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This story originally aired in the Nov. 12, 2023 episode of Inside Appalachia.
On an overcast but hot morning, a mushroom hunt began with a car ride to a secret spot near the home of West Virginia master naturalists Shawn Means and Amy McLaughlin.
The pair run a boutique vacation rental called Lafayette Flats in Fayetteville, next to the New River Gorge Natural Park and Preserve.
They lead eco tours for people who stay in their flats, pointing out unique flora, fauna and fungi in the area.
Fungi are especially popular on the tours. “Mushrooms have been so hot lately,” McLaughlin said during the drive.
Means and McLaughlin were quick to name reasons why mushrooms have gained such popularity. They cited three: the pandemic got people interested in sourcing local foods; being outside during the pandemic was one of your few recreation options; and HBO Max created a hit series about a type of mushroom that takes over their host, creating a ‘shroom zombie.
Cordyceps, the fungi fictionalized as creating human zombies, really do exist. But they do not eat human brains, as the TV series shows them doing.
“There are mushrooms that are parasitic and they do have the same name, the genus as the ones in that show,” Means said. “But at this time, we do not believe that they will inhabit human bodies. But they do take over bugs.”
McLaughlin explained how cordyceps take over bugs.
“They get inside of the bugs into their nervous system. And they do take over them,” Mclaughlin said. “When the fungus is ready to produce the fruiting body, it comes up and kills the bug and comes up out of the bug.”
Teasing aside, the couple are eager to introduce this reporter to the joy of mushrooms. Two main paths are open to those interested in adding edible (and non-parasitic) mushrooms to their diet: farming or foraging. Misidentifying a fungus to use as food or medicine can be lethal, so foragers tend to hunt in packs until they’re experts. Experienced hunters like McLaughlin and Means are in hot demand.
Emerging from the car to search for mushrooms, Means quoted a proverb known to every mushroom enthusiast in America: “There are old mushroom hunters, and there are bold mushroom hunters. But there are no old, bold mushroom hunters.”
In other words, McLaughlin reiterated, it is a good idea to be super-careful when hunting fungi.
The couple led the way into a hilly forest. Birdsong filled the air. Dry leaves crackled underfoot — which was a bad sign, Means pointed out. Mushrooms proliferate after rainfall.
A mushroom, known officially as a fruiting body, is the smallest part of a larger living organism that needs a lot of water and can cover miles — all out of sight to the human eye.
“You’re in the woods and you see the trees and you see the mushrooms. And then if you just stop and think the vast majority of the fungus is underneath us, you know, and just think about that for a minute,” McLaughlin said. “Like the dark, the dark soil, the earth underneath us and that huge organism that’s under there that’s pushing all the fruiting bodies up. I think that’s fascinating to think about.”
There are also mushrooms that grow from wood rather than soil, but this hunt focused on chanterelles, which do grow in the ground. Unfortunately, the hunt did not go well. The forest floor proved dry and barren.
With a leap to a nearby ridge, Means attempted to find the fungi on a slope that might have encouraged water runoff, something the mushrooms would have liked. “I want to jump up here and see if I can see any,” Means said.
This also proved fruitless. “I don’t see any mushrooms at all,” Means called back before reappearing at the edge of the ledge, empty-handed.
Chanterelles would have been easy to spot, had any been around. Popular for teaching new foragers because of their bright yellow color and distinctive fluted edges that make them look like a tiny trumpet, they would be hard to mix up with any other mushroom — but not impossible.
McLaughlin described the most likely case of mistaken identity.
“There’s one called a, we affectionately call it a ‘jack-o’-lantern mushroom,’” McLauglin said. “Once you learn the difference, it doesn’t look anything like a chanterelle, it has very different characteristics. But it’s kind of the same color. So if you were a newbie, and you just were, you know, going through the woods and saw that color, it’s possible you could get excited. And those are poisonous. They’re not going to kill you, but they’re going to make you sick.”
The hunting party for chanterelles did prove successful after a few minutes, but it was still a disappointment.
Means pointed to an object on the forest floor and said in a sad tone, “One chanterelle, and it’s old.”
After another fruitless half-hour, Means and McLaughlin drove back to their home, promising to cook up some mushrooms they foraged the day before in a “just in case” plan B.
In their well-appointed kitchen decorated with mushroom art, Means hauled a double handful of chanterelles from the fridge.
Means cooked down the little fluted trumpets in butter until they were lightly crispy, mixed in a small amount of honey, and served this over vanilla ice cream.
