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Mushrooms having best season in decades


[Release date]2018-10-19
[Core hints]Dugie Russell opened the back end of his hatchback to reveal a trove of treasures, but it wasn't what you might expect.I
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Dugie Russell opened the back end of his hatchback to reveal a trove of treasures, but it wasn't what you might expect. 
 
Inside were enormous mushrooms, two of which weighed about 30 pounds each. Russell tottered a bit before he could get a good hold on them — one in each arm — for a photo. 
 
It was the second time that day Russell, 80, had filled the trunk of his car with what are called hens of the woods — a bushy, sturdy edible mushroom with overlapping caps that resemble ruffles, often found at the base of a tree. 
 
Its shape, Russell said, makes it an easy mushroom to identify. Plus, he said, "it's one of the most delicious mushrooms you can eat." He had spent the day driving around, giving "hens" to firefighters, friends, and basically anyone who would take them off his hands. 
 
This year, hens of the woods are spawning faster and bigger than Russell, of Beverly, can recall in his 50 years of mushroom hunting. He estimated that over three days, he had collected more than 300 pounds of them. 
 
"I never thought I'd see it like this," he said. 
 
It seems mushrooms in general are having a banner year. Joe Choiniere, Massachusetts Audubon's expert in mycology — the study of fungi — in Central Massachusetts, called it "a bonanza."
 
"I doubt that I can think of a year that I've seen this much," said Choiniere, regional property manager at Broad Meadow Brook in Worcester and Wachusett Meadow in Princeton, both MassAudubon properties. 
 
Choiniere said July's rains paired with a damp September — Salem's rainfall for the month was 2 inches above normal — could explain the mushroom boom. 
 
"There hasn’t been any cold weather or frost really to shut them down," he said last week. 
 
Gary Gilbert, a Manchester resident who teaches classes on mushroom identification, said a combination of rain and heat led to the exceptional season. It's especially obvious because the region has experienced drought over the last three years. Dry weather doesn't bode well for mushrooms.
 
"It's been really, really hard when you get a month or couple months of drought," he said.
 
And though the weather has started to cool, Gilbert said, it doesn't mean the mushrooms are done. 
 
"If a mushroom is young and growing strongly, a little bit of snow isn't going to make them die," he said. 
 
Gilbert has studied mushrooms for 40 years and said it's the best season he's seen in at least 20. He rattled off several kinds of mushrooms that have thrived this year in the Northeast, from the bright orange chicken of the woods to black trumpets — a dark, funnel-shaped mushroom that tends to grow near vernal pools and drainage runoff areas. 
 
"They grow gregariously," he said. "When you find them you usually find a whole carpet of them."
 
Choiniere said this time of year he's seen an abundance of jack-o'-lanterns, a bright orange mushroom that grows in clusters at the base of trees. This one, however, is poisonous. 
 
Gilbert suggests people go out with a mushroom expert first before trying to identify and pick them on their own. He routinely hosts mushroom walks for the public — his next one is Sunday in Anne's Woods in Manchester — during which he explains different mushrooms the group finds and whether they're edible.  
 
"The general rule of thumb is to know the mushroom and to know its lookalikes equally well," Gilbert said. "You learn them like you learn a foreign language."
 
As for picking, especially the bushy hens of the woods, most mushroom hunters say their freezers are full and they're done for the year. 
 
"I'm just ignoring them," Gilbert said.
 
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