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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Fabulous Fungi

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Sy Montgomery praises mushrooms despite their sometimes sullied reputation.


CURWOOD: Mushrooms, even the ones that may contain hidden cures for disease, don't usually get a lot of respect here in the United States. But elsewhere they are practically revered. For example, historian Valerie Pavlovna Wasson devoted 400 pages to the topic in her book Russians, Mushrooms, and History. Commentator Sy Montgomery looks at why we fear the magnificent fungi, and why we shouldn't.

MONTGOMERY: They appear overnight as if by magic, and disappear just as quickly. Their variety is staggering. They resemble parasols, lace, petals, tongues, ears, corals, Danish pastries. Forget Disney. Beneath our feet on a cool, wet day, we can find the original Magic Kingdom. The fungi, neither plant nor animal but a fabulous kingdom all its own.

Some of these strange and wonderful creatures have not only delighted the eye for centuries but often nourished humankind when almost no other food was available. And yet, like so many creatures of our diminishing misunderstood wilds, wild mushrooms strike fear into the hearts of many Americans. Let's face it: we are, as David Rora puts it in his book Mushrooms Demystified, fungo-phobic.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, peppered his landscapes with mushrooms only to create an air of gloom and death. D.H. Lawrence compared the mushroom to that most loathsome of creatures, the British bourgeoisie. Even Emily Dickinson insulted mushrooms in a short poem. "Had Nature any outcast face/Could she a sun condemn/Had Nature an escariot/That mushroom -- it is him."

One student in a mycology class was afraid to even touch the mushrooms the students found in the woods. When the professor, Rick Vanderpole, asked what was wrong, the student replied "Don't they hurt you?" For the record, no mushroom ever attacked a person, even when provoked. Touching mushrooms does not produce warts, rashes, or poisoning. And of the thousands of North American mushroom species, only 6 are known to be deadly poisonous.

Does this mean you should blindly gobble every fungus you see? Of course not. You needn't eat them to enjoy them. The fleshy fruits of fungi are a feast for the soul.

CURWOOD: Commentator Sy Montgomery is author of The Spell of The Tiger. She comes to us from New Hampshire Public Radio.



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