Does the Mushroom Love Its Plucker?

Or does it loathe that enraptured human touch? An earthy tale of fungal romance, fully consummated.

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Mushrooms, often mistaken as plants, contain a world of research, utilization, and diehard connoisseurship. You just have to know where to look.    Photo: Andrea1971/Shutterstock

You may already know Larry. Remember the guy in the cat-in-the-hat hat selling Indonesian jewelry at Grateful Dead concerts from New England to California? The American guy doing judo moves in that Japanese punk-rock music video back in '86 on Japanese MTV? The guy in the plant store who had just closed a deal to import 10 metric tons of Siberian ginseng from which he was going to make ginseng tea and ginseng beer? The guy passing out questionnaires to hitchhikers everywhere from Texas to Canada for the hitchhiker's guidebook he was working on in the early '80s? The guy who led forest walks during timber-sale protests in the northern Rockies, who knew everything about edible wild mushrooms and other non-timber forest products that he said are sometimes more valuable than the trees they're under? The guy on the top of the bus riding through Guatemala where the flat green roof of the jungle is often interrupted by Mayan pyramids overgrown with green? The guy selling hats his wife makes and whirligigs and braided wrist bands called pulseras at the Renaissance Fair in Moscow, Idaho, and at other crafts fairs last summer? That was Larry.

Larry Evans, the botanist, wild-mushroom expert, and entrepreneur, lives in the same city in northwest Montana as I do. Based on an informal survey I've taken, I would say that almost everybody in town knows Larry. He is 43 years old and has a salt-and-pepper beard and long hair that he wears in a braid. He dresses in loose, short-sleeve shirts with patterns designed by the late Jerry Garcia, and in striped red shorts, white socks, and black sneakers. On bright days he puts on two pairs of glasses — his usual prescription spectacles and over them a thin pair of wraparound shades. He is broad-shouldered and well built, and is six feet, one or two inches ("depending on the mood I'm in") tall. He sometimes adds to his altitude with the cat-in-the-hat hat, a red-and-white striped model perhaps two feet high. At the local farmers market, where he sells wild mushrooms, plants, and garden produce on Saturdays from late spring to early fall, he is visible in the crowd from blocks away. People in town who don't know him by name usually recognize him when they hear him described. They say, "Oh, yeah — the mushroom guy."

If you ask Larry if he's serious about something he has just told you and he is, he'll reply, "I'm as serious as a heart attack!" If you tell him something he already knows, he'll say, "You're tellin' Noah about the flood!" In a cheery mood, he says, "Adios, amoeba!" instead of good-bye. Sometimes he'll pronounce the last few words of a sentence in a pursed-lip funny voice which is hard to describe. When he's talking about the latest evasive tactic of a timber company, for example, he'll repeat the timber company's explanation in this voice. It's irony, but old-fashioned, lighthearted, hippie-era irony rather than the hard-edged, ad-jingle irony of today.

If you ask Larry about mushrooms, he becomes excited and cagey at the same time. He's excited because, as he says, "I was born a mycophile." (Myco- comes from the Greek word for "fungus"; mushrooms are fungi.) "Some people are like that," he goes on. "Look at the people in any mushroom club, and you see that they can't help it. There's just this one percent of the population who if you show 'em a picture of a morel mushroom, they go ape." He's cagey, however, because people often assume that he is happy to part, free of charge, with mushroom information he has taken decades to acquire. I once made that mistake myself. Now I can't believe I ever did such a stupid thing. Not long after I moved to Montana, a mushroom-hunting friend of mine from back East noticed an article on mushrooms of the Russian Far East that Larry had written for a mycology journal. She told me the author lived in my town, so I found his name in the phone book and called him up and asked if he could recommend a good place for me to go looking for morels.

More amazing than the stupidity of this question, in retrospect, was how nice Larry was about it. He told me nothing, of course. But he didn't give me the short shrift my question deserved. I called him again from time to time, brought mushrooms to his stand at the farmers market and asked him to identify them, and attended the mushroom lectures and slide presentations he offered at a garden-supply store south of town. Eventually, he told me all kinds of stuff — even, in a general way, where I might find morels. Sometimes I come across people who love a subject so much they will point the way into it even for strangers like me. Larry can make wild mushrooms seem as exciting and providential as windblown $20 bills scattered across your lawn.

