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Garden-goers give mushroom its due

The Alberta Mycological Society's annual Mushroom Expo provided mycophiles the chance to see, touch, eat, and celebrate many, many types of mushrooms at the U of A Botanical Gardens on Aug. 14.

A scorching afternoon at the University of Alberta Botanical Garden saw mycophiles young and old gather to see, touch, eat, and celebrate mushrooms at the Alberta Mycological Society's annual Mushroom Expo on Sunday.

Located near the back of the botanical grounds — past the enticing water features of the Aga Khan and Japanese gardens, the rose bushes, mossy mounds, cacti, and nearly every other pleasant plant in the area — was the mushroom pavilion.

On display Aug. 14 were many dozens of mushrooms from as small as a toddler's pinkie finger to as big and round as a dinner plate. The colours ranged from an apple-like red to sponge yellow, and every imaginable shade of brown, beige, and white. All of the mushrooms were picked the day before within a two-hour radius of the Expo. 

Away from the main display, one of the society's founding members, Martin Osis, gave an informative presentation that delved into common edible and medicinal mushrooms for a crowd with standing room only for those who arrived on time.

Osis began his presentation by joking that grocery stores stock mushrooms in the wrong section — they should be found with the meat products.

"Mushrooms are very closely related to animals," Osis said. "They tan by making compounds just like we do — melanin.

"What the melanin does is it takes the radiation, the gamma rays coming from the sun, and it dissipates it and protects [the mushroom]," Osis said. 

"Just like we do — mushrooms make lots of vitamin D.”

Osis also touched on some of the organism's great achievements throughout history, such as penicillin, which is often credited with kick-starting modern antibiotic medicine.

While penicillin is technically a fungi and not a mushroom, Osis explained that fungi and mushrooms are a result of the same organism. Penicillin works as an antibiotic because it kills bacteria and consumes the nitrogen and protein it contains, Osis said.

"Protein is hard to come by out in nature,” Osis said.

Another anti-bacterial fungi Osis talked about is the lobster mushroom, which grows in British Columbia but not Alberta, and despite the name, is not actually a mushroom.

The lobster mushroom contains no known toxins, Osis said, but has appeared on the most recently published poisoning report from the North American Mycological Association.

"If you’re eating old ones, and you eat too many, you can do yourself a mischief and you get serious gastrointestinal upset," Osis said, adding that the leading explanation behind the recent report of poisoning is that the lobster mushroom is such a strong antibiotic "that it’s whacking your gut microbiota.”

Osis also told the crowd of his admiration for the morel mushroom and how morels have been found growing in Chernobyl, feeding off of the radioactivity.

"This highly melanized black fungi are actually growing towards the radioactive hot spots, and they’re actually encompassing the radioactive hot spots, encasing them, and taking them apart one electron at a time, and using the energy just like we use energy from the sun,” said Osis.

'Absolutely delicious'

Another admirer of the morel mushroom and proud mycophile is St. Albert Coun. Natalie Joly. Joly explained in an interview that in May, during the morel's specific harvesting season, her and her family managed to forage more than 1,000 morels.

"We dry them and eat them year-round," Joly said. “Our most common [dish] is we’ll sauté some morels with garlic and toss them on a pizza. Absolutely delicious.”

For anybody looking to learn more about mushrooms, Joly said the Alberta Mycological Society is the place to look.

“That’s a great place for people to start out and learn about mushrooms, how to be safe, and how to harvest sustainably,” she said.

Joly said her favourite part of mushroom foraging is the hunt itself.

"It’s really exciting knowing you’re in the right kind of terrain and you have to train your eye to find those little treasures hiding in the forest and that’s certainly a joy," she said. 

"Even the mushrooms that are not edible, it’s fun to find them, it’s fun to look at them, it’s fun to talk about them with my kids.”

At the Expo, society volunteers — some decked out in  homemade knitted mushroom hats or mushroom print shirts — also had educational posters for sale, instructions for growing mushrooms at home using agar, and free samples of mushroom risotto prepared by chefs from Sorrentino's using locally picked mushrooms.

Jack Farrell

About the Author: Jack Farrell

Jack Farrell joined the St. Albert Gazette in May, 2022.
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