My new book The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America has been included as an Editor's Pick in Amazon's Big Fall Books Preview. Scroll down to read editor Jon Foro's review. He calls it "a ton of fun—equal parts adventure, natural history, and gastronomy." Foro adds: "Naturalists (who aren’t necessarily foodies) will learn about some of the more exotic fungi and their uses on the table, while foodies (who might not be naturalists) will find the loamy details of the mushroom trail enlightening." Loamy details. I like that!
The hot dry weather in the Pacific Northwest has pushed the berry season along at a rapid clip. It looks like the red huckleberries have already peaked through much of the lowlands around Puget Sound, with our native blackberries close behind.
On Sunday I took a class berry-picking on Bainbridge Island. Whereas two years ago on the same date we had bushes overflowing with red huckleberries and even salmonberries, this year the red hucks were already long past their prime and there wasn't a single salmonberry in sight. The sunny spots still had a few trailing blackberries, and we found one patch of blackcap raspberries. I watched a towhee skillfully nabbing huckleberries on the wing, a hint of where all the berries had gone.
Nevertheless, we managed to pick enough huckleberries to make berry tartlets (see recipe here) back at the park center, putting a sweet exclamation on a day pleasantly divided between field and kitchen.
When beginner mushroom hunters ask me how to find fungi, I have two answers. First, join a mycological society and go on a foray; there's no substitute for spending time in the field with a seasoned pro. The second answer might be more surprising: learn your trees.
Experienced mushroom hunters in southwestern Oregon and northern California know the many culinary treats that hide among roots of Notholithocarpus; boletivores of the Rockies are skilled at locating high meadows dotted with Picea; and don't even get me started on the need—the absolute necessity—to know the habits of Abies grandisif you plan to look for edible fungi on the east slope of the Cascades in springtime.
Knowing your trees is a huge part of the mushroom puzzle. This is because many species of fungi have symbiotic relationships (aka mycorrhizal associations) with trees and shrubs. The fungi and trees exchange water and nutrients, and in some cases the bond is so strong that the fungus will form a protective and permanent sheath around the tree's root tips, a sort of shotgun wedding.
For those of us hunting mushrooms in the western U.S.—in the Pacific Northwest in particular—the trees to know are overwhelmingly conifers. I have a whole library of books about the life histories and identification of trees in my region, and a new one has just found a prominent place among them. Michael Edward Kauffmann's Conifers of the Pacific Slope: A Field Guide to the Conifers of California, Oregon, and Washington is an important addition, and a broader companion to his earlier work, Conifer Country, which focuses on the rich conifer biodiversity of the Klamath Mountain region.
Of the world's 600 or so species of conifer, more than half populate the Pacific Rim, and 65 species can be found along the Pacific Slope of North America. Northwestern California is the epicenter of conifer diversity on the continent. A hike into the Russian Wilderness's "miracle mile" in the Klamath Mountains will reward the conifer enthusiast with potentially 17 (maybe 18) species, one of the richest assemblages on the planet.
Kauffmann has been mentored by some of the best. He dedicates his new book to John O. Sawyer, one of the pioneering botanists of California, who died in 2012. Stephen Arno, whose Northwest Trees has been considered a must-have for tree fanciers since its publication more than 35 years ago, calls Kauffmann's guide "comprehensive" yet "user-friendly." The book is divided into sections for each of the three families represented: Cupressaceae (cypresses, junipers, cedars, and redwoods); Pinaceae (firs, Douglas-firs, spruces, pines, larches, and hemlocks); and Taxaceae (yews). Most species descriptions are accompanied by multiple photos depicting bark pattern, cones, and foliage, along with range maps. Text includes discussion of habitat and other observations and remarks.
Tree geeks will need this book because Kauffmann is generous with information about locating some of the more hard-to-find species. Never seen Picea breweriana, the Brewer spruce? Try driving the Bigfoot Highway near Happy Camp, California. Or the beautiful subalpine larch, Larix lyallii? Hike into Washington's Pasayten Wilderness and check north-facing slopes above 6,000 feet.
It pays to be arbor-aware. Mushroom hunters and foragers in general benefit from recognizing a landscape's tree composition, whether looking for fungi, wild greens, berries, nuts, or roots. Besides, trees are some of nature's most beautiful creations, and recognizing their many forms and life histories makes us all the richer.
Author of award-winning The Mushroom Hunters and Fat of the Land, Langdon Cook is a writer, instructor, and lecturer on wild foods and the outdoors. Cook has been profiled in Bon Appetit, WSJ magazine, and Salon.com, and his writing has appeared in numerous magazines, newspapers, and online journals. His on-screen credits include the PBS TV series "Food Forward" and The Travel Channel's "Trip Flip."