Sunday, May 9, 2010

The tools of the trade

Mushroom picking is a great hobby for many reasons, but given the current global economic crisis, one of the major benefits is that it is almost free and requires very little financial investment (maybe this is the reason why it is such a popular hobby in Russia). One could say that with a lot less than US$50, it is possible to acquire all 'necessary' gadgets (note the quotes in necessary). Indeed, one does not need much to join the select group of mushroomers around the globe (actually - not so select), and I would say that the only two things that are really necessary are the membership to a mycological club in your area or a good mushroom field guide. Although I used 'or' instead of 'and', I think that, whenever possible, getting both things is the best idea since there is no good substitute for knowledge and experience. So, here are the tools of the trade:

1) Field Guide
A good field guide will teach you how to and help you identify some of the mushrooms you are going to find in the woods and lawns around your house. Very rapidly you'll see that you may end needing more than one guide and, in my opinion, collecting field guides may be a hobby by itself. These nice books are filled with identification keys and many beautiful photos which you'll want to browse many times. Given the huge variety of mushrooms in the world, no field guide will allow you to identify all the mushrooms you find, which may add some extra emotion to the hobby (if you are really lucky and good you may even identify new species). Some good options for North American mushroom field guides are the Falcon Guide - North American Mushrooms, the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms and the A Field Guide to Mushrooms: North America (Peterson Field Guide). For those interested in edible mushrooms, 100 Edible Mushrooms by Michael Kuo is a very good start. The approximate cost of a decent field guide is US$15.

2) A pocket knife
You will need a small knife to help you dig and cut your mushrooms in the woods. It is a good idea to use a knife to help you remove the whole mushroom from the ground, specially when you are learning about identification. Many mushrooms have parts which stay under the ground (volvas can be hidden under the earth) and which can be essential for proper identification. Also, some mushrooms have features like hollow stipes (stipe is the same as stem in mycologese) which need to be cut open to be properly examined. Last, if you are picking mushrooms for the kitchen you will want to remove dirt and little creatures that may be living on your findings before taking them home. Although, any pocket knife will do the job, if you want to impress your friends, you can buy a mycology pocket knife, which comes with a a small brush attached to one end which can be used to clean your mushrooms. If you choose the cheap option, it will cost you approximately US$5-6 and if you choose the expensive one, it costs around US$35.

3) Paper bags or basket
Mushrooms don't like to be kept in plastic bags and they can go bad very fast if you do it. Most mushroomers use either paper bags or baskets to keep their findings. The advantage of the paper bag is that you can take notes about the mushroom (e.g. habitat and location) on the bag itself, reducing the chance of you forgetting the important details of a particular specimen. The advantage of the basket is that you can keep many mushrooms on it at the same time (although you risk over-doing on the mushroomer look). I usually carry both with me when I am in the woods. Some people improvise their baskets by cutting old milk bottles or plastic containers and, if you are into recycling, it may be a good idea (plus - it is totally free). A bag of brown paper sandwich bags costs approximately US$2 and usually comes with 50 units.

4) Insect repellent
Unless your skin is thicker than mine and you don't mind the mosquito bites and ticks, I highly suggest spraying some DEET on your clothes. DEET is very cheap and may reduce the risk of you getting the wrong bug. Although the risk is low, I've heard of people getting Lyme disease by mushroom picking in the woods around DC. A bottle of DEET costs around US$8.

5) A walking stick
Some people prefer to buy fancy "professional" looking walking sticks but since I am advertising mushroom picking as a cheap hobby, I would suggest finding a nice long and straight stick in the forest (there are plenty in the ground) and claiming it for yourself. It is free and works the same (total cost US$0).

6) A magnifying glass
This item is optional but it may help you (specially if you don't have super high acuity) see small features in mushrooms. This is very important since discrete characteristics of mushrooms can be important identification clues. Since I am not the most oriented person on earth, I bough myself a compass, which conveniently came with a magnifying glass on it. It costs less than US$5 and it solves two problems at the same time. If you have the money, a GPS is not a bad idea either...

In conclusion, with US$35 dollars or less you are ready to start picking your mushrooms and enjoying hundreds of hours of fresh air in the woods (or just around the block). Furthermore, once you get good at identifying mushrooms, and if you are brave enough, you can start collecting edible mushrooms (morels are a good start since there aren't many poisonous look-alikes), and save some money on you grocery bill.

Last, if you decide to join a mycological club, it can cost around US$20/year and It is totally worth the money. If you want to buy any of the items listed here, you can just follow the links or buy them at The Mushroomer Store (an partner) following the link on the top right corner or clinking here.

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