Some mushrooms currently fruiting in Maine’s deep, damp woods are tasty fried in butter. Others are quite toxic and can kill you.
This is not a story about how to tell the difference between the two.
There are already plenty of books and articles out there to assist in safe, fungal dinner-making decisions.
This is a visual essay in praise of our mushrooms’ physical beauty, alone — their muted hues, squishy curves, bendy stems, lacey gills and earthy stature.
Clockwise from left: A Maine mushroom, purple gills upturned, grows near an old log in Buxton on Sunday Sept. 18, 2022. Some mushrooms are toxic while others are good to eat. All are interesting to look at and photograph; A mushrooms shines red beneath a patch of green leaves; A classic-looking, spotty Maine mushroom protrudes from the ground. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
Fall in Maine is mushroom time, with many varieties fruiting in the fall rains. Autumn is also the time of year when journalists and woods walkers start sending Maine mushroom guru Greg Marley pictures of their forest finds, hoping he’ll tell them if they’re safe to eat, or not.
“It’s the hardest thing for me,” Marley said. “I’m automatically on my guard.”
Maine boasts more than 2,000 kinds of mushrooms growing within its borders, Marley said. Identifying them via artsy photos, like these, or fuzzy phone snaps is nearly impossible and potentially dangerous, given the consequences of getting it wrong.
Marley said he’d much rather spend time telling people about the fascinating lives of his favorite fungi than making dubious dining decisions.
He’s been seriously studying mushrooms for 50 years, since a teenage summer spent in the New York woods away from his home in the New Mexico desert. These days, Marley teaches workshops and classes every year in Maine about identifying and gathering mushrooms. He also consults with the Northern New England Poison Center in Portland, acting as their on-call toxic mushroom expert.
Clockwise from left: A mushrooms resembling a Tiffany-style lamp grows amide pin needles in Portland on Sunday Sept. 18, 2022. Some mushrooms are toxic while others are good to eat. All are interesting to look at and photograph; A patch of doughy mushrooms grow; A sturdy-looking mushroom grows near the base of a tree. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
“I’m really conservative about what I eat myself,” Marley said, noting that he’s comfortable with identifying and consuming about 35 different species.
The word mushroom generally refers to the above-ground, fruiting, stem-and-cap, spore-spreading body of an underground fungus. The spores help spread the parent organism, which can be both massive and ancient.
Though the fungus might be very old, most mushrooms are fleeting.
“Some appear overnight and are faded by noon,” Marley said. “Most take a day or two to fully open. Others are slower.”
Their swift changes are part of what makes photo identification tricky. Mushrooms’ appearances change drastically throughout their brief cycles. Most classic types start as tiny, round buttons, then progress to the familiar stem-and-cap stage before splitting, fading and dissolving into black, gooey smudges on the forest floor.
The illusive, transitory nature of their physical existences help keep Marley’s attention.
“To my mind,” he said, “the varieties, the beauty, the mysteries always fascinate.”
Despite his five decades of study, Marley said he’s still learning new things about local mushrooms.
Clockwise from left: A purple mushroom grows in Berwick on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022. Mushrooms can look dramatically different, depending on the stage of their fruiting cycle; A baby blue mushroom cap shows its colors; A classic, stem-and-cap mushrooms grows on the forest floor in Buxton on Friday, Sept. 16, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
“That’s one of the things that holds me,” he said.
This photo collection began last week with a walk in the woods for another Bangor Daily News story. One interesting mushroom led to another, then another. Soon, a full-on, hand-and-knees safari ensued.
Usually, mushrooms are only observed from above. However, gazed at from below, one ear to the ground, looking up, they reveal stunning, miniature vistas devoid of familiar human scale.
Two more photographic mushroom hunts took place over the weekend and — one startled snake and two dirty knees later — a collection of pictures, suitable for publication, was formed.
It’s no surprise to Marley. He’s seen the fascination bloom in many of his workshops.
“People tell me, ‘Until I took this class, I’d never noticed them before,'” he said. “‘Now I can’t not see them. They’re everywhere.'”
Greg Marley is the author of two books about mushrooms and will teach an October class about safely foraging them at the Midcoast Conservancy in Jefferson.