our suspicions that this happens to caps as the mushroom ages and so can’t reliably be used as an identifying feature.

The best part of the day for me, however, came when I unexpectedly discovered a mushroom I’d be wanting to see ever since I read DD’s pocket guidebook. It’s called Bird’s Nest Fungi and this picture says it all. Is that not the coolest thing? Well, I’d never seen anything like it on any of our walks and then, on our walk with J, just as we were coming out of the forest I spied a mushroom I thought DD would like. As I bent to pick it I noticed a twig with strange protrusions coming out of it and upon closer examination I realized, to my extreme excitement, that I had found birds nest fungi! I plucked the whole twig up and carried it back to J’s house. Below is a photo of my specimen. Their size caught me off guard – note how small they are compared to the penny. It wasn’t obvious in the mushroom book photo just how tiny they are. But still fascinating (and very cute!) don’t you think?

So while it started out as a homelearning trip for DD and J’s son, it turned out to be a fun learning experience for all of us, especially the adults! This is just one of the many reasons why I love homelearning. We also got to spend a nice day with friends, as an added bonus. Anyways, I’m now finding myself getting into mushroom hunting as a hobby for myself and am looking forward to going on more walks.

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