Earlier this week, two consecutive evenings brought heavy, yet passing storms. The first night I sat in my screened-in porch, with its sloping floor, listening to the rain crash onto the thin aluminum roof. I blasted Bob Dylan’s “Down in The Flood” and passionately sang along, possessed by the glory and auspiciousness of the moment. It was not until 15 minutes later, when the rain suddenly slowed to a trickle, that I came to my senses and realized how bizarre it was that I was quite so excited about 95 degree, horrendously humid weather, interspersed with squalls of wind and bursts of rain. After an extended drought, during which I passed the time reading about mushrooms and fantasizing about foraging, I felt as desperate for rain as a parched plant in the desert.
Rain is the single biggest variable that affects the distribution and abundance of wild mushrooms. Rain brings mushrooms, reliably, when the time is right, hence the titles of David Arora’s classic field guide, All That The Rain Promises And More and Taylor Lockwood’s collection of mushroom photography, Chasing The Rain. My entire childhood, not being a farmer or forager but primarily a grocerystorivore, I dreaded rain. Now, I am rarely disappointed by the weather. I must confess that while I still love sunshine, during mushroom season I more often find myself praying for rain than sun.
While farmers certainly hope for rain during droughts, too much rain can be counterproductive for many crops. 2009’s waterlogged summer, for example, made it possible for the fungal disease late blight to devastate tomato and potato harvests. For mushroom foragers, however, there is almost no such thing as too much rain. If only late blight turned the tomatoes into mushrooms instead of mush! Actually, this sort of alchemy isn’t too far of a stretch in the enigmatic kingdom of fungi. Hypomyces lactifluorum, the parasitic lobster mushroom, turns white, insipid Russula and white, acrid Lactarius mushrooms into a flame-red fungus with a mild seafood aroma that screams, “Eat me – I’m 33% mushroom, 33% crustacean, 34% extraterrestrial, and 100% delicious!”
Following the storms, Jenna and I ventured out into the woods to check on some of our tried and true mushroom spots. Unfortunately, though the smell of awakened mycelium permeated the forest, we saw few mushrooms except for a couple patches of chanterelle buttons. The time from rainfall to fruiting depends on the species and the quantity of rain, as well as the soil’s moisture level prior to the rainfall, but usually mushrooms begin to emerge within one to three days following a significant rain event. Once they begin to pop up, the time it takes a mushroom to reach maturity varies wildly depending on the species. Some mature overnight, while others, like chanterelles, can take well over a week to reach their full size. Though we had given up on foraging altogether for a couple of weeks, on our recent outings we did see a couple of older, rotting mushrooms that must have popped up right before the rains took a hiatus. Most notably, I was tantalized when I spotted the first bicolor bolete (Boletus bicolor) we had seen all year, rotting all by its lonesome. I hope the maggots appreciated its brick red cap and stem, yellow pores, and savory yellow flesh, completing the trio of primary colors as it slowly stains to blue when sliced.
After a dry June and July, the mycelium in the forest must be tingling with anticipation for the next wetter period. While the two passing storms certainly helped the cause, it is going to take more steady, consistent rainfall to rouse the black trumpets and porcinis from their slumber. Fortunately, Ithaca is no desert; the rains will inevitably come, and they will come bearing gifts.