Spring is the season of the mushroom. Depending on where exactly you live, finding mushrooms in March, April, or May is a fun, educational, and practical activity. Going out to find wild mushrooms is an ancient tradition. For thousands of years, people have foraged and searched out tasty fungi, which are also very nutritional. Looking for wild mushrooms makes a great activity to do with your kids as a homeschooling lesson. And, if you know your edible species, you can also eat your lesson.
Collecting wild mushrooms is actually called hunting. Fungi enthusiasts don’t forage or search, they hunt. The term indicates how much people get into this activity and how much fun it can be. It can also be very serious, though. Be very, very careful about what mushrooms you pick and eat. Few substances on earth are as poisonous as certain mushrooms. Be sure to learn very clearly the differences between edible and poisonous mushrooms. For your first try at mushroom hunting, consider tagging along with an expert. And remember, if in doubt, throw it out. It is never worth trying a mushroom whose status is uncertain.
The Biology of the Mushroom
Mushrooms make a fascinating biology lesson because they are unlike all other organisms. For a time, they were considered to be a type of plant and were classified with them. Now, we know that fungi are a world apart. In taxonomy, the classification of organisms, the fungi get an entire kingdom to themselves. One major difference between fungi and plants is that plants make their own food through the process of photosynthesis and fungi do not. They also have different cell structures.
Here are some of the interesting characteristics of fungi:
- Fungi are eukaryotic. This means they have a type of cell in which the chromosomes are enclosed in a nucleus and which contains organelles. Plants, animals, and many microorganisms are also eukaryotes.
- Fungal cells grow in long, thread-like structures called hyphae.
- Some fungi are made of a single cell. An example is yeast.
- Fungi have cell walls like plants. Animals have cell membranes. Walls are more rigid than membranes.
- Like animals, fungi must take in compounds from the environment for energy.
- Fungi reproduce by ejecting spores. If you are allergic to mold, you know when this is happening in the spring!
- The study of fungi is called mycology.
Once your children have had a lesson in fungal biology, it’s time for the fun part: hunting! The best locations in which to find edible, wild mushrooms are the northeast, Midwest, Pacific Northwest, and Appalachia. Do some research about your local area before setting out. You should be able to find a nearby mycology club or mushroom hunting society that can point you in the right direction and educate you about what types of mushrooms you should be able to find in your local environment.
Your local mushroom club may also print a guide to finding edible fungi in your area. This could be a great way to start learning to identify mushrooms. Some groups also host identification days. If you hunt for and collect a basket of mushrooms, you can take them to this event and let someone more experienced identify them for you or confirm that they are edible.
When preparing for the hunt by learning about the types of edible mushrooms you will be looking for, be sure to find out about look-alikes. Several edible mushrooms have poisonous twins. These mushrooms are often mistaken for the edible type. Make sure you know which look-alikes you may run into in your neighborhood, such as false chanterelles and false morels.
Some of the common types of edible mushrooms that people hunt for in the U.S. are oyster, black trumpet, chanterelle, morel, and hen of the woods. If you live in Oregon, you may even be able to find the elusive and very valuable truffle. Most culinary experts would say the best truffles grow in France and Italy, but these fancy mushrooms grow in Oregon too. They don’t go for as much money, but they are very similar in flavor to their European counterparts. Unfortunately, these guys grow underground, making them tough to find. Historically, pigs and dogs have been used to sniff them out.
Simply learning about the biology of fungi and going on a mushroom hunt are great educational activities. But, there is so much more you and the kids can do with these fascinating organisms. Once you have learned about them and gone on your mushroom hunt, try some of the following activities.
- Turn mushrooms into a health project. Did you know that mushrooms are very good for your health? Modern research into the compounds in mushrooms and their health benefits has uncovered some interesting facts. Turn this into a research project for your older children. Have them hunt down the facts about mushrooms and health and what effect eating them has. They may even uncover mushroom ingredients in beauty products!
- Art and science work together. After you and your children have learned about the spores that mushrooms use for reproduction, you can use them for a fun art project. You can make prints of mushrooms using the spores. Use a variety of mushroom types, either bought or fresh from your hunt. Cut off the stem of each mushroom at the position where it attaches to the cap. A good tip is to make certain the gills are exposed. If they are not, you may have to cut away bits of the cap. Place the cap with the gills down, on a piece of paper or cardboard and put a bowl over it to cover the mushroom. Leave it like this overnight. In the morning, you will find a spore print on the paper. To keep the spores in place, spray it with hairspray or fixative. You can repeat the project and let your kids get creative with their arrangement to create a design or picture out of spore prints.
- Do a mushroom dissection. Use kitchen utensils to cut apart different types of mushrooms. Ask your kids to identify the different parts of the mushroom that they have learned about, like gills, caps, stems, and so on. Make comparisons between the different varieties.
- Get in the kitchen. With all the hard work you put into hunting those mushrooms, it is time to enjoy them. Most of the mushrooms you find will be delicious to eat, especially the morels. Together, you and the kids can find recipes that feature mushrooms and work on creating them together. You could even have a mushroom themed day: mushroom omelets for breakfast, mushroom salad for lunch, and mushroom stew for dinner, for instance.
- Science experiments. There is no better or more interesting way to learn science than by experimenting. If your kids come up with questions about mushrooms, try to turn them into experiments. For instance, you could test different ways of storing mushrooms to determine which is the best way to make them last the longest. Let the kids get creative and curious.
- Sketching. For your artistically-inclined child, create a sketching taxonomy project. Challenge your child to find and sketch as many different types of mushrooms as possible. You can then identify them and create a guide for mushrooms in your environment.
Mushrooms are not just tasty little fungi. They are fun to hunt for and a great learning opportunity. Take advantage of your local environment to find, identify, eat, and learn about these interesting mushrooms.
©2012 Off the Grid News