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To eat or not to eat: Mycologist to give guided tour
Leif Sivertsen holds a group of leccinum fungi, which are in the family Boletaceae, on Thursday at Ketchikan High School. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

Daily News Staff Writer

Local mycologist Leif Sivertsen will be ushering in the local mushrooming season with a guided trail walk on Sept. 14 and a presentation at the Tongass Historical Museum during the Ketchikan Area Arts and Humanities Council’s October First Friday art walk.

Sivertsen said his fascination with mushrooms was sparked nearly 20 years ago by his Southern Oregon University biology professor Darlene Southworth.

“I worked in a lab where we were matching the roots of oak trees to the mushrooms and the fungal associations between them,” he said.

Part of his job as a biology student, he explained, was going out to collect mushrooms and soils samples with the roots, then matching DNA to the fruiting bodies of the mushrooms as they studied the mycorrhizal associations.

As Sivertsen talked on the sunny lawn behind Ketchikan High School, where he works as a science teacher, he gestured to the trees gracing the edges of the campus.

“All these trees are associated with fungus, except perhaps the alders, and very few other exceptions,” he said. “So, basically, getting into mushrooms was getting into trees, and it was getting into nature.”

Getting out into nature to hunt for the fungi always has been part of the fun for Sivertsen, and he said he hunted for about two or three years before gathering his first edible mushrooms  — morels, in southern Oregon. He explained that the prolonged search was “part of the fun.”

Sivertsen emphasized the need for intensive study, mentoring and experience before people begin harvesting mushrooms for food.

He upped his own studies as he moved on from college.

“Since then, I’ve been kind of chasing them all over the country,” he said. “I went to Virginia after that job and worked at a nature camp where we took kids out and we hunted mushrooms all summer long.

“I got more comfortable, and read lots of literature and finally ate some chanterelles and then realized they were back here, in Ketchikan. I found some chanterelles here, and found a variety of mushrooms up in Maine and in Nantucket — and, so it’s like seeing your old friend all over the world, and you get to travel with them.”

Sivertsen is serious about teaching others to take the cautious, studious path to harvesting mushrooms that he followed.

“Go slow. Get a good book,” he urged. “It’s important to see peer-reviewed sources.”

He recommended the book “Mushrooms Demystified,” by David Arora as the gold standard. The hefty tome can be found at the Ketchikan Public Library and the Kayhi library. Additionally, he recommended Arora’s more pared-down text, “All That the Rain Promises and More: A Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms.”

His explanation for the cautious, studious approach he recommends was simple.

“When you’re doing something that is a risk to your life, it’s important to seek peer-reviewed sources, which is a book — and, a modern reference,” he said.

Older reference books do have value, he said, especially those with hand-drawn illustrations that can highlight important structures in the mushrooms. Newer references, however, include results from recent mushroom studies that can give critical information about the safety of mushroom species.

On a picnic table perched on the Kayhi lawn, Sivertsen laid out several mushrooms he recently had harvested. He displayed a “true” chanterelle, or Cantharellus cibarius alongside a false, or “woolly” chanterelle, or Cantharellus floccosus, which superficially appear identical. When he sliced them open, the woolly chanterelle revealed a deep orange interior, unlike the white interior of the true chanterelle.

True chanterelles, according to book author Arora, are “edible and choice,” whereas the woolly chanterelle, Arora warns, is “not recommended,” as it often causes gastric upsets.

Sivertsen recommended that mushroom hunters study the specimens they gather in various ways, including slicing them open, studying the roots and observing where the mushroom was found growing.

“One of the questions you might ask when you find a mushroom,” he said, “is: ‘What is it eating?’ ‘Is it on the ground? Is it on a dead log? Is it growing out of an old bug or something?’”

Slicing the mushroom open, also can reveal unwanted critters, such as bugs and slugs.

“I found a salamander in a mushroom once,” he added, chuckling.

He also demonstrated why it’s especially important to slice open a puffball mushroom, when a few of them fell open to reveal a brownish-green ooze instead of a white interior. Another surprise that a puffball can reveal is that it actually is not a puffball — it can be the “egg” of the toxic Amaneta muscaria mushroom.

He described identifying a mushroom species as akin to deciphering.

“It’s more like a good passcode,” he said. “When you’re identifying a mushroom, does it have the upper case letter, a lower case, a special characteristic and perhaps a number? And, if it’s got that combination of characteristics, then perhaps you’ve narrowed it down to something you can identify with more confidence.”

Sivertsen has created a “dichotomous key” he distributes to mushroom enthusiasts who attend his educational events.

According to information at education.com, a dichotomous key is “a series statements consisting of 2 choices that describe characteristics of the unidentified organism. The user has to make a choice of which of the two statements best describes the unknown organism, then, based on that choice, moves to the next set of statements, ultimately ending in the identity of the unknown.”

