The golden chanterelle is considered to be the most frequently foraged mushroom in Maine. Courtesy of Greg Marley

Cynthia Stancioff’s hunt for mushrooms has taken her around the country. The journey has included Maine, the Midwest, and the South, and despite the long treks, the Chesterville native says the time and miles have been worth it.

Stancioff, along with Ellie Sloane-Barton and Jula Moll-Rocek, is organizing the first ever Mushroom Day on July 17, which highlights and teaches attendees all about foraging, cooking, and cultivation of the fungi.

A cluster of distinctive black trumpets are an edible summer mushroom. Courtesy of Greg Marley

I recently sat down with the three mushroom enthusiasts at Stancioff’s kitchen table, which was strewn with foraging guidebooks, iced tea, and of course, mushrooms.

“There are bold mushroom hunters, there are old mushroom hunters, but there are no bold old mushroom hunters,” Stancioff recited with a laugh as we began our ascent into the world of mushrooms. Her point: Mushrooms can be tasty, they can be good for you, they can be medicinal, but they can also be deadly. Collecting them is not a pursuit anyone should take lightly. (See related stories.)

Mushroom foraging is also called hunting, a detail Stancioff made sure to point out, as it can sometimes be difficult to spend the day in the woods just to come back emptyhanded. Some types are harder to find than others, like the Midwest morel, which led her on several “pilgrimages” across the country to find.

“I went to Wisconsin twice and I went to Arkansas this year,” she said. In Wisconsin she encountered it; not so much in “stupid” Arkansas. Frustrations aside, mushroom hunting is all about managing expectations.

“You have to accept from the beginning that you may or may not actually find something,” Sloane-Barton said. “You have to just enjoy the process.”

THE THREAT FROM CLIMATE CHANGE

For the three people gathered at the table, the “process” of hunting is just one aspect of their passion for mushrooms, which they all view as not just a food or a pastime, but a critical component of our natural environment. For that reason, they are concerned about the “climate crisis” and its negative effect on mushrooms and other fungi, and what that could mean to the ecosystem.

Stancioff said that because of the dryness over the last few years, she has “seen a distinct decline in availability of wild mushrooms.” Mushrooms need moisture to grow. Even when it rains, the smaller amount falling over recent years means it isn’t penetrating the ground deep enough to make a difference.

“Last year I was seriously worried that the large amount of mycelium (networks of fungal threads) had actually died because the ground was dry so far down,” Stancioff said. “Even when we got rain, you dig down a couple inches and the soil will be dry, and the vast majority of (the) mushroom is underground.”

In addition, Stancioff said, the lack of research about the fungi kingdom means the permanent impact on the species caused by a lack of rain is not known.

Jula Moll-Rocek displays the butt end of some older wine cap mushrooms recently at the Sandy River Learning Village in Farmington. The ends, containing spores, can be used to inoculate a growing medium — such as cardboard, straw or woodchips — after which mycelium will begin to grow and fruit into more mushrooms. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

“All bets are off about how this is affecting long-term availability of mushrooms,” she said. “We don’t know how fast they adapt. We don’t know if they’re going to migrate or if they’re just going to go extinct.”

Without mushrooms, the entire forest’s ecosystem is in threat of collapsing, according to Moll-Rocek. Animals eat them, but mushrooms also contribute to the breakdown of the forest floor.

“If there’s no fungi in the soil, things just keep piling up,” Stancioff said. “(Without fungi) the leaves are bigger (on the forest floor because they are not being broken down), and there’s more of them in all the forests that I’ve wandered around for the last 30 years.”

SUPPORTING THE WHOLE ECOSYSTEM

In 1885, A. B. Frank became the first scientist to theorize that mushrooms are connected to various other living things throughout the forest. His hypothesis about what is called mycorrhizae, or the mutual symbiotic association between fungi and plants, was initially rejected by scientists.

His research greatly inspired Suzanne Simard, professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia, who described the relationship between fungi and the forest as crucial.

“People have known for hundreds of years that there was some kind of below-ground association between trees and mushrooms, but they did not fully understand what that association was,” she said in an interview with Biohabitats. “To me, the different plants, tree species, animals, fungi, and bugs were this amazing community that worked together.”

When one part of that community starts to fall apart, the entire ecosystem is at risk of complete ruin. Without enough rain, fungi don’t grow, and if they don’t grow, they are unable to be a steady part of the environment.

In an effort to combat this on the local level, Sloane-Barton and Moll-Rocek decided to plan Mushroom Day in Farmington on July 17 and create a space where they can begin mushroom education for Mainers. They hope to form a collective with different programming for all ages to teach people about mushrooms and demonstrate how to cultivate them on your own.

“We’ve had this vision of starting an education learning project for a while now,” Sloane-Barton said.

Moll-Rocek says he is excited to emphasize “place-based education.”

“Really contextualizing everything we do in a grounding of the history of the place, and how each individual showing up relates to that history,” he said.

In addition, according to Sloane-Barton, members of the collective will learn about “growing your own food, and about how to live closer to a space and in a relationship to land better” that will include history of colonialism in Maine and the “indigenous history of a space.”

After Mushroom Day, the pair hope to host various workshops in the fall based on fermentation and harvesting. They are also planning on creating a “homeschool enrichment program” to help “connect with the natural world.” Finally, they will look to expand to adult education programs as well.

