In His Own Words: Dr. Mushroom

Fungi finally have their own PR man: Greg Mueller of the Field Museum

By Cal Fussman|Sunday, July 24, 2005

Greg Mueller has studied mushrooms for 30 years. One of his favorite hangouts is the Plants of the World exhibit at Chicago’s Field Museum, where he is curator of mycology. There, lifelike models depict the stunning diversity of fungi. An expert in identification, Mueller spends much of his time determining which mushroom species made someone sick.

Back in the days of Caesar they had mushroom tasters. Now there’s a job for you, huh? If the tasters lived, then Caesar would eat the mushrooms.

In the mid-1860s, an ex–Army captain named Charles McIlvaine decided that he would spend his retirement tasting mushrooms. He wanted to judge his body’s reaction to the mushrooms he tasted, so he didn’t try them within a day or two of each other. He kept voluminous notes. He ended up writing a book called One Thousand American Fungi. What he learned has stood the test of time—although if you follow his book to the letter you might get yourself into some trouble. He was fortunate to have had an iron stomach, and he died of natural causes. He obviously knew better than to sample an amanita.

Amanitas contain one of the deadliest poisons found in nature. The mushroom starts as an egg-shaped button that resembles a small puffball. This breaks open as the mushroom grows. Once it’s developed, an amanita will be gilled with parasol-shaped caps. They come in white, yellow, red, and brown. But the gills are white. They don’t call Amanita virosa the destroying angel for nothing. One cap can kill a person.

Galerina has the same deadly compound as Amanita virosa. It’s a small brown mushroom that grows on wood. The problem with Galerina is that it’s known to grow intermixed with honey mushrooms, which are good edibles. If you’re willing to inspect closely, the two are easy to tell apart. If you cut the cap off, put it on a white piece of paper and let it sit overnight. The honey mushrooms will reveal white spores. Galerina has brown spores.

Then you’ve got false morels. Morels are some of the best edible mushrooms. They look like honeycombs, and they’re hollow inside. False morels resemble the shape of a brain. They’re solid inside. They have monomethylhydrazine inside them, which is basically rocket fuel. There have been fatalities, but others have eaten them and survived. Studies indicate that the toxins are cumulative. So you can eat them a few times without problems, and you have no idea you’re eating your last supper.

The two most commonly eaten mushrooms that you don’t want to eat around Chicago are the jack-o’-lantern and the green-spored lepiota. The jack-o’-lantern is pumpkin colored and grows in clusters on wood. It has gills coming down the stem. It actually glows, but the green glow is so faint in the light that you can’t see it. People think they look like chanterelles, which are delicious edibles and also have a pleasant smell. But if you see the two together, you’ll never confuse them. Chanterelles have flat-edged interconnecting ridges or wrinkles instead of knifelike gills.

The green-spored lepiota grows in yards or grassy areas. It’s a big mushroom that grows in a fairy ring. It’s white and looks very innocent and pure. As the mushroom matures, the gills turn green. A couple of lepiotas are great edibles. But the green-spored lepiota will give you major diarrhea and vomiting. You’ll have to check into a hospital for dehydration. Depending on your personality, you’ll either be embarrassed or you’ll have a great story.

When you travel around the world, you find there are mycophiles or mycophobes. People tend to either love mushrooms or be fearful of them. Folks from the U.K., for instance, are generally not into eating mushrooms. But collecting and preparing mushrooms is a big pastime in France, Russia, and China.

I’m not overly adventurous when I’m eating mushrooms, but there are a few that I love. The black trumpet—it’s also called the horn of plenty—is one of my favorites. It’s hard to see because it’s only a couple of inches tall. You’ll have to get down on your hands and knees to find one. It looks like a black herald’s trumpet and has this wonderful nutty flavor. I don’t like to hide the flavor, so I just sauté them with a little olive oil.

Puffballs can grow as big as volleyballs and are usually between a forest and a grassy area. You find them on bike trails. You can get multiple meals out of one. You can cut it up and put it in pasta. Or if you want to have a little fun, you can make a puffball pizza. Slice the mushroom into a nice crust, put on cheese and tomato sauce, then toss it in the oven and bake.

The golden chanterelle has a beautiful orange color. It’s usually found in oaks, but it can be in pine woods also. I get a lovely apricot smell from the chanterelle. It goes nicely with light sauces.

Boletes are soft and squishy with a nice texture that will stand up to the sauce in pasta. They’re found either with oaks or pines—often in people’s yards. We had a case where a guy got sick after eating them, and the emergency room called. It took us a while to figure out why. This is a good, edible mushroom. Finally, we tracked the problem to its source and discovered that his neighbor had put an herbicide on the yard the week before. The mushroom had absorbed the herbicide, and the guy had herbicide poisoning. So I like to throw in my “know thy neighbor’s lawn” caveat.

Oh, and don’t let me forget morels. They come in springtime—in May around the Chicago area. Some say you can find them around dead elms. Morel hunters have their secrets. I’m not a good morel hunter, but I have some friends who take care of me. I like them in omelets. Sometimes we chop them up and put them in a roux with flour and milk and then pour it over melba toast. Ohhhhhhhh, so fine.

I’m telling you, what this world needs is a little Mushroom Public Relations 101.

We’re trying to make the information more accessible. We have a virtual herbarium the Field Museum developed along with the Morton Arboretum and the Chicago Botanic Garden. You can find data for about 90,000 plant specimens. We started with just plants of the Chicago area—www.vplants.org—and we’re expanding to include an online field guide of mushrooms. There will be a species page for all the mushrooms in the region where you can find an image and a short description. There’ll be a distribution map, and you’ll be able to read about the ecology. We’re trying to figure out ways to unlock our data through the Web.

Once you get started with mushrooms, you’d better be careful. You can get hooked pretty easily. Look what happened to me. I start out an ordinary kid in Belleville, Illinois, kicking mushrooms and growing up to play baritone horn in the high school marching band. Who would’ve known?

I meet this beautiful girl named Betty strolling across campus at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. We get a job watering orchids and other plants at a greenhouse, and she introduces me to a mycologist. Double bingo! I get the girl and a course on fungi.

I earn my undergraduate degree at Southern Illinois and a master’s in mushrooms too. Then Betty and I head to the University of Tennessee for my doctorate. Next thing you know, we’re hunting for mushrooms in Sweden while I work on my postdoctorate. And soon we’re both at the Field, working an office apart. She’s managing the scanning electron microscope facility that allows me to look at spores big time in 3-D. Then one day we’re scavenging in a forest in Costa Rica, less than a football field apart, when I shout for her in shock. It’s amazing that I can even get her name off my lips. She hurries over, and there it is: Macrocybe titans, the largest mushroom in the world, more than three feet wide and in perfect condition. Nothing comes near this mushroom—neither bird nor insect—because of its cyanide odor. The two of us share a unique moment staring at this wonder of nature. And that’s what love is. So be careful once you get started. You could end up like me, owning a few mushroom ties.

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