In 1997, while the phenomenon we know as the internet was tentatively spreading its tendrils into American society, a young PhD student at Oregon State University named Suzanne Simard quietly published a revolutionary thesis. The study proved that trees—specifically paper birch and Douglas fir—used mycorrhizal (root fungus) networks to exchange nutrients. In subsequent decades, forest ecologists have learned a great deal more about this so-called “wood-wide web,” of which all knowledge had previously been contained within the dimly lit sphere occupied solely by festival-dwelling pseudo-shamans and spiritual visionaries.
For example, we now know that many species of trees tap into communal fungal networks that can signal nearby trees of an insect attack, drought, or disease; allow neighbors to get a head start on producing bitter-tasting leaf compounds to dissuade parasites, and facilitate the sharing of plant sugars and nutrients from older “mother trees” to younger saplings that have fewer root connections. Trees have co-evolved with fungus and used it to strengthen their community. Here in the wet and wonderful woods of West Virginia, so too have humans.
Fast forward to July 19, 2019 in Blackwater Falls State Park in the Tucker County highlands. Dozens of smiling and wicker-basket-wielding mycological enthusiasts gather for the 15th Annual West Virginia Mushroom Club Foray. The event boasts a variety of activities ranging from mushroom identification walks and cultivation workshops to seminars on scientific research and medicinal-mushroom preparation. It’s a well-organized and colorful gathering tucked away in the cool summer mountains, and tickets sell out quickly.
Genetically, we are more closely related to fungi than we are to plants. Like us, fungi inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide.
There are over 30 species of bioluminescent mushrooms (meaning they glow in the dark). These species are collectively and colloquially known in Appalachia as “foxfire.”
Fungi specialize in breaking down complex molecules into their basic molecular building blocks. Studies have shown that certain strains of oyster mushrooms can aid in the breakdown and cleanup of oil spills and plastics.
We have identified only 14,000 species of an estimated 150,000 mushroom species on Earth.
Special gatherings like the Foray serve as a nexus in a different fungal web of connectivity: the human-mycelial network. In such settings, the air becomes rich with a wizardly-wisdom of all things fungal, suggesting that if you breathed deeply enough, one might feel the magical fabric of the forest, just as Neo saw the Matrix. The reality is that the atmosphere at the Foray is in fact thick with mushroom knowledge. From scientific names filled with Latin roots to folk-lore filled with Appalachian roots, the simple act of attending a talk will likely be potent enough to peel back the eyelids of your curiosity, or at least allow you an intoxicating peek through the lens of a Master Naturalist. It’s in this spread of species literacy that new naturalists are nurtured and old ones become mother trees. And thus, the network grows.
But beyond the gripping realization that trees are conversing through a subterranean mycelial web, and beyond the special feeling one might get when consorting with other mycologically-inclined Sapiens, is the fact that walking in the woods and experiencing fungi is just fun. Appalachia is home to more than 2,300 species of mushrooms; scientists believe there are tens of thousands more yet to be discovered. Most of these species have fruiting bodies that are readily identified by the naked eye—well over a hundred of these are considered edible. Most mushrooms grow in association with trees and decaying organic matter and require a wet climate. Taking the bronze medal for third-most forested state in the country and boasting some of the wettest weather in the east, the Mountain State is one of the premier places in the U.S. to experience the world of mushrooms.
Travel restrictions and social limitations mean it’s never been a better time to practice some woodland-inspired escapism. Conveniently, we humans have developed the capacity to thoroughly enjoy exploring the woods for mushrooms. It’s not surprising that, through the generations, we’ve established a dopamine-based neural reward system associated with spotting things. Consider the thrill of finding Easter eggs, pretty rocks, Waldo, or in this case, fleshy edible growths sprouting from the decaying bodies of other earthly inhabitants—pure fun!
While the list of modern entertainment options is overwhelming, our ancestors had fewer to choose from and spent many hours, weeks, and millennia focused on the forest floor for something hidden yet prized, something that would keep starvation at bay, something that could be passed around the cave as it glowed in the firelight.
So take this moment to thank your grandmother to the 100th power; perhaps she was a short, furry grandma with hands capable of crushing your slender computer wrists. But if she has given you nothing else, she has at least gifted you with the neurological reward structure to be able to walk in the forest and be endlessly enchanted. I find setting out on a mushroom hunt gives one an elusive feeling of purpose, mindful focus, and usually results in at least one neat sighting, even if it’s just a salamander or an oriole. It’s downright salubrious.
Serious Side Note
A great rule is to positively identify a mushroom three times before you eat it: first in the field where it’s growing, second at home with the aid of references, a spore print, and the discerning eyes of an experienced friend, and finally just before you prepare it as food. This article is not meant to be a guide on identifying wild mushrooms or instructions on foraging. Many edible species have poisonous lookalikes. It is strongly recommended that beginners seek the aid of seasoned mushroom foragers and join their local mushroom club.
Evan Vulpez is a little-known-yet-hugely-curious mushroom hunter and self-taught botanist who roams the hills and hollers of West Virginia in search of natural wonders, new and old.
Feature photo: Jack-o-lantern mushrooms. Photo by Dylan Jones
Ten Beginner to Intermediate Edible Mushrooms Found in West Virginia
Morels (Morchella spp.)
Dryads Saddle / Pheasant’s Back (Cerioporus squamosus)
Wine Caps (Stropharia rugosoannulata)
Oyster Mushrooms (various Pleurotus spp.)
Chanterelle (various Cantharellus spp.)
Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus)
Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus)
Hen of the Woods / Maitake (Grifola frondosa)
Black Trumpets (Craterellus cornucopioides)
Puffballs (Lycoperdon spp.)