The Practical Gardener

In ancient Egypt, mushrooms were considered the plant of immortality. Hieroglyphics from 4,600 years ago reveal that Egyptian royalty of the time forbade commoners to eat these fabulous fungi. Twenty-five centuries later, the Roman emperor Nero declared mushrooms “the food of the gods,” but he had a different perspective. It was no accident when his mother fed his stepfather, Claudius, a plate of poisoned ‘shrooms to open the way for young Nero to ascend to the throne. Nero, of course, eventually had his mother executed. Nice guy, huh?

I’ve sometimes wondered how many ancient people died in the process of determining which ‘shrooms were poisonous. Ancient history is littered with mushroom-based assassinations — a sure sign that people of those times must have had a clear understanding of the properties of the many varieties available to them.

Mushrooms occur worldwide, and elaborate rituals have evolved around them in many areas of the world (including Russia, China, Greece and Latin America). What’s more, the same mushrooms that are edible (and delicious) in one part of the world can be poisonous elsewhere.

Today’s mushroom-gatherers tend to be pretty passionate about it, and I don’t imagine things were any different 8,000 years ago. It’s not as though folks who have been gathering edible fungi for hundreds of generations remained ignorant of the mechanics of cultivation. My gut hunch is that humans have understood the general mechanics of mushroom reproduction for thousands of years. No, based on my minimal experience gathering edible mushrooms with folks who know what they’re doing, I have to suspect it was really the thrill of the hunt that kept people from growing them for so long. (Come to think of it, the experience is really more like stalking buried treasure than hunting in the usual sense.)

Like mushrooms, pockets of hard-core mushroom enthusiasts are everywhere. For the most part, they don’t seem any different than you and me — except that they’re always on the lookout for mushrooms. Ask any mushroom person about the last ‘shroom they checked out, and they can tell you exactly where it was. They can usually tell you what it was, too. And if it’s the height of mushroom season, chances are it happened within the last hour, regardless of where you may be. Even if the mushroom proved to be an inedible species or was found in a place where it might have been tainted by car fumes (or some other fouling agent), your enthusiast will have taken the time to scope it out.

In these parts, The Asheville Mushroom Club is the formal group for ‘shroom enthusiasts. These mushroom maniacs have joined forces with the North Carolina Arboretum to sponsor the Asheville Mushroom Fair, slated for Saturday, Aug. 31 at the Arboretum.

The Mushroom Club has been meeting in the Asheville area for nearly 20 years. Carol Dreiling, who edits the club’s newsletter “Sporadic News,” was introduced to ‘shrooms by her husband, Pete Whelihan (the current AMC president). Carol already had a strong interest in medicinal herbs; this led her to explore the medicinal uses of mushrooms. Shitake, reshi and miatake all have anti-tumor qualities and are good for the heart. Miatakes, which grow wild in this region, also boast cancer-fighting qualities.

Dreiling and Whelihan go mushroom hunting about every two weeks, especially from July through September (the peak picking months). But Carol says she’s always on the lookout. On her daily walks through her east Asheville neighborhood, she finds a surprising number of mushrooms. It’s no accident that the Asheville Mushroom Fair falls smack dab in the middle of the peak season.

This year’s fair will feature exhibits, children’s programs and activities, and lectures. Dr. Akers of the St. Andrews College biology department will give a talk on ethnomycology. Dr. Rytasviltalys, a well-known Duke University mycologist who studies mushrooms and DNA, will also speak. There will be presentations on cooking and papermaking as well as the medicinal uses of mushrooms. And let’s not forget the identification walks.

Although there’s a well established club in town, there’s also a healthy scattering of unaffiliated ‘shroom enthusiasts in WNC. Alan Muscat is one of them. He teaches classes on identifying edible mushrooms and will take calls about strange types that might crop up in your yard (his phone number is 236-3616).

The Mushroom Fair begins at 10 a.m.; admission is $4 ($15 for full access to classes and workshops). For more information, call 254-6199.

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