When I met local mycologist John Wheeler, it was only seconds before I realized how little I knew about mushroom hunting.
Wheeler is a retired carpenter from Housatonic via Egremont and has been President of the Berkshire Mycological Society since 2005.
He’s been obsessed with mushrooms for almost as long as he’s been married, and he’s been married for 34 years.
During the years when Brian Alberg was the chef at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, Wheeler traded a £10 hen from the woods for a lovely anniversary dinner.
In preparation for the two-hour walk I had with Wheeler, I would accompany him with a canvas shopping bag. Wheeler had a long, flat basket on his arm when I met him in the Mount Everett High School parking lot.
He told me that the holes in the basket between the warp and weft allow the fungi to breathe, which allows their spores to escape and spread and grow new fungi. Another great tip I learned from him: good mushroom etiquette is kind of the opposite of good picnic etiquette.
A self-confessed ADD sufferer, which he views as an “overattentional” disorder rather than a lack of attention, Wheeler is prone to deep dives, driven by a hunter-gatherer mentality.
“For hunter-gatherers, if it’s not food and it’s not danger, it’s background noise,” Wheeler said.
For background noise, he thought of mushrooms until one night in the 1990s, he was driving electrician Steve Comalli home from Mundy’s bar.
The next day, Comalli called and said, “I need a ride, man! The babes are out!”
“What the hell are honeys?”
“Really good mushrooms, man. My uncle says they are all over the mountain.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
The Berkshire Mycological Society (BMS) old-school website has this highlighted disclaimer: “What you put in your mouth is not our responsibility.”
Another thing I learned during my hike with Wheeler is that getting poisoned from ingesting mushrooms isn’t as easy as you might think. According to Wheeler, only about 20 percent of the fungi you’re likely to encounter in Berkshire County’s woods, valleys, riverbanks, and farmyards would make you sick.
One in ten species could kill you, and of these, Wheeler singled out the cone-shaped, white, highly venomous Amanita Virosa, which, as he put it, “will turn your liver to a pulp in two weeks”. About 20 percent is edible, and 10 percent tastes good. Golden oysters (Pleurotus citrinopileatus), now available if you know where to look, taste heavenly when fried with a little olive oil, garlic and salt.
The weekly BMS-led Sunday morning hunts are open to the public and culminate in an informal categorization of their finds at a picnic bench. The forests of Mount Everett are a veritable hunting ground. “This spot is very low,” explains Wheeler, “and it has a great variety of trees. It’s an easy walk and there are great trails so anyone can do it. It’s one of the best places we’ve got.” The forest is full of dead tree trunks that do a good job of retaining moisture when there’s otherwise no moisture. Another popular venue for the club is next to Shay’s Rebellion field on the Egremont-Sheffield road.
Check out the group’s Facebook page for information on upcoming hikes and classes on their website. If you’ve ever conveniently gone gourmet mushroom hunting in the produce aisle of a specialty supermarket, you’re probably familiar with the long, honeycombed Morchella esculenta. It’s fickle, fleeting, and prized in French cuisine, placing it at the top of the mushroom hierarchy as far as capitalism is concerned. Dried morels can fetch well over a hundred dollars a pound online.
During the short morel season in our area, from early to mid-May, the BMS Sunday forays can attract twenty-five participants.
Among them on Sunday, July 24, was skincare expert and Lee resident Ginnie Miller, who, at the urging of her Millerton acupuncturist Lisa Wood, joined with her three children there. “So many of us walk in the woods and have no idea what we’re looking at,” Miller said.
Helena Barnes, an epidemiologist from Sharon, Connecticut, studies effective interventions for patients with bladder and kidney cancer in Sloan-Kettering and began foraging a few years ago. Marion Macpherson from Kinderhook has been with us for fifteen years.
The myriad medicinal (not to mention psychotropic) properties of mushrooms are well documented. Reishi and Ganoderma Lucidum boost the immune system, and bear’s tooth — or lion’s mane — Hieracium Americanum can help people with dementia.
“I’ve heard from studies they’ve done on Alzheimer’s patients that taking it helps with memory loss,” Wheeler said.
Hen-of-the-wood is anti-carcinogenic. “One woman told me she took it in pill form when she was in remission from cancer to keep it in check.” Oysters are a cholesterol absorption inhibitor, which means they balance cholesterol levels in, for example, an omelet.
On our excursion we encountered some insect-infested Reishi (June is the best time for these) and thirty-three other species. “Not bad for the conditions,” Wheeler said, despite the club record being nearly five times that.
“In one year we had 157 species in forty-five minutes.” That was in August, just after a series of hurricanes ravaged the region. In early spring they could be between five and 20, and in mid to late June somewhere in their forties or fifties. In late summer, when it has rained well, the average is around 100. This summer, on the other hand, was dry. It’s eight weeks into the season, however, and mushrooms are nothing if not unpredictable.
My favorite find of the day was a cute little chestnut mushroom (Ggyroporus castaneus), which Wheeler says makes for good food.
I admired its resemblance to the Italian porcini, with whom I have had a thirty-year love affair.
On a hike with my dog the day after our hunt, I was rewarded for my newfound hyper-attention to dead logs when I stumbled upon a gorgeous bonanza of golden oysters, which help balance the cholesterol in the pork chops I served my family later that day. Just don’t ask me where I found them.
As avid hunters know all too well, the field is vulnerable to competitive pressures. John once learned that a chipper salesman had checked the BMS website weekly for clues to good locations and then cleared the indicated area before Sunday morning rolled around. Wheeler has gotten smarter and is now posting walk locations just ninety minutes before they meet at ten in the morning.
Luckily, Wheeler’s attitude when it comes to mushroom picking is “come one, come all, and leave the rivalry at home.” “It’s like an adult Easter egg hunt, and we’re mammals and we should spend most of our lives with it.”
Next Sunday, July 31st, the Berkshire Mycological Society will explore Bob’s Way in Otis, and John Wheeler is offering a ride from the Price Chopper lot at 9:30am for anyone who wants to join.