Mushrooms 101 at the Stafford Library

By Eric Englund | Dec 11, 2019
Photo by: Jay Mann

Stafford Township — Gina Conti has loved eating mushrooms all her life, but five years ago, she decided to take that interest to a higher level. She did a lot of research on the varieties of edible mushrooms as well as those that put your life in danger should you consume them.

At the Stafford branch of the Ocean County Library on Dec. 7, Conti spoke on “Uncovering the Fascinating World of Mushrooms.” Her deep interest makes her a mycologist, related to the branch of biology concerned with the study of fungi, including their genetic and biochemical properties, their taxonomy and their use to humans as a source for tinder, traditional medicine and food, as well as their dangers, such as toxicity and infection.

She said a basic fact is that all mushrooms are fungi and they produce spores, similar to pollen or seeds, which allows them to spread or travel by the wind. The rest of the mushroom then matures, typically living in soil or wood.

A circulation supervisor at the Lakewood branch, Conti said all types of edible mushrooms contain varying degrees of protein and fiber. They also contain B vitamins as well as a powerful antioxidant called selenium, which helps to support the immune system and prevent damage to cells and tissues.

“White button mushrooms are one of the few non-animal sources of Vitamin D,” Conti said. “When they are grown, whether indoor or outdoor, they are exposed to UV light, which increases their concentration of Vitamin D.”

She said that while the history of mushroom cultivation may be up for debate, there’s no question Pennsylvania has been and continues to be a hotbed of mushroom production. In 1885, florist William Swayne spawned the idea of growing mushrooms beneath his greenhouse benches. Encouraged by the results, he and Harry Hicks built the first mushroom house, at the corner of Apple Alley and Willow Street, in 1902. Swayne’s son eventually added a spawn plant and cannery.

Others followed suit, including many Italian immigrants who were working in the stone quarries. Generations later, more than 300 family farms have consolidated, and Pennsylvania’s 57 mushroom farms, most of them in southern Chester County, produce 64 percent of all white button mushrooms consumed in the United States.

Conti said she took a one-week course on mushrooms in Pennsylvania, jokingly calling it more of a “boot camp.”

“I thought it was going to be about gardening and foraging,” she said. “It turned out to be much more, and that’s what really got me interesting in to pursuing this.”

Conti said white buttons are the most common mushroom found in the produce aisle at supermarkets, along with portobello, cremini and shiitake.

“The buttons are usually brown and white,” she said. “Portobellos have a lot of flavor, and sometimes they can be used for a meat substitute.”

But mushrooms you must stay clear of are the Death Cap, Destroyer Angel and Deadly Galerina.

“The poison won’t break through the skin, so there’s no problem in handling them,” she said. “But eating them is very harmful, if not fatal. Many people develop kidney and liver disease.”

For people looking for edible wild mushrooms in Ocean County, a very popular species is Laetiporus sulphureus.

“They’re orange colored,” she said. “One of its names is chicken of the woods, because people say it tastes just like chicken.”

She said another one frequently found locally is the honey mushroom, but you have to “very careful” because it resembles some of the deadly ones. Conti suggests that anyone on the hunt for wild mushrooms should get a detailed field guide so that you can tell the safe from the toxic.

She also advises that you should never eat edible wild mushrooms raw; they should be cooked first to prevent illness.

“Don’t harvest mushrooms from suburban lawns,” she said. “The grass has probably been treated with fertilizers and pesticides, which the mushrooms can absorb.”

She said that while mushrooms are a staple at restaurants, they could find themselves more frequently in school lunches.

“The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) is researching this,” said Conti. “I certainly think they should be included because they have a lot of health benefits and (are) low on calories.”

— Eric Englund

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