English-speaking people traditionally fear and revile mushrooms. Our culture has generally considered them to be creepy, decay-loving, gloom-dwelling, and foul, in the province of witchcraft and necromancy. To us, they're akin to toads and centipedes and sightless fish, things we regard with an involuntary shudder. The English language reflects this distaste by providing hardly any common names for the many thousands of mushroom species that are indigenous to Great Britain and North America; mycophiles in the United States soon learn that to discuss mushrooms they must learn their Latin names. People who come from foreign places where wild mushrooms are prized are sometimes surprised to find how few Americans know or care about our abundant wild fungi.

My own interest in mushrooms came by way of Russia. It's my favorite foreign country, and Russians love wild mushrooms. Over there, everybody hunts for mushrooms — balding men in business suits, little girls in dresses, teenagers with backpacks, old babushka ladies. Russians took me on my first wild-mushroom hunt. My friends Alex Melamid and Katya Arnold, artists who emigrated to the United States in the late 1970s, look for mushrooms almost everywhere they go; Katya has found them growing on indoor carpeting and on the floor of her car. She and Alex regularly search for mushrooms in several small public parks near their apartment in Jersey City, New Jersey. On one expedition they took along a young woman relative recently arrived from Moscow. When this young woman discovered a big patch of honey mushrooms growing at the base of a stump, her pale cheeks reddened, the pupils of her dark eyes enlarged, and she began to breathe hard. Her newly learned English abandoned her as she tried to tell me what wonderful mushrooms these were. I noticed her hands were trembling, a symptom I recognized from fly-fishing: Something similar happens to me when I spot a monster trout within casting range.

When Larry Evans talks about mushrooms, occasionally he veers in the next sentence into a story about the time he had to Taser a guy who was trying to beat him up in a village in Siberia. ("He attacked the mayor of this village while we were talking business, so I used some judo on him, so he came after me, so I gave him a few jolts of the Taser. It shocked him pretty good — he just stood there staggering like Frankenstein.") Or he will describe the beneficial possibilities of making paper products from nuisance plants like knapweed, or how the blossoms of the spiderwort plant change color when exposed to radiation (a property that has caused safety experts to plant spiderwort around food-irradiating plants to detect leaks), or where to buy scrimshaw carved on mastodon ivory, or how he just got a grant to use sheep to eat up a local infestation of leafy spurge.

And then in the next sentence he's talking about mushrooms again, and the digressions usually turn out to be not as far off the subject as they seemed. Perhaps this is because of the universality of mushrooms themselves. Fungi grow almost everywhere on the planet and have been around longer than almost any other life form. Larry balks at describing any living thing as "old" — all life forms, he says, continue to evolve and change no matter how successful they have been — but he concedes that fungi resemble the first multi-cellular beings more closely than do other present life forms. Fungi feed on organic matter, usually dead, and break it down into simpler structures that other organisms can use again. Some fungi make mushrooms; a mushroom is the fruit of a fungus, its means of distributing seeds (in this case, spores). A mushroom is not a plant, because it lacks chlorophyll and does not produce its own food. It needs no light to grow, which sometimes gives it an advantage over other life forms. For example, during the Cretaceous extinction, the catastrophic, possibly meteoric event 65 million years ago that darkened the atmosphere and killed off plants and the dinosaurs that depended on them, mushrooms survived. After thousands or millions of years, when the plant life re-evolved, the mushrooms were here waiting for them.

Most mushrooms launch their spores by hydraulic pressure — some from the face of their gills, some from tiny tubes or pores, some from the surface of wrinkles on the outside of the mushroom. A few mushrooms release their spores in a burst triggered by disturbances such as a gust of wind; if you pass your hand quickly above one of these mushrooms, the spores shoot out like a puff of smoke. Mushroom spores that land in the right circumstances germinate and eventually produce thread-like cells that combine into a network of filaments called a mycelium. The mycelium is the part of the fungus that eats, tunneling its way through organic matter and digesting as it goes. It is usually too minute to be seen, but when it's concentrated in one place it looks like a feathery white dusting. For some mushrooms, the individual mycelium can span hundreds of yards across. When the mycelium is well established, or when it has consumed the available nutrients, some of its thread-like cells come together in small masses of tissue that develop into fruiting bodies — what we call mushrooms — and the cycle begins again.