Mushroom Day will include a forage with the three enthusiasts and a cooking lesson from Stancioff herself.

OUR MYCOPHOBIC CULTURE

Ellie Sloane-Barton, left, and Jula Moll-Rocek look through a recently “inoculated” straw pile Wednesday at the Sandy River Learning Village in Farmington. The couple had some oyster mushrooms left over and decided to grow more mushrooms from the unused mushroom ends. They expect the bed will fruit in the fall. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Though the event will not have a heavy an emphasis on the medicinal aspects of fungi, that’s what Sloane-Barton and Stancioff feel most passionate about. Mushrooms have been studied and used for their medicinal purposes of centuries in other cultures, but not in the United States. Stancioff says this illustrates the mycophobic culture in the country, as opposed to some mycophilic societies in Asia and Europe.

Greg Marley, a board member at the Maine Mycological Association, has written and researched extensively on mycophobic and mycophilic communities. He believes the United States is slowly warming up to mushrooms.

“America has been gently moving over the past 20 years or more from a strongly mycophobic culture toward one that is more accepting and passionate about mushrooms, but it’s slow,” he said. “(In) the melting pot of America around food, people are urged to let go of some of those traditional practices. Plus it’s a new land with new mushrooms.”

Moll-Rocek spoke extensively about the reishi mushroom, which he says has been shown to help with cancer treatment. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center says the mushroom has “antioxidant properties and may enhance immune response.”

According to the center, limited data from clinical studies suggest that while the mushroom can strengthen immune response and slow blood clotting, it can also cause toxicity in some beneficial immune cells. There are a few documented cases of liver toxicity, causing the center to conclude “more studies are needed to show that reishi is safe and effective for use with cancer treatment.”

Stancioff takes mushrooms for medicinal purposes in tea, which though bitter, she believes helps her immune system in the long run.

“There haven’t been as many studies, but when you look at something that’s been used for 1,000 years to cure things, that’s a pretty good scientific approach to whether it works,” she said.

Fresh wine cap mushrooms grow at the Sandy River Learning Village in Farmington. The site will be hosting Mushroom Day on July 17. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Stancioff took out a chaga mushroom, which looked like a large lump of coal and is used in traditional Russian medicine. The mushroom is believed to fight inflammation, and lower blood sugar and pressure, among other reported health benefits.

Herbal medicines using mushrooms have recently become more popular, and Moll-Rocek estimated that the chunk of chaga Stancioff was holding would be worth upwards of 150 dollars.

Marley also uses mushrooms for medicinal purposes but is concerned about chaga.

“I really worry about overharvesting, particularly of chaga,” he said. “It’s slow growing. It’s not really common in much of Maine and it’s being significantly overharvested.”

Overharvesting mushrooms, particularly while many species aren’t growing as fast due to climate change, may bring up ethical dilemmas, he said.

“I think it’s really important to form an ethical framework for how you forage and to be aware of things like chaga, which is very susceptible to overharvesting and depletion,” he said. “And other mushrooms, there will be a huge seasonal variation in how much is available because of weather patterns.”

MUSHROOMS TO CLEAN UP OIL SPILLS?

In addition to the many positive aspects of mushrooms, recent studies and experiments have shown that mushrooms may have remedial properties in cleaning up oil spills and other environmental disasters.

“You expose them to a new chemical spill or a specific bacterial pathogen and within days you can develop a strain of mushroom that figured out how to break that down,” Moll-Rocek said, discussing research conducted by Paul Stamets.

Edible giant puffballs are distinctive and commonly found in meadows, fields, and deciduous forests usually in late summer and autumn. Courtesy of Greg Marley

Marley is also a fan of Stamets, who he calls a “visionary.”

Stamets has been so successful in his research that the Environmental Protection Agency asked him to help the Coast Guard find ways to clean up waterborne oil spills. This led to the invention of the mycoboom, a burlap tube filled with oyster mushrooms designed to break down petroleum.

At the mention of Stamets, the trio became more energized, seeing Stamets’ research as boosting their own passion and appreciation for mushrooms. After decades of loving, supporting and foraging for fungi, they feel they are seeing greater public acceptance and recognition of the lowly mushroom.

Mushrooms play an integral part in Stancioff’s life, so much so that during the wet season, she eats them almost every day. When she has a surplus, she begins drying them to last through the winter. It gets busy, she says, but she can’t turn away when she sees a large patch.

“You can’t ignore it,” she said. “I mean, I don’t want them to go to waste. It’s about finding different ways of preserving them.”

Stancioff’s farmhouse has plants hanging in every corner and jars of mushrooms on different shelves. She celebrates nature and the relationships that different plants and fungi have. Though a simple Mushroom Day won’t solve climate change or shifting weather patterns, it might bring awareness and a newfound respect for the fungi on the forest floor.

An artist’s conk mushroom sits on display in the kitchen of Ellie Sloane-Barton and Jula Moll-Rocek’s home in Farmington. The artist’s conk can be scratched when the white spore is fresh, revealing dark brown tissue, resulting in fine lines that become permanent when the mushroom dries. Ten friends of Sloane-Barton and Moll-Rocek’s collaborated on the design. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal


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