Wild mushrooms are just the tip of the iceberg.
FOR this year, stone fruits are over. Berries have been and gone. But another kind of fruit has begun to bloom. “If you get early rains and the earth’s still warm, then you get early fruiting of fungi,” explains Alison Pouliot. “They’re the ideal conditions to see mushrooms popping up.”
Each autumn, Ms Pouliot, who is a research scientist and photographer, runs a series of workshops on fungal ecology in several towns around central Victoria. For these few months, she goes fungus spotting nearly every day, and photographs and surveys what she finds.
Mushrooms, she’s quick to point out, are like the oranges dangling from a tree – they’re the fungal fruit. The fungal mass, known as the mycelium, grows underground all year round.
That’s the first thing to know – but there’s more. Fungi have colonised almost every kind of terrestrial habitat, from arid deserts to city backyards. Ms Pouliot says they matter for householders, not just scientists.
“If you’re thinking about how to live sustainably then you need a good appreciation of natural ecosystems. You need to be aware of the connections, whether it’s weather patterns, the way water moves through the earth, or understanding soils and vegetation,” she says.
Although they’re often overlooked, fungi are a critical part of those ecosystems: nearly all plants have fungal partners below the surface, helping their roots take up nutrients.
Even so, many of us look warily upon a clump of toadstools on our compost pile. Ms Pouliot says we need to challenge our preconceptions.
“They’re the earth’s major decomposers, so anyone who wants to improve their soil should take them into consideration. As soon as you put pesticides and toxins into an environment, fungi won’t grow. In a sense, they’re an indicator of a healthy environment,” she says.
In Australia, we have much a greater diversity of species than Europe, but we’ve only identified about one-tenth of them. So far, we know very little about what we’ve got and where it grows.
That’s where Fungimap comes in. Run by Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne, it enlists experts and enthusiasts to document the whereabouts of 115 target species.
Ms Pouliot says interest in the mapping project is growing, spawned in part by newfound enthusiasm for foraging. But while she considers wild mushrooms “an untapped food source”, she’s adamant that our culinary desires must come a distant second to general knowledge. Correct identification takes practice and care, because many species have poisonous lookalikes.
“There are so many fungi out there and many are edible, but I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to know what you’re picking. You should never ever collect anything unless you can be 100 per cent sure of its identification,” she says.
Ms Pouliot lives half the year here and half in Switzerland. She has two autumns, and hence, two mushroom seasons. Her fascination stemmed from sightings on childhood rambles through the bush. “They were always curious, bizarre things, like jewels of the forest,” she recalls.
“You see these amazing colours and forms. Some are shaped like starfish, some like mirror balls and some like cups. And some are so short lived – they only appear for a day or so and then they’re gone. There’s an intriguing, ephemeral quality about them.”