By Joseph Robertia
Over the last two months, the amount of clear skies and sunshine is better measured in hours rather than days, but there is one benefit to all the waterworks.
“There’s lots of mushrooms right now,” said naturalist Dominique Collet, of Sterling. “You can fill a basket in no time.”
Collet, author of “Willows of Southcentral Alaska,” “Insects of Southcentral Alaska” and the soon-to-be-released “Mushrooms of Alaska,” leads instructional field forays to teach fungal first-timers which mushrooms are edible, including a few that are highly palatable, and some that are not.
“It’s like grass,” Collet said. “You can eat it, but it’s not very good, and mushrooms are the same way. There are 700 to 800 species in Alaska. Some are edible and good, some are edible but not good, and some are toxic or poisonous.”
One of the most commonly seen mushroom species in Alaska is also one of the ones to avoid: Amanita muscaria, more commonly called the fly agaric.
“You want to stay away from this one,” Collet said. “It can get you very sick.”
Luckily, though, this mushroom is also one of the easiest to identify, due to its distinctive appearance and frequent depictions in media and commerce, such as in the “Super Mario Brothers” video games; children’s books and films, such as “Alice in Wonderland” and “Fantasia;” and even in lawn ornaments and stools for ceramic garden gnomes.
“There’s nothing like it,” Collet said. “It has a large, conspicuous red top with white spots. Underneath the cap it has creamy, white gills and a little gill skirt on the stalk.”
This is what the mushroom looks like at its peak, but novices can occasionally mistake fly agaric buttons for the puffball mushroom, which is similarly round and white but safe to eat.
“When they’re very small, they look like eggs,” Collet said of the young fly agaric, which at this stage is still covered in a protective tissue called the universal veil. “As it grows and tears out of the veil, the red color will develop.”
The white spots remain but change their location on the cap as it grows. Prolonged rain can fade the color of the adult mushroom and diminish the appearance of the spots. So this summer, in particular, mushroom hunters should use caution to not confuse it for any similar-appearing, edible fungus.
As for the mushroom’s name, Collet said that it is believed to be traced back several hundred years to when the fly agaric was used as an insecticide in Europe.
“It would be sprinkled into milk to kill flies,” he said.
In humans, the fly agaric can be equally dangerous. Poisonings have been reported in children and adults who ingested it hoping for a hallucinogenic experience.
With any mushrooms, pickers should be absolutely sure what they’re harvesting. Either consult a reliable mushroom guide or a mushroom expert to make sure it’s safe.
“There’s no quick shortcut to identifying all the edible or all the toxic mushrooms,” Collet said. “You just have to learn a lot of mushrooms, know which ones to eat, and never eat what you don’t know.”