As summer nights lengthen into autumn, the forests of the Catskill mountains in upstate New York fill with magical, mystical, medicinal mushrooms. “Toadstool” is a quaint name for the many mushrooms that spring forth between rains, while “fungi” is the more technical term. Fungi are plants, but plants without flowers or roots or chlorophyll (which makes plants green). Strange shapes (some quite sexually suggestive), the ability to grow (and glow) in the dark, and psychedelic colors make mushrooms an obvious addition to any witch’s stew. But you will want some other reasons to make mushrooms a steady part of your diet. Is outwitting cancer a good enough reason?
It’s true. All edible fungi – including those ordinary white button mushrooms sold in supermarkets – are capable of preventing and reversing cancerous cellular changes. We aren’t exactly sure why. Perhaps it’s because fungi search out, concentrate, and share with us the trace minerals we need to build powerful, healthy immune systems. Or perhaps it’s because of their wealth of polysaccharides – interesting complex sugars that appear to be all round health-promoters. It could be because mushrooms are excellent sources of protein and B vitamins with few calories and no sodium. Or we could single out the anti-cancer, anti-tumor, and anti-bacterial compounds found in the stalk, caps, gills, and even the underground structures (mycelia) of every edible mushroom.
Be sure to cook your mushrooms though; avoid eating them raw. Scientists at the University of Nebraska Medical School found that mice who ate unlimited amounts of raw mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus) developed, over the course one up mushroom bar of their lifetimes, significantly more malignant tumors than a control group.
Everywhere I go in August and September – whether walking barefoot on vibrant green mosses or stepping lightly across the deeply-scented fallen pine and hemlock needles; whether climbing rocky outcrops festooned with ferny whiskers or skirting swamps humming with mosquitoes; whether following the muddy bank of a meandering stream or balancing on old stone walls inhaling the scent of righteous rot – I am on the lookout for my fungi friends.
My woods are especially generous to me withchanterelles, beautiful cornucopia-shaped mushrooms with a delectable taste. I find both the delicious little black ones – jokingly known as “trumpet of death” due to their eerie coloration – and the very tasty and much bigger orange ones. Sometimes we return home naked from our mushrooms walks – if we find more ‘shrooms than we have bags for, we have to use our shirts and pants as carriers to help haul dinner home.
The bright orange tops and sulfur yellow undersides of sulphur shelf mushrooms (Polyporus sulphuroides) are easy to spot in the late summer forest. Growing only on recently-dead oaks, these overlapping shelves make a great-tasting immune-enhancing addition to dinner. I have harvested the “chicken of the woods” in oak forests around the world. In the Czech Republic, I saw a particularly large example as we drove a country lane. Stopping, I found a portion of it had been harvested. I took only a share, being careful to leave lots for other mushroom lovers who might come down the lane after me.