From skeptic to enthusiast, this reporter declared, “Mmm, that’s good.”
Chanterelle ice cream sundaes proved very tasty indeed, a combination of crunch, sweetness, and two smooth textures, one cold, one warm.
Mushroom hunting with experts such as Means and McLaughlin might also be described as a rare treat.
However, if learning to identify the roughly 2,500 species that grow in central Appalachia feels daunting, those interested in fungi could try mushroom farming instead. It is safer, simpler and less subject to the vagaries of rainfall.
To home-grow mushrooms, you need a log or a cardboard box, and some spawn.
Ben Harder runs Den Hill Farms and Fungi in Christiansburg, Virginia. The farm offers workshops on cultivating fresh mushrooms, and business is booming. One of his most popular workshops teaches people to inoculate logs with spawn, also known as “mycelium.”
“We are mushroom farmers for eight years,” Harder said. They started with inoculating logs before moving into some specialized media like straw mixed with compost.
Inoculating a log means drilling a hole and pushing the mycelium into the wood. There it will feed and be fed in a symbiotic relationship, taking in carbohydrates from the log, then pushing out B vitamins and minerals like potassium through the fruiting body.
Harder vends at the Blacksburg farmers market, and it was there that he shared his personal entry story into mushroom farming.
“An Appalachian Trail thru hiker that happened to live in Blacksburg was coming through, and they were trying to sell these shiitake logs that they had inoculated,” Harder said. “Mushrooms were taking this waste product, a log, that is worth nothing but firewood, and making a high value retail product out of it. And that really blew my mind. You know, they’re making something out of nothing. And so it’s very exciting. And so he sold me the logs. That year, I killed ‘em because I left them inside of the barn and they dried out. But the next year, I started inoculating logs.”
That second round of inoculated logs went better, and Den Hill never looked back. In just a couple of years, they went from vending 100 percent fruits and vegetables to 40 percent produce and 60 percent fungi. Their bestseller home-growing method is not logs, though; it is a countertop kit.
“Doing the tabletop farm or the mushroom fruiting block on your counter, it’s really quite an experience,” Harder said. “Because it looks so beautiful. It’s like a living bouquet.”
Countertop box kits were everywhere during the pandemic, and they have stuck around. Harder sells bags of spawn to put in your own box. Walmart sells cardboard blocks full of specific spawn.
Stash the open box in a dark corner of your kitchen counter, keep it wet but not soaking, and in a couple of weeks, you have mushrooms.
“You can just kind of see it come and then when it hits prime, you get to just pluck off the mushrooms and eat them. And they even last a while in the fridge. You can keep them for a week or two,” Harder said. “So it’s a lot of fun and like a learning experience to see how mushrooms work.”
It is also educational. Den Hill sells the bulk of their fungal products to families with young kids, which pleases Harder immensely.
“It’s really been amazing, seeing the youth — especially like five to 12-year-olds — that are really showing interest in coming out of the woodwork,” Harder said.
Harder gets excited about the science projects he has helped kids with. Mushrooms tend to capture young imaginations for many reasons, not least because they capture environmental toxins.
“Oyster mushrooms can live on an oil spill and clean it and produce safe mushrooms to eat. It’s really incredible,” Harder said. “I have kids that show up and they want to do their fifth grade science project on building blocks or making insulation out of mycelium. And they need mycelium. And we’ve had other five year olds know all these different strains and want to grow them.”
Harder also delighted in vegans and experimental chefs growing tabletop farms for the joy of eating those fresh fruiting bodies, sometimes as an alternative to meat. Two of the most popular countertop mushrooms are lion’s mane, which tastes like lobster, and oyster, which tastes like mushrooms.
When it comes to a kitchen kit, the world is your oyster, Harder said.
“We have 24 different types of mushrooms in our culture library that we’re actively growing.”
The farming and foraging worlds are not mutually exclusive; most mycelium appreciation communities tend to be friendly with each other regardless of methodology. Harder thought this was in part because mushrooms are so hyper-local.
“I think mushrooms create community by having to be a decentralized system, where cultures and strains and mushroom fruiting bodies can be sold and traded locally, because of their lack of ship-ability, and kind of regional availability,” Harder said.
Kits will bring mushrooms safely and easily into your kitchen. For the thrill of a woodland hunt, hunt down a mushroom club. These are prolific in Appalachia.
Whether they are foraged or farmed, fungi can be fantastic fun.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.
The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts and culture.