Wednesday September 19, 2012

SANDISFIELD -- Dianna Smith has an affinity for fungi. Her preferred edible is Crater ellus cornucopioides, more commonly known as the Black Trumpet mushroom.

"They are difficult to see, as they can look a bit like dead leaves," Smith explained. "They typically grow in moss."

The Black Trumpet is one of many mushrooms Smith, an amateur mycologist and an award-winning mushroom photographer, will teach people about, forage for and identify during a mushroom workshop hosted by the Sandisfield Arts Center on Saturday at 10:30 a.m.

Smith is president of the Connecticut-Westchester Mycological Association andeditor of The Mycophile, a bi-monthly publication of the North American Mycological Association. Hundreds of her mushroom photographs have appeared in recently published field guides in the U.S. and Britain, as well as in the new smart phone app of the Audubon Field Guide to Mush rooms of North America.

The workshop will begin with a brief talk, and the group will spend about 90 minutes scouring the nearby forest for both edible and non-edible mushrooms. Smith then will lead an identification and question-and-answer session at the arts center.

The mushroom discussion is the latest in the arts center's food-centric programming. Jean Atwater-Williams, president of the Sandisfield Arts Center Board of Directors, said they received a positive response to last years' discussions on the farm-to-table movement.

"We have talked about doing a mushroom program for a couple of years now," Atwater-Williams explained during a telephone interview. "There has been some interest in the locavore movement, and we have foodies who are regulars at the arts center."

Smith is a bit of a foodie herself.

"I like [Black Trumpet mushrooms] because they impart a smoky flavor and aroma to whatever dish I put them in," she said, praising her favorite fungi. "They are great with pasta, rice and eggs."

Smith, whose background in cludes doctoral studies in the history of science and technology in pre-modern China and Europe at Tufts, MIT and Harvard, has spent the past decade studying fungi with Gary Lincoff, author of the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mush rooms. She has a website dedicated to her spore-filled pursuits, www.fungikingdom.net, which includes her photography and other resources for budding mycologists.

There are more than 100 types of edible mushrooms in the Berkshires, but Smith said most foragers seek and eat about 30 varieties. But with more than 600 different fungi in the Berkshires, Smith, as well as a number of other seasoned mushroom foragers who maintain websites, stressed the importance of identifying mushrooms properly before eating them.

"Even experienced collectors can and do make mistakes in identification," she said.

An identification gaffe -- and swallowing a poisonous mushroom -- can lead at least to illness. The severity of illness, Smith said, depends on "how much was consumed, and even whether or not the meal was accompanied by wine."

A few extremely toxic mushrooms can cause permanent liver damage and/or death.

"So I say, ‘Don't play Russian Roulette with your life or anyone else's.' If there is any doubt about a mushroom's edibility, then throw it out," she cautioned.

Smith's presentation is for novice and fervent foragers alike of all ages and designed to help people correctly identify mushrooms, based on their location and appearance.

I expect people will leave knowing a lot more about the roles that fungi play in maintaining the health of our planet," Smith said. "They will also gain a deeper appreciation of these unique organisms, which have their own kingdom."

Her presentation in Sandis field marks the first time she has lead a foraging in Massa chusetts. In November, Smith said she hopes to establish a mycology club in the North ampton area, where she is relocating from West chester County, N.Y.

Meanwhile, Smith welcomes inquires from budding mycologists about edibles. To help facilitate identification, she will need a few details, though.

"I will usually be able to give you useful information, provided the photo is in focus and shows the spore-producing surface, the top of the fruiting body," she said. "I also will need to know [where the fungus was attached] and what trees it is growing under."

When it comes to mushrooms, meticulousness is a must.

Carrie Saldo can be reached via her website, www.carriesaldo.com