October 16, 2009
Photo by Mark Ferguson
By Mark Ferguson
Kaminskyj is one of very few mycologists in Saskatchewan and she admits that, “the subject has never properly been explored in this province.” But there are several reasons why, one being that even with a lifetime of experience, mushrooms are difficult to identify because they never grow the same way twice.
Kaminskyj points out the obituary of Judith Josephine Koritar of Montreal which appeared on the back page of Maclean’s recently. Koritar died after eating Destroying Angel mushrooms thinking they were the edible Lepiota. The differences in the mushrooms are subtle, Kaminskyj says, referring to pictures she has of the two distinct varieties.
“The risks of eating wild mushrooms are big. The death rate for the Amanita virosa is 100 per cent. I was surprised to hear about this incident. She (Koritar) picked them, boiled them, cooked them, and six weeks later she died.”
And it is not a pleasant way to go either, she explains, as the poison eventually turns off protein synthesis in the body. “It would be like growing old very quickly. Things don’t heal so fast, repair themselves, worn out bits are not replaced properly. You just sort of fall apart.”
So when she teaches her students about identifying wild mushrooms, “it’s critical they learn how to identify different species. I would never encourage anyone to eat wild mushrooms without a lot of experience, but that doesn’t mean I can stop them.”
Every year, Kaminskyj loads up a van with students from her Biology 342 course and takes them into Saskatchewan’s boreal forest. The area surrounding the University of Saskatchewan’s Kenderdine Campus is one of the best places in the country to collect, study, and perhaps even eat, wild mushrooms, she says. Each student is responsible for correctly identifying three different species of mushrooms on the trip. Its not a big number, but considering there are 450 different known species in the boreal forest, identifying one can sometimes be difficult. Kaminskyj suspects that three times as many species exist as are known, but there is no good way to catalogue such diversity given the resources of time, expertise, and money.
There are only two volumes, or field guides, for Saskatchewan mushrooms. The first, entitled Fungi of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, was written back in 1938. The second book, a more comprehensive guide entitled Mushrooms of the Boreal Forest was written by the late Eugene Bossenmaier in 1997. Kamisnkyj knew Bossenmeir, and took the trouble to post his book online.
Kaminskyj would love to create a new guide to mushrooming, but without the resources, she’s happy teaching her students to figure out for themselves how to identify mushrooms on their own. With a breadth of delicious species, Saskatchewan is one of the world’s top producers of the rare pine mushroom that grows in the forests that bear its name, and the beautiful chanterelle. Both species fetch top dollar on the Asian market, but since there is no way to farm these completely wild species, most mushroom pickers never share the location of their secret picking spots.
Kaminskyj, in fact, has a couple places on campus where she likes to pick an edible species known as Agaricus campestris. She won’t tell where she finds them, but she loves to fry them up.
“They’re not common but they’re delicious and related to the white mushroom you find in the grocery store. There’s one other common edible mushroom on campus, but it’s poisonous when mixed with alcohol.”
The only way to enjoy delicious wild mushrooms is with years of experience, and identifying them is only the first step, says Kaminskyj: “Have them fresh, cook them well, and just take a tiny bite. If you feel better, then try some more the next day.”