March 16, 2010

Experts caution novices not to forage for mushrooms


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STAFF PHOTO BY JOHN EWING -- Friday, October 15, 1999 -- Mushrooms sprout in a cluster near the Androscoggin River in Topsham. Our cool, wet fall has brought forth lots of the colorful fungus' throughout the state.

Staff Writer

Mushrooms are thriving in Maine this summer. They're popping up in woods, on lawns, in vegetable gardens, in the mulch of perennial beds -- even at the edge of gravel driveways.

''It's the rain,'' said Greg Marley, a Rockland mycologist and mushroom expert.

''That is pretty much it. The vegetative parts of the mushrooms have had time to grow and develop with hosts, or food. With the warm temperatures and plenty of rain, we've had a massive flush or fruiting.''

Rick Tibbetts of Scarborough, who makes a living foraging for wild mushrooms that he sells to high-end restaurants and markets, agrees it has been a great year for harvesting. On Tuesday, he and his two children harvested almost 70 pounds of mushrooms on a trip to Rangeley.

But that doesn't mean you should start harvesting the mushrooms sprouting up in your backyard. There is a good chance they could make you sick, and a slight chance that they could kill you.

''We probably have somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 species of mushrooms in the state of Maine,'' Marley said. ''The vast majority of those are too small or too tough to eat, or we simply do not know if they are edible.

''Around 5 to 10 percent of those mushrooms would produce some type of toxic reaction, and another 5 to 10 percent are edible to some extent.''

In 20 years as a mushroom consultant for the Maine Poison Control Centers, Marley has seen 16 or 17 cases of severe poisoning from mushrooms.

The three most dangerous mushrooms in the state, he said, are the destroying angel, the lilac brown bolete and the Jack O'Lantern mushroom.

The destroying angel is the most toxic common mushroom, and can be found now. It is part of the group of amanitas that is responsible for about 80 percent of deaths from mushrooms.

The lilac brown bolete is dangerous because some old mushroom-foraging books mistakenly say all boletes are edible.

The Jack O'Lantern mushroom grows in dense clusters near the base of a tree or from buried wood. The underside gills glow in the dark. It is sometimes confused with the chanterelle, which is highly edible.

Marley mentioned six edible mushrooms as being highly popular among mushroom foragers. Four of them were called ''The Foolproof Four'' in ''Common Edible Mushrooms'' from 1943 by Clyde Christensen, a professor of mycology at the University of Minnesota.

They are the morel, the giant puffball, the shaggy mane and chicken of the woods, which is also called sulfur shelf. Marley adds chanterelle, which is very common in Maine, and the black trumpet, which is common but hard to find.

Both Marley and Tibbetts are adamant that amateurs should not forage for mushrooms. Pictures in books and descriptions are not good enough.

Instead, they encourage people to take a class so they can learn to differentiate between the good and bad bushrooms. Marley will teach a mushroom class from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Aug. 23 at Maine Audubon Society in Falmouth. Cost is $40 for Audubon members and $50 for non-members. For more information, visit

From 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Aug. 29, Marley will give an indoor talk on summer mushrooms at Saddleback Mountain in Rangeley, followed by a mushroom walk from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Call 864-5671 for information.

Staff Writer Tom Atwell can be contacted at 791-6362 or at:

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