By David Gregovich
The coastal rainforest region is typified by uh, rain and forests, and these characteristics promote a rich diversity of mushrooms. All times of year in Southeast Alaska have their upside, though sometimes it’s hard to find that upside in the fall, when days start to grow shorter and the rain comes down even harder. But we can look to our fungal buddies to provide much needed color (and flavor) in what otherwise can be a drab time of year.
While a scattering of fungi may be found in Southeast Alaska at various times of year, late-summer and fall are when most mushrooms flourish. I mean, you could get lucky and find a springtime morel, but those aren’t so common here in the rainforest. It is usually around early August (give or take a week or two) when the picking starts to get hotter. This can depend on the year—the summer of 2019 was very dry, and so the fungal scene was dead until September, when rains came and the forest floor erupted. Contrast this with 2020, when there were already reports of king boletes starting to come up in mid-June!
Wild fungi come in an array of shapes, sizes, and colors. Such that some of them stretch the limit of what can be termed a ‘mushroom’. ‘Coral’ mushrooms look better suited for underwater life. ‘Puffballs’ look like little forest-floor dessert pastries. ‘Chicken-of-the-woods’ takes the form of bright-orange shelves that sprout laterally from dead trees, reminiscent of neither chicken nor mushroom.
Add to this picture the fact that a mushroom is just the part of the fungus involved directly in reproduction, and the rest of the fungus lives embedded in the soil as cottony threads called ‘mycelia’. These threads are usually hard to see without a microscope and can generally only be identified from each other by analysis of DNA. The mycelia live life basically either digesting decomposing plant or animal matter, or in close association with living trees or plants. The latter case is often a symbiotic relationship, the tree delivers carbohydrates to the fungus, while the fungus passes nutrients up to the tree. So there’s much more to the fungal picture than meets the eye.
It may be daunting to get into hunting mushrooms, as of course some are toxic, with symptoms ranging from mild tummy ache to things more severe. Fortunately, there are many strategies that can lead to a very safe, successful entry into this pursuit:
- Don’t eat mushrooms. This is perhaps the safest option. And many fungi are quite spectacular to just look at and maybe take a photo of. You might also compare them to pictures in a mushroom guidebook or online to try to figure out what kind they are, just for the sake of learning about the natural world around you.
- Only eat a mushroom when its plainly obvious what kind you are looking at. The aforementioned chicken-of-the-woods (Laetiporus conifericola) consists of outlandish bright orange plates, and so it is fairly easy to identify. Lion’s mane (Hericium abietis) looks like a pom-pom coming out of a tree, and is fairly easy to identify. Golden chanterelles (Cantharellus formosus) look like little yellow trumpets, and are fairly easy to identify. Stick to distinctive looking fungi, and avoid the confusing mass of little brown mushrooms (LBMs) that, without a microscope and extensive expertise, are not very easy to identify.
- Have a friend show you some edible ones. A very efficient way to learn, as experience can lead to a good eye for the characteristics of some edible species. Just make sure it’s a true friend and not a ‘frenemy’.
- Diligently peruse mushroom guidebooks and online resources. There are guidebooks particularly relevant to Alaska and the Pacific Northwest quite helpful in assisting with identification:
- Mushrooms and other fungi of Alaska by Judy Hall Jacobson
- Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast by Noah Siegel
- All that Rain Promises and More by David Arora
- Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest by Steve Trudell and Joe Ammirati
Dave Gregovich has been hunting mushrooms and working in biology in Southeast Alaska for 25 years. He resides in Juneau.