It's fall, and while tourists are heading to northeastern PA for the fall foliage, those in the know are foraging beneath the golden canopy in search of the season's feral bounty, the wild mushroom.
While it's one thing to capture a wild mushroom, it's a totally different task to identify the plant, determine whether it is safe and delicious to eat, or is inedible-either with a texture of leather, a taste of mud, or toxic, even deadly.
Finally, once you are absolutely certain, the proof is in the tasting - or the cooking - and that separates the gourmets from the self-victimized.
There is another, a better solution.
Join the mycologically-inclined, learn Mushroom I.D. with biologist Joe Lanklais at the Carbon County Environmental Education Center. Two sessions remain, both on Monday evenings from 6 to 8 p.m., September 23 and 30.
"People go out and collect mushrooms," Lanklais said. "They bring them in and I identify them and explain them."
"Fall is one of the best times of the year for mushroom varieties," Said Susan Gallagher, chief naturalist at the Center. "It is a good time to get out and look for them. Some come out earlier, some come out later, but if you want to find the greatest diversity, fall is the best time. That is why we have this program every year in the fall."
Although the fall is the height of the mushroom season, the recent session of the Mushroom I.D. program was described by one participant, Marie Stoves, as, "Slim pickings."
Usually two tables of full of varieties of wild mushrooms. Only half a table was filled. "It's a little thin this week," said Gallagher. "That's because we haven't had any rain. The underground plant systems are in place. They are just not fruiting."
Stoves said she had been foraging at Owl Creek and the Ukrainian Homestead in Lehighton and only found four or five varieties of wild mushrooms. "Usually, in a two-hour walk, I find 15 or 20 varieties of mushrooms. I try to pick a little bit of each variety. I used my GPS and mark where I find them so I can go back and get more. That way, I am not picking them all at once."
Steve Behun likes going mushroom foraging with sons Stephen and William. He teaches them to distinguish between the edible and the nonedible varieties by observing the spores and the gills. "When I was in Tamaqua high school, Joe Lanklais was my biology teacher."
Why bother searching for wild mushrooms? It's all in the eating.
Jack Robinson likes oyster mushrooms rolled in breadcrumbs and fried. His favorite mushroom is the Trumpet of Death which he says is "good in an omelette." Marie Stoves likes coral mushrooms which she might either sauté in butter with a little garlic or dip into a tempura batter and fry.
Susan Gallagher likes Pa-pinkies and Ram's Head mushrooms. "Anything that you batter-dip and fry, of course is going to taste delicious."
If you find a wild mushroom and you can't wait for the next Mushroom I.D. session, he could always bring it to the Center, and this a fair chance that Gallagher will be able to identify it. "There's an iPhone app called Wild Mushrooms of North America and Europe by Roger Phillips," Gallagher noted. "You could take your iPhone into the woods and it will help you identify some of them. Any of the mushroom field guides would be helpful."
The Carbon County Environmental Education Center is located at 151 E. White Bear Dr. In Summit Hill, near Mauch Chunk Lake Park. For information see www.carboneec.org, or call 570-645-8597.