A few mushrooms feed on living matter such as insect larvae, other mushrooms, or trees. Some feed on dead or decaying things such as dung or fallen leaves or logs. Many mushrooms form a symbiotic relationship with the roots of living trees, in which the mycelium provides the tree roots with nutrients such as nitrogen or phosphorus and the roots provide the mycelium with moisture and sugars. The mycelium and the outside of the root combine so thoroughly as to create a tissue that is neither fungus nor plant. This tissue is called mycorrhiza, and it often encases roots until the roots themselves do not touch the soil. Trees such as Douglas firs and oaks are especially good hosts for mycorrhizal mushrooms. Many kinds of trees can be hosts, and the mushrooms have preferences. Mushroom hunters soon learn to look for certain kinds of mushrooms under certain kinds of trees. The mycorrhizal relationship is healthy for the trees as well, and trees with mushroom partners grow better than trees without. Many failures of reforestation have to do with an absence of mycorrhizal mushrooms, just as clear-cutting forests can be a disaster for the mushrooms that need the trees.

Larry grew up symbiotic with trees himself, on a Christmas tree farm in central Illinois. There were his father, a former grain broker; his mother, with a degree in biology; three younger brothers; and Larry. "All of us worked on the tree farm," he told me. "My second brother, Ron, is running it today. Most of the market's gone to plastic, though — 70 percent of all Christmas trees sold are plastic now. Us boys got paid subminimum wage to prune trees and fertilize and so on. I'm pretty proud of that phase of my life, actually. When I got to college I had an idea of how many hours of work it took for me to go to that school. But I can't say that the farm left me with a strong desire to go back to it."

Our conversation turned to the subject of reincarnation, which Larry believes in. We were sitting in his office, a room in the one-story ranch-style house he shares with his wife, Kris, on the west side of town. He likes to talk at his desk, surrounded by books and mushroom data in quantities that seem to block out the light. "I've always taken a great pleasure in plants, ever since I was a really young kid," he said. "I think that in a former time I might have been an herbalist in Asia, or maybe a Native American shaman. Growing up, I definitely knew I was having feelings that weren't tuned in to the place I was."

Larry's description of his youth is sort of vague. Those years seem to be important to him mainly for the escape velocity they helped him achieve. He went to college in Illinois for a year in the early '70s, quit, and headed west in his Subaru Ladybug looking for another college. He liked the environment of western Montana, the montane plant species unfamiliar to a boy from Illinois. The University of Montana had a good botany department. Plus, Missoula was a place you could live cheap, and Larry did, finding houses to fix up in exchange for rent, and dumpster-diving — looking for food in trash bins — with a few Missoula regulars he still sees around town today. He got his degree in biology, with a minor in microbiology, in 1979.

College turned out to be just a pause in his trajectory. "After I got my degree, starting in about '79, I hitchhiked all over the country," he said. "I've hitched in all 50 states except Hawaii." From a shelf he pulled down a copy of Hey Now, Hitchhikers!, a paperback guidebook written and typeset and published by Larry and his brother Don. "We passed out hitchhiking questionnaires to hitchers everywhere we went, and then we wrote up what we learned. But by the time the book came out in '82, the Reagan swing to the right had begun and almost no one was hitchhiking any more. I felt like I was documenting a lost race."

He hopped freight trains, too, going back and forth across the country. A chart of his travels would look like a map someone scribbled on. By the late '80s he had crossed the Pacific and was traveling in Asia. In Japan he taught English and modeled; people liked to look at him because he's tall. He worked as an extra in Japanese soap operas and was featured in a rock video, but got tired of going for auditions and gave up that career. And so onward — to Indonesia, Thailand, China, India, Bangladesh. He lived next to a shiitake farm in Japan, cataloged mushrooms in Tibet, found his first truffles in Australia. Most of the winters he went to Mexico. Between 1986 and 1990 he spent a total of just four weeks in the United States.

