Gardening: Feast on fungi

By Meg Liptrot

Gathering or growing mushrooms is fun, but take care, says Meg Liptrot.

Mushrooms freshly gathered have a wonderful aroma. Photo / Meg Liptrot
Mushrooms freshly gathered have a wonderful aroma. Photo / Meg Liptrot

It's time to forage for mushrooms or grow your own. Autumn rain after a long, dry spell is the perfect time to start your mushroom-foraging expeditions. Hunting for field mushrooms is fun for families and common field mushrooms - as well as non-edible species - can be found anywhere there is grazed pasture.

Our family often made an autumn pilgrimage to Hunua, where our great-aunt Lorrie ran her farm. She was a strong woman with a face creased with smile lines.

We soon filled bags with earthy-smelling, brown-gilled field mushrooms. It was a bonus if we happened on that magical sight of a mushroom circle - a perfect ring of mushrooms, seemingly arranged like seating for fairy folk.

Looking like an illustration from a children's book, we often spotted the poisonous red and white fly agaric toadstools under pine trees.

Mushroom expert Dr Ian Hall says toadstools and mushrooms are all collectively known as mushrooms, including truffles.

Not all poisonous mushrooms are as obvious as fly agaric and can fool even experienced gatherers.

Several exotic edible species - including birch bolete, porcini and saffron milk cap - can be found in forested areas with suitable trees, mainly in the South Island.

Some people are capitalising on the virtues of these delicacies and cultivating them for a reliable and safe harvest.

Mushroom appreciation is in its infancy here but there is a whole world to be discovered beyond the field mushroom which will add a new dimension to cooking.

Mushrooms are an excellent source of B vitamins and minerals such as selenium and zinc, plus protein, and some species are recognised for their benefits to health and disease prevention.

Hall is director of Truffle and Mushrooms Consulting and is trialling a range of exotic mushrooms which have a mycorrhizal relationship with their host tree - in other words the tree and the fungi mutually benefit each other.

The first trees inoculated with saffron milk cap were planted near Nelson in 2000 and started producing mushrooms 18 months later.

Nine years on, the plantation averages 4kg of mushrooms a tree and one year's mushroom harvest from a single tree is now of more value than the tree's timber. This species prefers low pH acidic soils and are hosted by the roots of pine or spruce trees.

Truffles prefer alkaline soil and some species are worth more than their weight in gold. There is potential for double cropping with mycorrhizal mushrooms, as many of the host trees will produce quality timber or nuts as well. For more info, go to effnz.co.nz or trufflesandmushrooms.co.nz

If you would like to try growing other types of edible mushrooms at home, visit mushroomgourmet.co.nz


Watch for imposters

• If in doubt throw it out. Tread carefully when foraging for mushrooms. You don't want poisonous imposters making their way into the frying pan. If you're keen to forage for edible fungi, go with someone who knows how to identify edible mushrooms, or take a guide book to help identify species.

• Dr Ian Hall's co-authored Edible and Poisonous Mushrooms of the World guide includes many found in New Zealand. You can download poisonous mushroom posters through a link on his website. Hall also works with the National Poisons Centre and says mushroom identification is fraught with difficulty and there have been many poisonings in New Zealand.

• The death cap mushroom is what it says - a killer - and it is now found throughout the country. The young mushroom can look a little like a small puffball or the edible straw mushroom when they begin to open. Hall says you need to know what you're looking for when correctly identifying a poisonous mushroom and important features may be overlooked by the uninitiated. In the case of the death cap, you will be lucky to survive without a liver transplant.

• To download poisonous mushroom posters go to trufflesandmushrooms.co.nz and click on "poisonous mushrooms". There is also a file translated into Chinese and Vietnamese.

• If you've eaten a mushroom you're concerned about, the National Poisons Centre says you should go straight to hospital. Save an uncooked mushroom of any you plan to eat for identification.

National Poisons Centre, ph 0800 764766.

- Herald on Sunday

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