Sporting a mushroom t-shirt that he later explained was a Bolete, Dr. Jonathan Bourne, who many may know as an anesthesiologist at Mammoth Hospital, took the pulpit Tuesday evening at the Green Church off of U.S. 395.
As the evening’s speaker for the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory’s (SNARL) lecture series, Bourne brought something new to the table — a disclaimer that he wasn’t an expert.
“Unlike most Americans, I’m not afraid to eat mushrooms,” he said. “But I’m not an expert, it’s just one of my many interests. Preparing for this lecture made me a lot more informed than I was.” (His disclaimer also included a statement that he had never used, and did not advocate the use of any hallucinogenic mushrooms, but he did later explain which ones would do the job.)
Bourne was born an Australian and grew up picking mushrooms in New York. Later, he joined the San Francisco Mycological Society and has been to the “Fungus Fair,” which is held each December and puts mushrooms on display.
In his mushroom exploration, Bourne has found two things: first, the further East in Europe that you go the more enthused people are about mushrooms. Bourne explained that in Russia, mushroom hunting is more popular than many sports. Second, there is no great resource to study the mushrooms of the Eastern Sierra. He referenced the Internet often as a source of mushroom identification and study.
Breaking up his talk with the occasional mushroom joke (“Why is the mushroom invited to all the parties? Because he was such a fungi [fun-guy].”), Bourne covered the mushroom gamut from definition, to identification, to edibility.
Mushrooms are the reproductive structures, or fruit, of certain fungi. They are built to release spores and are attached to a giant, spider web-like structure hidden underground or in a substrate. To identify mushrooms, Bourne suggested either going out with someone who knows what they are doing or joining a mycological society. Methods of identification include looking at the mushrooms appearance, size, season of growth, habitat, spore prints, which trees or substrates it attached to, and by dissection.
“People compare mushroom hunting to bird watching because you get outside,” Bourne said. While birds are more difficult to photograph, once you are able to snap a shot, the bird is usually easy to identify, Bourne explained. “Mushrooms are tougher to identify.”
Indeed, there was a whole segment of mushrooms he simply called “LBMs,” or “Little Brown Mushrooms.” Included in the LBM were edible, hallucinogenic and poisonous mushrooms, so eating LBMs should be done at your own risk.
“It’s hard to identify LBMs and most people don’t,” Bourne explained.
Types of fungi discussed included parasitic, saprophytic, and mycorrhizal fungi, also known as “wild mushrooms.” Mycorrhizal fungi live in mutually beneficial relationships with trees and plants.
As for edibility, Bourne emphasized identification as the most important way to decide whether or not to eat the mushroom you have harvested.
“Identify, identify, identify,” he stressed. “Only a few species can kill you but many can make you sick.” Bourne said there had been less than 100 deaths in the past 25 years from mushroom poisoning.
Eating only young, fresh and firm mushrooms was another piece of advice he offered, as well as cooking all wild mushrooms before consumption.
Mushrooms can be dried or frozen, and they can also cause idiosyncratic reactions; some people could get sick from a mushroom while other don’t, so be wary serving them at dinner parties. Not becoming ill right away from a mushroom doesn’t mean you’re in the clear, either.
“If you get sick in less than six hours after eating the mushroom, you’ll most likely be ok,” Bourne explained. “The deadly mushrooms take a day or two to make you sick.”
It is illegal to pick mushrooms in state and national parks, similar to the illegality of picking a flower or grabbing a rock. On the Inyo National Forest, Bourne said mushroom enthusiasts were allowed to pick mushrooms for personal use only.
He then went over many of the mushroom species, many of which grow in the Eastern Sierra.
The Amanita Muscaria, or toadstool, is common in the Eastern Sierra. It has an orange or yellow cap and is the mushroom of literature, as Bourne described. It’s the mushroom used in Alice in Wonderland and for good reason. The Amanita Muscaria is a hallucinogenic and is said to make things look bigger or smaller.
“Death is rare, except for one case I found where someone ate 24,” Bourne said.
Other amanitas, such as the Death Cap and the Destroying Angel are deadly, but Bourne did not believe these grow in the Eastern Sierra.
The Coprinus or “Inky Cap” mushroom will only make you sick is you drink alcohol along with it, while a Slippery Jack has a frog-like skin that should be removed before consumption.
Boletes, like the one on Bourne’s shirt have no gills and should always be cooked. The King Bolete, or as Bourne described it, the “Arnold Schwarzenegger of mushrooms,” has a higher protein content than any vegetable other than a soybean.
Bourne’s favorite mushrooms to pick and eat in the Eastern Sierra are the Puffballs, which come in many varieties.
From deadly to delicious, Bourne covered the topic of mushrooms in the Eastern Sierra with depth and clarity, as well as a little humor. In fact, if he hadn’t told us he wasn’t an expert, we never would have known at all.
The next SNARL lecture is scheduled for May 14, at 7 p.m. at the Green Church. Dr. Peter Alagona of UC Santa Barbara will present “40 Years of Endangered Species: Conflict and Conservation in California.” Lectures are free, but seating is limited so don’t be late. Videos of past lectures can be viewed at vimeo.com/channels/SNARL.