"I fell in love with mushrooms back in 1977," Larry said. "I took a course from the great mycologist Orson K. Miller, author of Mushrooms of North America. Pretty soon I had that book memorized. When I came back to Missoula again in the early '90s after my travels, I began to hunt mushrooms around here on a regular basis and I opened my booth at the farmers market. I've got a peddler's soul. I've sold stuff every place from jazz festivals to Dead shows (back when Jerry was alive) to just on the sidewalk somewhere. With mushrooms, what I sell isn't just the fungi, it's my reputation, because of course you have to be sure that what you're eating isn't going to kill you. My wife — we met when we were both traveling in Java in '89 — has been eating mushrooms picked by me for seven years, and she's never gotten sick once. I've been sick from mushrooms only once myself, when I ate a piece of Agaricus xanthodermus by mistake. I threw up. It was no big deal."

In the corner of the windshield of Larry's pickup truck is a Grateful Dead decal with the band's logo encircling a large psychedelic-looking mushroom. Naturally, with Larry the subject of psychedelic mushrooms comes up from time to time. He usually doesn't mention it first himself; like most mycologists, he disdains the stoners' approach to the science, believing that psychedelic-seekers aren't interested in much beyond what gets them high. Also, the idea that mushrooms are merely a drug annoys him because it fits well with the general ignorance and phobias about mushrooms. His comments on psychedelics tend to be cryptic, and one understands that he knows more than he says.

On the subject of mushrooms that will kill you or just give you the miseries, however, he speaks with relish and at length. He describes the effect of Tippler's bane (Coprinus atramentarius), an edible mushroom that can cause the body to react strangely to alcohol: "Eat one of them and then have a beer, and your face will get flushed, you'll feel sick to your stomach, and you might end up paralyzed for two to three days." Some of the Gyromitra mushrooms, called false morels, contain monomethylhydrazine: "That's rocket fuel. It evaporates when you cook 'em, but you need a kitchen with good ventilation. People in Europe sometimes eat these for years until they build up a fatal dosage and suddenly die." The deadly Amanitas — the death cap and the destroying angel and others — he mentions with awe. "When you find those bad boys in the woods, you never see any animal bites on them. Most big mushrooms won't kill you, but an Amanita sure will. The toxins attack your kidneys and liver. You don't even want to know what happens after that. About 50 percent of the time, you die."

I asked Larry if there's an easy way to identify a hazardous mushroom, or a handy mnemonic, like the "leaves of three, let it be" rhyme of the plant world. "Well, don't eat any mushroom until you're sure what it is," he said. "Don't eat any the first time you pick it, don't eat any raw, keep different kinds of mushrooms separate when you're picking them, eat only a small portion of any mushroom the first time you try it, and try it twice, in case you're allergic — these are the basic rules. The best way to identify a mushroom is to check it with an identification key in a good mushroom guide and make a spore print, or else bring it to an expert you trust, like me.

"Beyond that, there is no idiot-proof method for determining which mushrooms are safe and which are not. Most boletes are safe and edible, and they all have pores rather than gills, which helps with identification. But then you've got boletes like Boletus satanas, Satan's bolete, which will definitely do a number on you. In the Northwest there are about 5,000 species of mushrooms, and we've studied maybe 800. Mushrooms are complicated; we're a pretty complicated life form ourselves, as far as that goes. But nowadays we think that everything should be idiotproof. An idiotproof world is a world only idiots would want to live in."

As a mushroom hunter, Larry is driven. one morning at the farmers market I mentioned to him that I had seen a certain mushroom growing in some loose dirt and gravel by a concrete parking divider a mile or so away. When the market closed at noon, he packed up his wares and asked me to take him to it. We drove in his pickup to where I'd seen it. It was still there, and he picked it up and cried, "Agaricus bitorquis! I didn't think these guys were up yet!" We kept it to give the scent to his dog, Zora, a black German shepherd who can smell out mushrooms. Then we went to a place on the outskirts of town which he prefers I not be too specific about. It's a piece of vacant ground surrounded by a high chain-link fence. Larry asked me how I felt about trespassing as he cleared the fence in two leaps. I was willing but had a hard time getting over. His dog was running back and forth trying to get under. Larry bounded back across, gave me a boost, heaved Zora over, and crossed again.

