The fungus among us and how to find it
There are plenty of places you might find Bob Sowyrda on a spring day in Western New York. He might be at Kleinhans tuning a piano, he could be welding a boat trailer or fly-fishing for trout, or he might be directing a church musical production. Wherever his many vocations and hobbies take him, he always keeps a supply of collection bags and a guide book handy. As a dedicated mycophagist, or mushroom hunter, he never knows where a delectable, edible fungus will turn up, and it’s good to be prepared.
Sowyrda has been hunting mushrooms in the area for over twenty years, and he figures he’s identified and eaten close to thirty varieties. Mushrooms, he says, aren’t fussy about zip codes; they’ll show up just as easily in downtown Buffalo as in the silence of a dense forest. One of his favorites, in fact, is a Dryad’s Saddle (Polyporus squamosus) that he found not far from Kleinhans, growing at the base of a dying tree. Dryad’s Saddle occurs in horizontal clusters (shelf fungus, we non-mushroom hunters might call them), each brownish fruit roughly in the shape of a saddle ranging from a few inches to over a foot in diameter. “It’s an easy fungus to identify, hard to mistake, and appears within two days after a hard rain from spring into fall,” Sowyrda says. “They taste a little like chicken when you sauté them in oil, and, if you collect them when they’re fresh, they have the texture of chicken.”
Others that attract the forager’s attention when he’s close to Buffalo are oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus), those familiar fungi that resemble their namesake and often grow in a bunch on fallen and rotting trees in parks or groves; and Shaggy Mane (Coprinus comatus), a shaggy-helmeted, stemmed mushroom that pops up in lawns all over the area. And don’t forget the ubiquitous puffballs (Calvatia gigantean), the snow white, volleyball-sized giants that are so tasty sliced and fried in butter.
Mushroom man Bob Sowyrda alongside The Shaggy Mane, Old Man of the Woods, and Dryad's Saddle
When he’s traipsing the rural countryside, Sowryda will be on the lookout for Old Man of the Woods (Strobilomyces strobilaceus), a small, stemmed mushroom with a gray-and-black, knobby cap that looks like it’s encrusted with dirt, but is “delicious, and fairly common in places like Emery Park.” He numbers many of the boletes as fairly common in the local woods, and he’s identified a Caesar’s mushroom (Amanita caesarea), a rare, trophy find for mycologists. Sowryda wouldn’t consider eating this, however, as many of its look-alike cousins are deadly poisonous. Ask Sowyrda about his all-time favorite and he’ll tell you it’s the Mouse Cap or Mouse Trich (Tricholoma terreum). Just don’t ask him where to find this stubby, camouflaged delicacy that appears reliably in late fall, occasionally rising through an early snowfall. “That’s a secret,” he winks. The Sowyrda family has enjoyed Mouse Trichs with their Thanksgiving dinners for the past six years. “It’s like a fine wine,” he says, “with a wonderful taste at first and a more complex, exotic taste as it lingers on your palate.”
As enthusiastic as Sowyrda is about eating mushrooms, he is equally as adamant about explaining the risks involved in his hobby. “There aren’t many of us,” he says. “I’ve never run into another forager when I’ve been out collecting. It’s not for everybody. There is genuine danger of accidental poisoning, even death, if you are careless and uninformed. Some members of the Amanita family, for instance, are so deadly that a single bite is fatal with no antidote. There are thousands of species of fungus and mushrooms, and many of them look very similar, so knowing which are edible and which are not is tricky. You have to be willing to make a study of fungi. I’m sure I spent more time studying than I did eating for a long time.”
When Sowyrda finds an unfamiliar fungus in the wild, he’ll dig it up, taking a small amount of the mycelium with him. “I never take more than half of any group of mushrooms in the wild. Sustainability is key,” he says. Then he notes the time of year, environment, and species of tree or plant that the particular mushroom is helping to decompose. When he gets home, he’ll consult three—never just one—field guides to get a preliminary ID. Then he’ll place the specimen on a sheet of white paper and cover it, causing the spores (the reproductive agents) to drop on the paper. By examining the color, shape, number, and drop pattern of the spores, he can begin to identify his mushroom. Just to be sure, he’ll place a few spores on a slide and have a look with his 1,000-power electric microscope. Only then is he willing make a definitive call, and break out the frying pan.
Despite the obvious downside of mushroom foraging, Sowrda’s ebullience about his hobby is contagious. “They’re fascinating, beautiful, and delicious, full of vegetable protein,” he enthuses. “There is one mushroom that tastes like crabmeat. Did you know that the largest organism on the planet is a fungus? It’s spread out over several acres; you can see it from the air, out in Washington somewhere.” There is in Sowyrda no small measure of Mr. Science; he and mycology were made for each other.
So if you have Bob Sowyrda over to tune your piano, don’t be surprised if he asks to take a stroll through your yard before he leaves, just in case there might be a tasty fungus out there.
Rick Ohler, whose previous experience with mushrooms has been limited to the common white button type found on pizza (Agaricus bisporus) writes the “View From Right Field” column in the East Aurora Advertiser.