Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Laetiporus Cincinnatus or How We Saved The Minnesota State Fair

Preceding post, Mushroom People, ...

...doing as mushroom people do, we left the trail and walked along the slopes around the wetland, on the neighbor's property too, into the untamed woods that no one ever seems to explore. We saw hundreds of Indian Pipe clusters, but little in the way of mushrooms. We found two great washouts from recent heavy rains, but then, no great mushrooms. After pausing near a newly fallen oak amongst a field of hog peanut in the sunshine, we move back towards the property line and decide its a wash -all we have are common puffballs.

We headed back for the house. Passing a great oak tree, just a few feet ahead of Rex, he says something, and to this day I'll never remember what, but as I turn my head to listen, in the corner of my eye I catch a singular ray of sun passing through the branches above. My eye follows that beam of light downward to the base of the tree, and Oh My God, what is that?! Rex! Look! What is that? "Oh, that's a Sulfur Shelf. Look at that," he says in his casual man about the woods way. Wow, what should we do? Should we dig it out?

Laetiporus in its environs at the base of a large oak tree.

No. We decided to leave it until we called the mushroom people to see if they actually want it, but then, why wouldn't they? An unbelievable find, really. Look at that, a perfect rosette! My first sulfur shelf happens to not be the semi-circle shelf on the trunk of a tree that I imagined after all.

We were suddenly unsure about whether or not we should actually dig it up. What a majestic mushroom, why  ruin it, why disturb its chances for sporing? Why give it to anyone? Shouldn't we leave it, for its own sake? What if the neighbors notice its gone? It is in their woods after all. Maybe this is theft? What if they were waiting to eat it?

But then, what of the edification of 500,000 Minnesotans, what of the Fair? What of our pride too -our find and its attendant glory? Our decision then, let's call the mushroom people. Ring Ring. Message -arrgh. Hi, uh, we think we found something you're gonna want -it's a Sulfur Shelf. Please give us a call back. We went to dig up the mushroom, placed it in a box and put it in the cool, dark basement. If they don't call us, we'll eat it now that it's plucked from the earth.

The Sulfur Shelf was nearly 20 inches across.

About 6pm we received a call from Ruth, who had been collecting for the Fair exhibit all day and desperately needed a centerpiece mushroom. She told us that her husband would come out to get our finds, meeting us halfway in the parking lot of a Starbucks in Wayzata. We loaded up all our mushrooms -the puffball logs and the sulfur shelf, and off we went. Once there, we sat in the van until our man arrived. How is that when you participate in a parking lot hand-off, you feel you are moving in a covert, illicit manner? It must be written on the body, because you always can tell which car is the car, which unknown man is the one to receive the goods. When our man, who will forever be known as Ruth's husband, emerged from his vehicle, we exited our van and approached him.

Mycologist, I asked? "Yep." Okay, we got something for you, but we're not going to give it to you if you're just going to eat it yourself -that, we could well do. It must go into the Fair display. Agreed? "Oh, yes, of course. Agreed." In trade, we received a Minnesota Mycological Society business card. "Please consider joining," said the man.

The Sulfur Shelf is one of the Foolproof Four, popularized by Clyde Marting Christensen in his book Edible Mushrooms. As it turns out, our Sulfur Shelf or 'Chicken of the Woods', was not the common Sulfur Shelf, Laetiporus sulphureus, but Laetiporus cincinnatus, a less common species known as 'White Pored Chicken of the Woods' that tends to grow at the base of oak trees in rosette form. Most importantly, it has better flavor and all of the fruiting body is edible, whereas the common Sulfur Shelf offers only edible edges without boiling. So, if your looking for that woodsy chicken flavor in a stir fry, L. cincinnatus is the Sulfur Shelf you want to find.

On Friday of the same week, we went to the Fair. Now, I've never been to the Minnesota State Fair, and at least until recent competition from Texas, it has been known as the largest in the states. We had plenty to see and do, but in the back of our minds we were always making our way to the horticultural building where all the plant related exhibits were located. We didn't know where in the large building (built specifically for this purpose of agricultural/horticultural presentations) the Minnesota Mycological Society's exhibit would be.

After thousands of judged green beans, tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers, rows and rows of identical looking corn cobs, bouquets of roses, bonsai, houseplants of every stripe, indoor sustainable garden dioramas and grow your own food displays, we stumbled upon the Mycological Society's exhibit and I can say that I was absolutely impressed with the magnitude of their work. Not for the sake of winning any prize, either, because they had no competition, but for the sheer educational effort, their desire to show hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans just what all that fungus around them might be.

Their exhibit was large -this image only a section of the centerpiece. Around back they had books, microscopes and slides, mushroom cultivation kits, posters, and what else. They also had members present to answer questions.

Proud hunters were we. Our 'purple ribbon' Sulfur Shelf at the top of the display.

In the case you cannot read it -that's Grand Champion.

The judge's comments attached.

In fact, we filled out the display quite well with our small log of Pear-shaped Puffballs, Lycoperdon pyriforme.

And Parasol Mushroom, Macrolepiota procera, nicely placed on bark and timber, accentuated by moss and oak leaf.

And our larger log of Pear-shaped Puffballs.

Incidentally, they had the Giant Puffball, Calvatia gigantea, which I would have loved to find.

And some cultivated mushrooms.

Our Sulfur Shelf, from the side, a little worse for the wear, a little dry, shrunken, and decidedly less edible after four days.

The display also helped me ID some of the mushrooms I had seen on our hunt

 Golden Waxy CapHygrophorus flavescens.

Spindle-shaped Yellow Coral, Clavulinopsis fusiformis

What an adventure our first week in Minnesota had been. Rather unexpectedly, I felt steeped in mushroom experience, and primed for deeper mycological understanding. Although I still consider my interest in mushrooms casual,  my eyes are trained onto them now and my respect for them is that much greater.

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