The hard-packed dusty ground overgrown with last year's knapweed and wild lettuce looked unpromising. Larry said that Agaricus bitorquis often grows below the surface and is often called a duff humper for the way it pushes the earth above it. Immediately we found a few, then dozens, then bitorquis by the score. Crouching in the weeds, reaching into cracks in the ground, we came up with plump and ripe mushrooms with stout stalks and caps from about three inches to eight inches across. The cap of bitorquis is smooth and light gray to brown, and the gills are a chocolate brown like those of the domesticated, commercial Agaricus, its relative. As we filled our plastic shopping bags, Larry told me how delicious these are. Everywhere we turned, we found more. As we walked back to the road, Larry held his bag behind his back. "If anyone saw me coming out of here with a bulging bag, they'd know what I had and where I'd found it," he said.

We took the mushrooms to his house, and a few days later his wife took the bitorquis caps, sautéed them, stuffed them with cream cheese and crabmeat, baked them en croute, and served them as part of a wild-mushroom dinner that included chicken-and-shiitake-mushroom shish kebab and a salad of morels and fresh asparagus. It was the best meal I've eaten in the state of Montana. As I tasted the bitorquis caps, I kept thinking about the no-account shinnery ground from which they came.

"Larry is the most amazing person I ever met, and I'm married to him," Kris said when I joined her at the stove between courses. Kris is a milliner and a chef. Her last name is Love. She has blond hair, blue eyes, a turned-up nose, and a pleasantly raspy voice. "Before I knew Larry, when I walked in the woods I was like [eyes wide, expression spacey, staring up into the trees]. Now when I walk in the woods I'm like [eyes focused, head down, expression intent, looking at the ground]."

The same is true of me. I used to think of the woods as just a bunch of trees, and I stared into their upper story as if into a paradise of leaves, imagining tree forts and escape. Now, maybe because I'm too old to climb, maybe because Larry told me that more than half of a forest's living biomass is in its soil, I look more at the ground. I'm drawn to the tumbledown things — the curled-up shreds of bark, the dead logs that the mycelium is turning to powder, the crumpled cottonwood leaves, the dark and liquifying leaves from many summers ago, the broken branches, the soggy places, the yellow-green lichens, the creeping vines. I note the shrubs, the snowberry and serviceberry and dogwood and erigonum, and the dark-striped snakegrass, and the broadleaf grasses holding beads of dew in the places where they bend, and the glacier lilies and clematis and wild strawberry, and hundreds of plants I can't identify.

And sometimes among the jumble on the forest floor I find mushrooms — oyster mushrooms on a rotten log in terraces of oyster-scented white, or little brown no-name mushrooms rising on their long stalks through the ground debris like barrage balloons, or Psathyrellas with purplish caps tucked into the hollow of a rotten log, or every so often a morel. In the city in a fancy restaurant you might get one or two small morels as a garnish with your saddle of venison entrée, but they will be dried and rehydrated ones, their taste remote from what it once was. A morel is a roughly cone-shaped mushroom with a cap almost as wrinkled as a brain, intricately indented, and with a light-colored, sinewy-looking stalk. The yellow morel (Morchella esculenta) has a cap of an orange-yellow almost the exact color of fallen cottonwood leaves. The taste of sautéed morels on plain white toast with a glass of chardonnay embarrasses, spectacularly, the tastes of the foods you usually eat. And to come across one of these mushrooms, or a number of them, in the tumbledown forest understory is an experience of silent and towering outdoor emphasis. It's as if a huge chord has been struck. You want to sing, and the only reason you don't is that you might tip off any other morel hunters who happen to be in the area. The yellow morel in the grass under a young aspen tree, in some way, senses that it's cool and gourmet. It suggests that the whole cluttered forest floor, to the right palate, might be delicious too.

