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Mushrooms serve a greater purpose
Theresa Augustin shows off a cluster of chicken of the woods mushrooms at Norfolk Botanical Garden in Norfolk, Va. - photo by Photos courtesy Norfolk Botanical Garden

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — There’s always a fungus among us ... in lawns, gardens and woods"Fungi are part of our everyday lives," says Theresa Augustin, curator of natural areas at Norfolk Botanical Garden in Norfolk, Va.

Fungi help us in many ways, she explains. They break down organic matter in the soil, break down toxic materials in contaminated soil into nontoxic components, provide vital medicines like penicillin and provide bubbles in beer and bread.

"Mycorrhizal fungi form a mutually beneficial relationship with the roots of plants," she says.

"This enables the plant’s roots to have a wider reach in soil. The fungus enables the plant to absorb nutrients such as phosphorus and inorganic nitrogen. The plant provides the fungi with moisture and carbohydrates.

"Plants languish without this relationship."

Fungi and its relationship with plants at the botanical garden took center stage recently when Alan Muskat, known to fungi fans as The Mushroom Man, recently led a foraging walk at the botanical garden. He discussed the value of mushrooms for food and medicines.

A mushroom hunter in western North Carolina, where the Asheville Mushroom Club is popular, Muskat is a Princeton graduate with a degree in philosophy of ecology. His formal training commits him to spirituality and self-help writings and programs, as seen on his website His website, No Taste Like Home, promotes naturally found foods like edible flowers, greens and leeks, as well as mushrooms through foraging walks, catered dinners, recipes and a blog.

Muskat wants people to experience and appreciate what wild foods are out there, just waiting for perfect pickings.

"No Taste Like Home is not about how to get more," he says, referring to the mission statement at his website.

"It’s about appreciating what we already have."

For Muskat, it’s about appreciating the diversity of mushrooms found in the forest. Mushroom are beneficial and far less dangerous than many Americans believe, he insists. To start with, it’s safe to handle or even smell any mushroom — take a sniff and you’ll find they smell like almonds, cucumbers, garlic, raw potatoes, seafood, maple sugar and so on. The matsutake mushroom, known both for its flavor and medicinal value, smells like a cross between red hots and dirty socks, according to his e-book. The jack-o’-lantern mushroom glows in the dark.

"Fungophobia aside, out of several thousand types of mushrooms on this continent, only five or six are deadly poisonous," he says.

"However, there are a few dozen more that won’t kill you but will make you wish you were dead."

Certain mushrooms are a good food source and certain types — truffles, for example — can command thousands of dollars, adds Augustin.

In general, Muskat recommends you eat mushrooms cooked, in particular wild ones. Yes, you eat button mushrooms raw, but wild ones won’t necessarily be as forgiving.

Western North Carolina is home to 3,000 types of mushrooms and counting, according to Muskat. The best season for mushrooms runs July-October, although oyster mushrooms are found in winter and morels in April.

Lobster mushrooms, which look and taste like lobster, are the most common and popular. Chicken of the woods taste like chicken breast, while honey mushrooms are sweet and tangy, he says; he found and sold a 50-pound chicken of the woods cluster to several restaurants for a total of $150.

For Muskat, mushroom hunting is the best sustainable food shopping there is. When you pick a mushroom, the fungus that created it is still there, he says, so you preserve what nature can create again.

Asked to name his favorite mushroom, he hesitates, but finally says he likes the young reishi mushrooms found in June.

"Just as there is no right or wrong way to garden, there are no good or bad mushrooms," Muskat says.

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