Mushrooms are popping up everywhere beneath the pitch pine forests of Napeague and the pine barrens west of the canal. Most commonly encountered in the Walking Dunes area of Napeague were the poisonous Amanita spp. Based on an article written in 1993 by Lance T. Biechele, titled “Mushrooms of the Sand Dunes,” these are Amanita muscaria var. formosa, one of nine mushroom species that he describes being found in this area in autumn.Lance is one of those incredible naturalists who happens to know an amazing amount of information about many different aspects of nature. I know at least some of his interests include reptiles and amphibians, mushrooms, and lichens, as myself and other colleagues have often reached out to him for advice on these topics. He was my “go-to” person to identify the odd-looking but very common organism in the dune-heath community that resembled pieces of asphalt. I suspected it was a lichen. Every naturalist I contacted knew exactly what I was inquiring about, but they did not know what it was … except Lance, who at that time had moved south to Maryland.
Regarding mushrooms of the dunes, Lance writes: “One of the most interesting and surprisingly rich mushroom collecting areas on the eastern end of Long Island is located outside of East Hampton in the sandy pine barrens of the Promised Land, along Lazy Point Road to Napeague. What makes this region remarkable is that the mushrooms do not make their appearance until the first frosty nights during late October and early November. The naturalist can spend endless summers in the area and never appreciate the mycorrhizal garden expanding there under his feet in the sand.”
The classic toadstool that arises out of the soil is, of course, the reproductive (or spore-bearing) structure of the fungus organism, and the part that mushroom hunters seek for consumption. Its permanent structure, called the mycorrhizae, is out of sight, buried in the soil. These very thin and long strands grow on and around the root systems of many trees, in this case the pitch pines, where they assist the roots in absorbing nutrients and in exchange absorb sugars from the roots.
The mycorrhizae of other fungi actually penetrate plant roots, as is the case among the orchids. And then there are the fungi that do not develop a direct symbiotic relationship with plants, and whose hair-like underground threads are called mycelia. These play a very important role in the ecosystem as decomposers, secreting enzymes that break down complex, dead plant tissue (e.g. rotting logs) into simpler compounds and minerals that can be utilized by plants. In this way they function as ecosystem recyclers.
Hot on the trail of the fall crop of mushrooms are the mushroom gatherers. Most that I’ve run into in the field have a distinct Eastern European accent. It would be interesting to know if they are collecting Amanita muscaria, as that species is listed in the field guides as poisonous.
Some mycologists state that the poisonous description of this mushroom is a cultural bias, noting that other popular edible species—for example, morels—are toxic unless properly cooked. Reports of human deaths from eating Amanita muscaria are rare. Parboiling removes the mushroom’s psychoactive substances and toxins, as they are water soluble, rendering it edible. On the other hand, drying may increase its potency.
There are many accounts in the literature citing Amanita muscaria’s hallucinogenic properties and its use among some cultures in religious ceremonies and as an intoxicant. The main active ingredients are muscimol and ibotenic acid. One of my references cites its use (pickled in vodka) in Lithuanian wedding ceremonies.
Unlike Lance Biechele, I’m not very knowledgeable when it comes to the fungi kingdom. Mushrooms are fascinating organisms whose exact role in the ecosystem we are still unraveling. But unless I’m in the field with someone like Lance, I’ll get my mushrooms from the grocery store.