Come With Us to Pick Mushrooms!

By Awake! writer in the Czech Republic

YOU may have enjoyed them many times​—perhaps on a pizza or in a salad, a soup, or a sauce. Or maybe you have taken delight in their whimsical appearance, which appeals to many artists who specialize in illustrating children’s stories. Have you ever wondered, though, just what the mushroom is? What makes it grow? Who pick mushrooms, and how? Let us see.

For the most part, mushrooms are easy to recognize. They have no leaves, no flowers, and no chlorophyll to make them green. So they often stand out in stark contrast to the greenery around them. Many have a large cap set on a stalk. But they come in a wide variety of shapes and colors. There are even mushrooms that glow in the dark. The mushroom is a type of fungus. However, there are many varieties of funguses that are not mushrooms in the technical sense but are commonly grouped with them. For instance, there are funguses that resemble sea corals. Other species grow on trees and look like miniature bookshelves.

What Is It?

For a long time scientists held that the mushroom was a special and somewhat mysterious kind of plant. Nowadays, most biologists classify mushrooms as a higher order of mold. They call mushrooms an independent group of organisms, citing their unusual body structure, growth, and manner of getting nutrition. Many mushrooms are edible, and some even have medicinal properties. Others, though, are hallucinogenic or poisonous. The mushroom has the scientific name Mycota or Mycetes. The scientific study of funguses such as mushrooms is thus called mycology.

 The Surprising Mushroom

How do mushrooms propagate? That was long a mystery to science. Today we know that the adult mushroom scatters microscopic spores, which are distributed by air currents. In the soil the spores change into a dense net of thin threads called the mycelium. From this net the fruiting body of the mushroom grows. That is the part we are accustomed to seeing and picking.

To survive, mushrooms need all kinds of organic matter. In the wild, therefore, they grow primarily in forests, gardens, and grassy areas. Sick or dead trees form their staple food, and thus mushrooms play an important role in the cleaning of forests. By consuming the remains of plants, leaves, and twigs, mushrooms help to create natural humus, enriching the soil. Some mushrooms live in symbiosis with healthy trees; the mycelium of the mushroom absorbs water and nutrients from the soil and transfers some to the plant. The plant reciprocates by feeding the mushroom.

Mushrooms also need moisture and warmth. That is why they spring up after a summer rain. In favorable conditions some species will grow to their full size overnight. One species needs but 10 to 14 days to reach a diameter of some 20 inches [50 cm]. Other species are exceptional for their life span. The mycelium from which the body of the mushroom grows can live for centuries. And the funguses that form part of lichens can, according to some data, live up to 600 years.

A special feature of certain mushroom species or their relatives​—truffles, for instance—​is their intense smell. That is why dogs can smell them some 20 yards [6 m] off, although the whole fruiting body grows underground. *

Who Pick Mushrooms?

Over the centuries people have picked mushrooms in many places. Today in some regions of Western Europe and North America, mushroom picking is almost exclusively a job for professionals, who sell to traders. In contrast, amateur mushroom picking is a popular tradition in Central and Eastern Europe. Such interest in mushrooms is not limited to people living in the country. Many city  dwellers like to spend their weekends in the woods picking mushrooms. They do so to relax both physically and mentally​—and to enrich their bill of fare as well. How do people go about picking mushrooms?

The pickers often start out early in the morning, when the mushrooms are fresh. Walking slowly through the woods, they look among the grass, moss, or trees where the mushrooms grow. They wear rugged clothes, including sturdy shoes or boots, and carry a raincoat in their backpack in case of a sudden shower. The mushroom picker respects nature and therefore tries to do no harm to the environment, even minimizing noise that might disturb the wildlife.

Look! A picker has just found a mushroom. He bends down to it and, without touching, examines it to decide if it is edible. He picks full-grown mushrooms because only with those can he be absolutely sure of the species. After making quite certain of the variety, he gently takes it by the stalk​—never by the cap—​and wiggles it free from the earth. Right away, he cleans it of clinging soil or debris and cuts away any wormy or damaged parts. Whatever he cuts from the mushroom he covers with moss or soil. He puts the cleaned mushrooms into his basket. He does not put them in plastic bags or containers because if he did, the mushrooms would start fermenting and would be spoiled before he could even get them home.

Mushroom picking can also make a good group activity. One Christian minister says: “First we go in the ministry as a group, but after we finish, we like to stay together and enjoy pleasant fellowship. Sometimes we simply head for the nearby woods to pick mushrooms together. While looking for them, we relate the experiences we have had in the ministry and generally enjoy ourselves.”

Preparing the Mushrooms

Mushrooms have many uses in cooking. Some are delicious and can be made an important part of the meal. For instance, many people like to fry the cap of the large portobello as if it were a steak or to cut up table mushrooms and stir-fry them with vegetables. Spicy varieties of mushrooms can be used to add flavor to a wide array of dishes. If sufficiently dried out by means of heat, mushrooms can also be used as a diet or health food. Some varieties are valued for their proteins, vitamins, and minerals.

Mushrooms spoil easily. Therefore, it is necessary to handle them the day they are picked. According to experts, a badly stored edible mushroom can become quite poisonous. If you do not want to eat mushrooms right away, you may choose to dry or sterilize them. That way you can flavor your food with them year-round. You may find more details in reference books on mushroom picking.

A Need for Caution

If you have never picked mushrooms and would like to try, it is very important that you start with some careful research. Find out what edible and poisonous mushrooms grow in your region. Learn how to recognize them. You may also want to consult some experts, such as a pharmacist, an apothecary, or a mycologist. Never pick a mushroom just because it is pretty or it smells good. If you are not completely sure about a mushroom, do not pick it! One poisonous mushroom is enough to render an entire dish inedible, even dangerous. If you happen to feel nausea or a headache after eating a mushroom dish, consult a doctor immediately.

Whether you try picking mushrooms or not, you can always admire their beauty. Doing so may remind you that these complex, important, and surprising creations did not get here by accident. Like the other wonders of the natural world, they give evidence of a wise and loving Creator.​—Genesis 1:11-13; Psalm 104:24.

[Footnote]

^ par. 11 Specially trained dogs and pigs are used in truffle hunting. Truffles are very expensive compared with common mushrooms.

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Morel

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Shiitake

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Portobello

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Cremini