Earlier this summer, if you called Larry's number you got his machine. He was off doing a mushroom survey in the Kootenai National Forest for the Forest Service, he was seeing how the sheep were coming along with the leafy spurge, he was giving a mushroom lecture in Glacier National Park, he was attending a convention of the American Mycological Association. He was trying to think of what to do with all that ginseng he bought in Siberia a few years ago, now sitting in a warehouse in Salt Lake City. The ginseng and the idea of importing more nontimber forest products from Siberia were among his projects on hold. On the street in Missoula he ran into a friend who suggested a 10-day backpacking trip into the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and Larry began to calculate how he could work that into his schedule.

Also, he and his wife bought a restaurant. They were in it at all hours, redoing the decor and furnishings and planning menus and making the dozens of phone calls that opening a restaurant involves. The place they bought, the Black Dog, had been the only vegetarian restaurant in town. Some people worried that Larry and Kris might add meat to the menu. People would come up to them on the sidewalk, lower their voices, and ask, "Are you going to add ... meat?"

Larry was not at the farmers market every Saturday, but when he did show up, he had wild mushrooms by the score. He listed them on a small signboard, without prices, as if they were the important headlines in this week's news. His booth was so crowded that I could stand beside him unnoticed even by people who know me and listen to his spiel: "These big ones are the shimeiji mushrooms, Lyophillum descastes, the second most popular mushroom in Japan ... Yes, ma'am, from right around here. Stevensville is the farthest I went for any mushroom on this table ... That's a king bolete, I'm really proud of that, it's a two-pound mushroom, a beautiful thing. In Paris that'd be worth $30 ... Do I think we'll still get morels this year? Hard to tell, but at elevation, anything's possible ... These are the fairy ring mushrooms, that bunch there's about a buck's worth. They've got a delicious, nutty, almond thing going on with them, fry 'em up in oil or butter ... Where did I find these morels? At the same old place — I mean, the old Same place! I'm the only Firesign-Theater-quoting vendor in the market ... That bag is all dried oyster mushrooms and that other one is dried oyster mushrooms that I put through a brand-new coffee grinder. Add that powder to gravies or soups ..."

Pulling out crumpled singles and fives, people bought shimeiji mushrooms with caps as big as hands, and a young giant puffball sliced vertically like a loaf of bread, and all the dried morels, and the oyster mushroom powder in a Zip-Loc bag, and fairy ring mushrooms in intricate little piles. By the end of the morning the imitation-wood top of Larry's folding table was almost bare. Only as the market closed did the group of customers and onlookers around him start to thin.

These signs of popularity cause me to worry: What if lots of people get interested in wild mushrooms, as happened recently to golf? I have learned that I am part of a vast generation and that we tend to overgraze. I asked Larry if he was concerned about the possibility that hunting mushrooms might become overpopular and suffer a decline. "I'm not too worried about crowding or other pickers," Larry said. "My real enemy is loss of habitat. Look at the landscape around here next time you're flying into Missoula. We're living in clear-cut heaven — that's still the main method of timber harvesting around here. Nobody wants to hear about selective cutting or logging mixed-age stands. The timber companies say it's too expensive, the usual complaint. Of course, when you take out a whole stand of trees, it destroys the mycorrhizal fungi. But it also destroys so much more. Certain lichens take 20 years to colonize a tree. We're ignoring links like this. And the timber harvest represents a single big payday that you won't be able to collect again for — what? Fifty years? A hundred years? Where, with mushrooms, it's a harvest that renews itself in just a year or a few years. Last year the Deschutes and Winema National Forests in Oregon made $330,000 from matsutake-picking permits alone. And the mushrooms that were harvested in Oregon and sent air-freight to Japan brought tens of millions of dollars to the state. Millions from mushrooms! And I'm not even counting the other nontimber forest products, the berries and ginseng and floral greens. When you get into mushrooms, you're hooked into the whole forest ecosystem, and you understand that a forest is rich far beyond its timber.

"Now, if I said all that sitting in an office at the biology department at the university, or in a forestry chair endowed by the Plum Creek Timber Company, do you think many people would pay attention to me? But out here on my own, dressing wacky and putting on a show and letting people see the great wild fungi from the forest — well, I think I've got the people's ear."

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