David Robson Extension Educator, Springfield Extension Center, University of Illinois
Yard & Garden
There’s a ‘morel’ in this story
Mushrooms in Illinois jump right off the page
Gardeners like free things. Well, for that matter, most of us like free things, though if the government says something is free, we tend to cock an eyebrow and a red light starts blinking in the brain.
Columnists like free things as well.
So, imagine my delight when I was offered a free book. There was no stipulation that I had to fawn over it, or even write about it.
But in this case, I’m doing both.
The book is Edible Wild Mushrooms of Illinois and Surrounding States, though the “Surrounding States” is in small print. The book was authored by Joe McFarland and Gregory M. Mueller, and published by the University of Illinois Press. Cost is last than $25. (The Internet may be cheaper than local bookstores, but always support your local bookstore first!)
Let me be upfront and say I like mushrooms.
I do not find them slimy or smelly or icky like some do. Granted, some are little more than a holder of butter and salt like cooked pasta. But many have a great flavor and texture.
Years ago, I went morel mushroom hunting. In fact, that happened for several years and really was a rite of passage, though I was well in my 20s and 30s. Still, every spring, there was an anticipation of getting in the car, driving downstate and spending 4 hours touring some friends’ woods. Spots were carefully mapped in the brain, and never shared with anyone else.
After returning to our prehistoric roots of hunting and gathering, everyone would return with sacks of the fungi, parcel them evenly out, and then share a great meal.
During this same time, though four to five months later, the puffballs would pop up, but locally. They had their own unique flavor, but after eating slices of them for two days and realizing that you still had 90 percent of the mushroom left, they quickly became the “zucchini’s” of the mushroom world.
McFarland and Mueller present Illinois mushrooms in all their glory.
Now, I can read a mystery from page one to the last page and not jump ahead to see who-did-it.
I can read the newspaper the same way.
I cannot, though, read a gardening book the same way. And this book is even tougher.
If you wanted to forget the text, and you really should NOT, you can drool over the gorgeous photos. As someone who has tried to snap a shot of mushrooms, I know how difficult it can be. These pictures are good enough to cut out and frame, though that destroys the book and is almost sacrilegious.
Now, back to the text.
Once you’ve had your fill of the photos, and that may take an hour or two, you’ll start noticing the chapters. Start at the very beginning. Make sure you read the first two chapters. Once you’re done, re-read them again. And then a third.
The authors wisely and correctly point out that not all mushrooms are edible. Some are poisonous and can land you in the hospital or 6 feet under. The book will NOT make anyone an expert on mushroom ID.
What you will notice as you start reading is that many of the edible mushrooms look familiar, though we tend to think only of the spring morels and the fall puffballs.
There are Chanterelles, Oyster, Hens-and-Chicks, Boletes, Bear’s Head, cauliflower and Lion’s Mane. Some grow on trees; others grow on the ground.
One of the most interesting is the Indigo Milk Cap which looks like something out of, well, a mushroom hallucination. When harvested fresh, it bleeds blue ink. The stem is mottled blue and white, and gills also have a blue tinge.
Even when you identify the mushroom as edible, the authors point out that being edible and tasty may not be synonymous. Once puffballs start turning yellow, they lose quality and become bitter and tough.
This book is perfect for any mushroom hunter or wannabe hunter. Again, it won’t make you an expert, but it sure can help you along the way.
David Robson is an Extension Educator, Horticulture, at the Springfield Extension Center, University of Illinois Extension, P.O. Box 8199, Springfield, IL 62791. Telephone: 217-782-6515.
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