The first two choices in his key distinguish between the locations the mushroom could have been found: on the ground, or on a live or dead tree.

Another tool that mycologists can use to identify mushrooms is to create a spore print, Sivertsen said. He described the process, starting with laying pieces of white and black paper side by side to catch spores under the mushroom cap. Then, the stem should be cut even with or lower than the cap’s understructure. The mushroom is laid down on the papers next, right side up, and a bowl placed over the top to prevent drafts. The cap is then left for several hours, or overnight, to allow the spores to release. The distinct print left by the released spores can then help with identification.

“Match the mushroom to the spore print” is a useful exercise, he said.

Another skill that Sivertsen advises for  mushroom enthusiasts was to learn the Latin names of mushrooms, to further avoid confusion among species.

“Using Latin names is a great way to avoid those breakdowns in communication,” he said, allowing for more accurate identification.

He added that people don’t need to be intimidated by learning the Latin names, as we already use them in every day English language.

“Words like ‘asparagus,’ ‘octopus,’ ‘rhinocerous’ — those are Latin names, but we use them,” he said.

Another tip he offered for beginners was to go hunting with a seasoned mentor in those first outings.

His advice for those who work to identify a mushroom but still feel unsure was straight forward.

“When in doubt, throw it out,” he advised.

He was enthusiastic about mentoring new mushroom hunters, however.

“I know by creating mushroom hunters, we’re enhancing our community of people who are getting connected with nature,” he said. “I know we’re creating a little competition, but I’m all for it, if it means more people are getting out and getting in touch with nature, and with themselves.”

He said he recommends that people use caution when they begin their journey as mushroom enthusiasts.

“Starting slow” is best, he said, “just adding a new mushroom each year, perhaps, to the menu. I only pick a handful.”

Sivertsen then pointed out several mushroom species growing near the trees in the Kayhi landscaping.

A birch bolete, or Leccinum scabrum, which he described as edible, was poking out of the ground near the staff parking lot. Its cap sported the scalloped bites of a slug visitor. That species features tubes that contain its spores, rather than gills. It also had black speckles on its stalk, which Sivertsen called “scabers.”

As he searched for mushrooms on Kayhi’s grounds, he explained that it’s also useful to note the microclimate where the mushrooms are found, considering whether the site is in a shady spot, and how much sun, or heat it might be getting, to assess when mushrooms might sprout there.

In a planter box where two pine trees had been removed, Sivertsen said mushrooms called “slippery jacks,” or Suillus luteus, and “slippery jills,” or Suillus salmonicolor, had grown there previously.

Sivertsen had his own prediction of how Ketchikan’s mushrooming season was shaping up.

“My hunch is, that we’re going to have a really nice fall for mushrooms,” he said. “It’s been so seasonal, with a little bit of rain here and there. I think as soon as we get our next good rains and our chills in temperature, we’re going to have a really great year for some types — I don’t know for sure which.”

He also emphasized the need for mushroom hunters to follow basic outdoor safety guidelines, such as wearing the appropriate clothes for the weather, carrying basic first-aid supplies, carrying a whistle in case help needs to be summoned, and staying on trails unless one is very experienced in the woods.

Sivertsen also talked about what mushrooms offer in addition to their edible qualities.

“Mushrooms, fungus are more closely related to animals than plants,” he said. “They store their sugar the same way we store sugar, as opposed to a plant — so, glycogen instead of starch. Their cell surface is like chitin, like an insect. It might have surface proteins that enhance immune response, so shitake (mushrooms) are supposed to be good for the immune system. So, maybe we’re finding more and more value to cultural knowledge, and it’s a real hot topic in the medicinal research field, in terms of mushrooms for both human health and environmental health.”

Sivertsen said researchers now are working on ways to use fungi to clean up toxic sites, for such tasks as extracting harmful metals and processing chemicals that need to be broken down.

Another use for mushrooms that Sivertsen plans to demonstrate to attendees at his museum presentation, is for dying materials. At the current exhibit “Solving Problems, Telling Stories: Handcraft in a Harsh Environment,” Sivertsen has on display, his wool yarn that he dyed using mushrooms.

His advice for those wanting to create dyes out of mushrooms was, again, to refer to a book, as well as to use gloves for handling the fungi.

The gloves help to protect against the toxins in some of the better dye-containing mushrooms, such as those from the Cortinarius genus, which he said are plentiful locally.

Sivertsen implored mushroom hunters, again, to always use quality references and rigorous education as they pursue the hobby.

“Seek out information,” he said. “There is lots of information out there, but be diligent and be skeptical and be safe, because you’re worth it.”

Sivertsen will lead a mushroom hunting trail tour at noon on Saturday, Sept. 14, at Ward Lake. Participants should meet at the main beach. He also will talk about his work at the “ARTober” Art Walk from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., Oct. 4, at the Tongass Historical Museum, located at 629 Dock St.