John Wheeler has been foraging mushrooms for 26 years, and as one of the founders of the Berkshire Mycological Society, he's used that time to compile of a list of the benefits from learning about mushrooms. Included are obvious ones, like exercise from time spent hunting them down, as well as unexpected ones, like learning Latin and Greek roots to words and learning to create dyes for artwork.
There's also the bio-medicinal aspect. Oyster mushrooms and Shittakes are good for high cholesterol, thanks to a natural cholesterol uptake inhibitor. Teas can be made from certain mushrooms like Reishi for medicinal purposes.
"There are mushrooms like Maitake in the woods that grow at the base of oak trees, vegetarians eat those as meat," Wheeler said. "It's 25 percent protein, as well as being an anti-carcinogenic and anti-tumor mushroom, plus just really good for you. All these mushrooms that are medicinal also increase your T cells and boost your immune system."
The best news is that the Berkshires is teeming with mushrooms, most of them just waiting to be plucked if you know what you're doing. Wheeler reports that there are 1,000 different species around Pittsfield alone.
"There are 50 or 60 good, edible mushrooms; 300 or 400 edible mushrooms; there's probably 10 or 20 mushrooms that will kill you and maybe 200 that will make you sick," said Wheeler. "There's a whole bunch that are really acrid. There are so many mushrooms that are so small you wouldn't be able to get a bite of them even if you ate 100 of them.
Wheeler and other members of the Berkshire Mycological Society gather for walks every Sunday morning in different locations, taking an hour or two for a casual mushroom foray. Sometimes they gather edibles, oftentimes not, but Wheeler said it's always fascinating.
"Last weekend we found 79 species of mushrooms in an hour and 45 minutes," he said. "Our best walk ever was 169 species."
Wheeler became interested in mushrooms when an Italian friend took him out in search of Honey mushrooms, or Armillariella mellea. Honey mushrooms are sweet, but slimy. Wheeler found a number of people of European descent foraged for mushrooms, usually with expertise on one or two specific kinds.
"A lot of different European people are into the wild mushrooms, while Americans are taught to fear everything," Wheeler said.
Wheeler was knocked out by the taste of wild mushrooms and swore to never buy them from a store again. He taught himself how to forage using an Audubon guide for reference, and then expanding and creating a system of cross reference for safety.
"My wife really did not trust me at all for years, so I told her to get me more books," he said. "If I can find the mushroom in three books and there are no look-a-likes, then I can try them, so I did that for a little bit."
Eight years into the pursuit, Wheeler took a class and ended up as the teacher's assistant. The next year, the Berkshire Mycological Society was born.
Wheeler, who also sometimes teaches classes on identifying mushrooms, said that the best time to find mushrooms is about two weeks after some really good rain. He advises getting to know one mushroom at a time, and highly recommends the same Audubon guide that served him so well as a starting place, thanks to the way it organizes mushrooms by color rather than genus, which can be confusing to a newcomer.
Though there aren't tons of mushrooms that can kill you, it only takes one, and plenty can make you sick. Wheeler cautions that newcomers can be fooled by look-a-likes and stresses to cross-reference a mushroom from three sources before deciding it is edible. He also warns of individual reactions due to allergies, and advises avoiding picking mushrooms growing off metal structures or fence lines, since mushrooms are hyper accumulators of toxic metals.
"Be very cautious and eat a very small amount when you try a mushroom for the first time," Wheeler said.
But with caution and knowledge, the rewards of foraging are great -- and addictive.
Wheeler always brings mushroom books on vacations with him -- and his vacations usually include mushroom forays around the country.
"Once you become involved in mushrooms, lots of people become very passionate about it," said Wheeler. "When I go to these big forays, there are a lot of people at these forays and they're doctors and shrinks and very high-end professional people who have good minds and they're there for the camaraderie, to expand their knowledge and to eat good food."
For more information
The Berkshire Mycological Society holds walks every Sunday at 10 a.m. in varying locations that can be found on their website at www.bms.iwarp.com.
Upcoming mushroom hunts include Aug. 3 at Mount Everett High School by the tennis courts, Aug. 10 at Kennedy Park at the parking lot on Dugaway Rd. and Aug. 17 at the Appalachian Trail near the Shays Rebellion marker. The society can also be found on Facebook at facebook.com/BerkshireMycologicalSociety.