Manitoba Fungi

The mysterious and delicious mushrooms of our province

An uprooted mushroom with well defined gills.

Ariel Gordon (right) and writer Meg Crane (left) conduct an interview while hunting for mushrooms in the woods.

Mushroom enthusiasts, referred to as mycophiles, have many reasons for hunting mushrooms, whether or not they make a meal of them.

“Mushrooms are sort of that mystical, magical thing that everyone likes to gather,” botanist Laura Reeves says.

Manitoba, like anywhere, has many varieties of mushrooms. Mushroom enthusiast Ariel Gordon says they range from slime-like pools on the ground to patches that look like deer noses on trees to the well-known stem and cap.

What sort of mushroom a mycophile will be thrilled to find depends entirely on the purpose of their expedition.

Lobster Mushrooms are technically not a mushroom but a fungal parasite that changes other mushrooms into these easily identifiable orange lumps.

These mushrooms are sometimes hijacked by the parasitic fungus that turns them into what are commonly known as Lobster Mushrooms.

Coral Mushroom

Dead Man's Fingers mushrooms.

A mushroom that has grown through moss on a log.

Mushrooms growing on a fallen tree.

Eat ‘em up

As a child, Reeves hated the texture of mushrooms but loved the flavour. Venturing out to find her own, she suddenly had a change of heart.

“(It was) something about knowing where they came from,” Reeves says. With some experimentations, she’s also able to get
the flavour without the texture, when she wants to.

The feeling of honey mushrooms in her mouth is particularly despicable to Reeves, so she dehydrates and powders them. She says she enjoys their delightful flavour in breads and burgers without having to feel them.

Though she’s been foraging for plants and mushrooms for more than 20 years, Reeves says she doesn’t know everything and does not consume something unless she is absolutely certain she knows what it is.

She recommends newbies take photos of mushrooms they believe may be edible, both before and after picking them. Notice how it comes out of the surface it’s plucked from and whether it has gills or pores.

Those photos will help to identify them at home in books or by someone with more experience.

“I was looking for chanterelles and I was 100 per cent sure I had chanterelles until I talked to a friend, and she started talking about false chanterelles,” Reeves says.

Chanterelles have several look-a-likes, the most notable being the false chanterelles, which look similar to chanterelles to the untrained eye.

She sent her photos to a friend who had been picking the mushroom for 30 years. With the green light from someone with more experience, Reeves got ready for dinner.

She says the best way to learn about mushrooms is to spend time with people who have a lot of knowledge, although that may be difficult, since most mushroom hunters keep their patches secret.

“The more people you show your patch to, the more people can raid them before you get to them,” Reeves says. “People are protective, (such as) someone like me who depends on this for their food source – it’s my year supply of food.”

The next best way to learn is by looking at books, Reeves says.

“Don’t just pick up one book,” Reeves says. “Each book is going to have different information. They’re going to have different pictures. Some have drawings, some have photographs. Some have better photos than others, but some have better information than others.”

She won’t recommend any specific places to look for mushrooms, because half the fun is finding them on your own.

“It’s like your patch. You almost take ownership over it, I mean, there is no ownership, but it kind of feels like that. You rightfully scored those mushrooms,” Reeves says.

Newbie mycophiles need to choose the fungi they’re looking for, identify the habitat they grow in and then hunt in appropriate environments. Reeves says that can be anywhere from somewhere wild to a backyard or gravel driveway.

Reeves doesn’t eat mushrooms just to expand her culinary palette. She actually relies mostly on food she has gathered, so for her it’s more about survival.

She says they contain 15 to 40 per cent protein, depending on the variety, and are packed with micronutrients.

Ariel Gordon with a Lobster Mushroom.

Marvel in their wonder

Not everyone hunts mushrooms for sustenance. For Ariel Gordon, it’s mostly about fascination.

“They’re so super varied and interesting. And strange. It’s this organism that grows up and dies in a day, or can persist on a tree for years. And it has so many colours, so many shapes, so many ways of dispersing its spores,” Gordon says.

Fifteen years ago, she started walking through the Assiniboine Forest with no particular interest in mushrooms.

“You know, you start with, oh, everything is awesome! And then, eventually, my focus narrowed to mushrooms. I’m still interested in sort of the larger experience, but I use mushrooms as a way of seeing it,” Gordon says.

She can tell you the nicknames she gives mushrooms and the traits she’s noticed about them, but she doesn’t know the official names of many.

“Because I don’t need to eat them, I just look at them and enjoy them,” Gordon says.

Lobster mushrooms are one she has identified and takes home to the frying pan.

Gordon tends to avoid picking mushrooms – or, really, anything in nature – because she wants to leave them there for the health of the forest and for others’ enjoyment.

“If everybody picks everything, nobody ever gets to have that experience anymore,” Gordon says.

But the easily identifiable bright orange, fishy-smelling lobster mushroom are aplenty in Assiniboine Forest, so she doesn’t feel bad taking a couple home. Her rule is if you see five of something, pick one.

Before picking, she inspects it to make sure it isn’t rotten.

“If something is too far gone and you pick it and you leave it, it will still go back into the soil and help improve it. So, that’s also my reason for not wanting to take, because, yeah, they’re just one individual mushroom, but they do contribute to the overall health of the space,” Gordon says.

Ken Fosty grows mushrooms in his backyard.

Have fun

Ken Fosty has been known to hunt wild mushrooms, but he wouldn’t call himself a mushroom expert.

“I’m just a regular joe who picks mushrooms,” Fosty says. “I’m no better than any schmuck.”

What makes him different than most people is that he grows his own shiitake mushrooms in his backyard.

“It happened about 35 years ago. I was thinking about a way of how a person could grow these mushrooms,” Fosty says.

Looking to supplement his income, Fosty created a shiitake mushroom growing kit he still sells for $45 across North America.

Fosty says shiitake means ‘mushroom of the oak tree’ and, as the name suggests, they mostly grow on oaks.

His kit doesn’t include a log, although he’ll sell them to people who can pick one up from his Winnipeg home. Potential shiitake mushroom growers just need to drill holes in their log and then inoculate it with his kit, which contains 250 shiitake spawn, Fosty says.

“Everybody who buys a kit enjoys it, because they get a chance to do it themselves. They can appreciate the mushrooms so much more after they’ve grown them, so to speak,” Fosty says.

Fosty has been growing his own for decades and still isn’t tired of it.

“They’re sort of a fascinating biological process. You create your own food, and it’s also nutritious, and it’s also sort of fun to do,” Fosty says.

Shittakes will only grow outdoors where rainfall can reach them and only in the winter. Freezing Manitoba weathers don’t knock out the mushroom, which isn’t native to Canada. Fosty says his kit will keep them coming for five to seven seasons.

“They’re like bears. They go dormant in the wintertime,” Fosty says.

Come spring, Fosty will be teaching shiitake growing workshops through the Leisure Guide.

As chillier weather sets in, many mushrooms will disappear. Some, however, can still be found even into the winter months.

With a camera, keen eye and a desire to learn, anyone can become a mycophile.

Published in Volume 71, Number 2 of The Uniter (September 15, 2016)

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