Just a few years ago, I learned that my Sicilian grandfather (Papo) was the mushroom expert in his home town of Tortorici. This news was crazy to me, because my focus was mycology throughout my collegiate career and I didn’t even know that my own grandfather without a high school education understood these forest floor inhabitants. Before Papo brought his family to Buffalo NY in the 70’s in search of a more lucrative life, all of the fungal foragers in Tortorici had to bring their haul to him. Papo would check every mushroom over to make sure they weren’t poisonous. He was actually not liked very much because if he found one single poisonous mushroom, the entire haul had to be discarded. People thought he was sabotaging them, but he ultimately helped their safety, as they became more attentive, skilled foragers. Some of his mycological knowledge was passed on to his eldest son, my uncle Tony, which was then passed to me.
A few years ago, after walking my dog around the neighborhood, I spotted a few Agaricus mushrooms on a grassy lawn. I picked them to inspect the mushroom closer. The gill structures where pink, and I thought I had found my first Agaricus campestris, also known as the field mushroom. I brought the specimens home to show off to my father. His brother Tony was over, so of course, he had to examine them. He hesitantly said, “prataioli?” which is the Italian common name for A. campestris. He broke the base of the stipe and within seconds, it turned bright yellow. He then quite confidently said “no prataioli”.
He was right. Upon further investigation, I learned that I picked Agaricus xanthodermus, also known as the yellow-stainer. This species is slightly toxic, causing one hell of a stomach ache compared to the choice edibility of A. campestris. The mushroom, especially the base of the stem had a harsh, acrid aroma. A few weeks later I found some real prataioli mushrooms, and its smell differed significantly. A sweet, mushroom fragrance with slight notes of licorice fills your sinuses when you take a whiff of a prataioli.
Agaricus campestris is closely related to the most cultivated mushroom on the planet, Agaricus bisporus also known as white button, cremini, and portobello mushrooms. A. campestris is a saprotroph that carries out its life cycle on fertile grasslands, where is decomposes dead plant roots and tissues. Grasslands with healthy communities of A. campestris do really well, as the fungus releases nutrients that would otherwise remain locked up. This is a feedback that benefits both parties, because as plants receive released nutrients, they grow more tissues that will eventually die and feed the network of hungry mycelia below.
This Fungi Friday is a bit of a somber one, as I regretfully admit that my uncle Tony passed away this morning. He taught me to look a bit closer when learning about fungi. Notice the smell, understand the habitat, look for bruising. The last thing he told me referring to mycology was that even if I find inedible species, I shouldn’t kick them or remove them, because they are interacting with the environment in a way that promotes more fungal growth. In his own way, he proposed that fungal succession gives way to more ecosystem functioning. Uncle Tony was a knowledgeable loving man, and I will do my best to keep spreading fungal knowledge to future generations. From Papo, to Tony, to me, to you. Learning from the forest floor, I guess it’s what us Pinzones do.