A couple months ago I posted my first volume of To Eat or Not to Eat, with the question revolving around the edibility of Amanita muscaria, the infamous fly-agaric mushroom of fairy tales and kitsch culture. In that case, the mushroom is inherently poisonous and requires skillful preparation for the table—but what about mushrooms with dangerous chemical makeups that are caused by external environmental conditions?
The above image was swiped from Chickenofthewoods. COW is a veritable morel magnet [reminds me of the prank played by cooks on gullible new busboys at the Black Dog Tavern: “Too many mushrooms in the soup! Bring me a mushroom magnet from the restaurant across the street! Hurry!!”… But that’s another story], and this photo documents his first morel of the year, one mushroom hunters might call a “bark beauty” or a “mulch morel.” He found it in downtown Corvallis, OR, in some new landscaping.
We mushroomers love finding bark beauties, particularly those of us urban foragers stuck in the city. Signs of life! No fossil fuels necessary! The thing is, though, there are questions about the edibility of these mulch morels. Where did the mulch come from? Was it sprayed with chemicals during processing? Did the property owner carpet-bomb it with herbicides?
On top of those questions, there are biological implications regarding the mushrooms themselves. Many species of fungi are known to be bio-concentrators of environmental contaminants—that is, they soak up and sometimes even magnify the nasty chemicals and heavy metals in the soil and air around them. This fact became painfully clear after the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown; around many parts of Europe wild foraged mushrooms are still subjected to radioactivity tests before going to market.
These questions can lead an inquisitive mushroom hunter down a dizzying rabbit hole of self-doubt. For instance, if there are questions about mulch morels, what about the morels that pop up each spring in fresh clearcuts? Loggers are known to spray herbicides before planting the next generation of Doug fir monocultures. Is the mushroom love worth the risk?
Or burns. Morels can be prolific in the year following a forest fire. But what if PCB-loaded fire retardants were used, or other chemicals? Do burned forests release naturally-occurring chemical combinations that are less than desirable in our food?
Over at the Cascade Mycological Society’s forum we’ve been discussing this topic after fellow morel fanatic Sleromevoli stumbled on a goldmine of bark beauties only to learn from the landowner that the area was just hammered with herbicides. He let them be. But no doubt some other ‘shroomer is hungrily eyeing those morels and might not ask such questions—or might not care. What about you? I’d like to hear from some morel maniacs on this topic.