Foraging for Answers: What Mysteries do Mushrooms Hold?

Following Steve Ness through the old growth forest of the Olympic Peninsula, I have a sudden thought: “I’ll never be able to hike through the forest the same way again.” Previously ignored dead leaves, rotting wood and tree branches now have the potential to hide hidden gems: mushrooms.

Mushroom “wellness” has exploded on the health scene this year. Sales of foods containing medicinal mushrooms have surged by as much as 800 percent year-on-year, according to Food Navigator. Whole Foods has listed functional mushrooms as one of its top food trends for 2018. Mushroom varieties like reishi and lion’s mane are showing up on shelves in the form of coffees, teas and smoothies.

A forest full of fungi

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A lion’s mane mushroom. Photo courtesy of Steve Ness.

Ness is an expert mushroom forager who knows the forest like his own backyard. Seeing as we only have to walk 10 minutes from his backyard to reach the forest, he has an advantage.

He takes us to examine an agarikon mushroom behind a fallen log he’s been watching since it was a “baby.” He pulls up a Dyer’s polypore mushroom from under dead leaves that’s used for dying wool. He leads us down to the river to reveal Chanterelles hiding in the long grass. It’s a fascinating scavenger hunt that has captivated Ness for decades.

“I think its the mystery of their life cycle, they just hold so many life histories,” Ness said. “How much do we really know about mushrooms?”

Good question. There are over 10,000 known species of mushrooms in North America, but scientists agree this might be only a third of what’s really out there. Ness has joined the citizen scientist movement to learn more about fungi and how it benefits humans and the planet.

An untapped resource

Today’s trek is part of this scientific field trip. He was recently awarded a grant to have 30 waxcap mushrooms analyzed for their DNA. We fill out a card for the mushrooms we can’t identify, entering information like location, nearby trees, smell and snapping photos. Fun fact: Mushroom DNA is actually more closely related to humans’ than to other plants’.

“It’s all interconnected,” Ness said.

Scientists are learning more about the amazing benefits of fungi. They are studying mushrooms’ ability to break down carbon-based compounds in soil—testing their ability to help clean up oil spills and filter contaminated water.

The health benefits of fungi are also being revealed. Scientists are currently studying the lion’s mane mushroom for its ability to enhance memory, which could potentially be used to help people with Alzheimer’s and dementia.

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