Mycotopia: A tour of the fungal wonderland at Menemsha Hills

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A handful of fully grown Armillaria, or honey mushrooms. —Sam Moore

Rainstorms and gray skies this past weekend drove some indoors, but on Sunday an enthusiastic group of Islanders roamed happily through the wet woods of Chilmark’s Menemsha Hills. Poison ivy and ticks be damned, they searched high and low for mushrooms — the treasures of a mysterious fungal kingdom that’s best explored on wet days.

After a long, dry summer, last week’s downpours were just the ticket for this parched parcel of woods, and mushrooms were bursting up everywhere. Some grow from spore to specimen in a matter of days, triggered by moisture, and the dripping undergrowth along North Road was a marvel of miscellaneous mycelia.

It’s ripe fruit for a discerning eye, and Wesley Price, mycologist and founder of the Cape Cod Mycological Society, spends a lot of time looking. Along with his young daughter Lucy, he traveled from Yarmouth for his second tour with The Trustees of Reservations. He was surprised by the turnout. The parking lot was jammed, and cars lined the road as eager mushroom enthusiasts in raincoats and hiking boots gathered around for a taste of toadstool teaching.

There are three types of people who typically crawl around in the woods to find fungus: mycologists (those who study it), mycophiles (those who love it), and mycophagists (those who eat it). Even at the beginning, there were clues as to who might be who — several people munched on wild grapes in the parking lot as they waited for stragglers to arrive.

The group was too large for a traditional tour, and so became something of a fungal

organism itself, dispersing slowly up the path toward Prospect Hill. The toadstool seekers stretched out through the trees, uprooting specimens or plucking them from logs and branches to be identified by Mr. Price — or better yet, taking photos of them in situ, which can help differentiate between species that are superficially similar but grow in different habitats.

An excited circle formed upon each discovery, as Mr. Price gamely unraveled the specimen’s particular habitat and life history, aided by confident interjections from Lucy. What are its defining characteristics? Cap, gills, stalk, pores, size, color, habitat, smell? What stage of growth is it in? Who are its closest relatives? And for some, the most important question: Can I eat it?

To the last question, Mr. Price had a practiced, diplomatic reply. “I try not to answer that question directly anymore, because it’s a liability,” he said, grinning. In a kingdom of life with millions of species — where it is often only possible to tell the difference between species by making spore prints or by gene sequencing — it can be hard to tell with absolute certainty what you might ingest. “Let me rephrase that question,” one Islander asked. “Would you eat it?”

Those who spent the walk licking their chops weren’t disappointed — we found several robust clusters in the Armillaria genus, the widely eaten honey mushroom. Edibility aside, the group couldn’t help but admire how much they could find in the space of a few hundred yards. Fruiting bodies were everywhere in these wet woods, in an astonishing diversity of shapes, colors, and qualities.

Besides the earth-toned palette you would expect to encounter — soft browns, milky whites, pallid yellows — we found bright oranges and deep purples, shimmering violets and warm reds. There were tiny caps sprouting on stems the width of toothpicks, plucked and held delicately between thumb and forefinger, and massive, saucer-sized umbrellas on carrot-thick stems. A lingering glance just about anywhere was rewarded with a universe of subtle complexity, standing solitary in the undergrowth or clustered in dense communities on a log.

A village of tiny, pinwheeled Marasmius capillaris mushrooms sprouted from a fallen oak leaf; a small, young city of armillaria burst around the base of an oak tree (they would mature, in another few days, into delectable elegance); the glistening, pale half-dollar umbrella of Cortinarius iodes, and the clear, quintessential, Super Mario red cap of a Russula mushroom.

The star of the show was another species of Cortinarius: difficult to identify, large, deep

purple, with a fuzzy, stippled “button” in its early stages that ruptures in mature specimens into a broad, gilled umbrella. “I’ve only seen this once before. Incredible,” Mr. Price said.

Molly Peach, the Trustees educator who corralled these mycophiles in the first place, gently plunked each specimen into a green bucket for further identification. By the end of the tour, it was flush with fungi. In almost three hours, the group had traveled only a quarter-mile up the trail.

“Daddy, let’s go home,” Lucy said, as the group stood clustered around a particularly nice specimen. “We are home,” he replied.

For more information on The Trustees of Reservations activities, visit thetrustees.org/things-to-do.