Last weekend, me and fourteen of my closest male friends set off to the Catskills for my bachelor party. If you don’t know, the Catskills, which are located in southeastern NY, are a smaller province of the more known Appalachian mountain range. Instead of spending money at clubs and partaking in regrettable ‘normal’ bachelor party activities, we rented an old farmhouse in the Catskill region. There, we ate great food, drank around a bonfire, and most importantly, set off on a series of hikes. I had planned the trip to coincide with the fruiting of many fungal species, and the forest floor did not disappoint. In my convoy, I was the only mycophile, and actually the only one with a background in biology, but the energy together was electric, and everyone got involved. The number a species we found was staggering. One species that stuck out was a mushroom I have never seen in person. Shout out to my dear friend Danny who located the specimens of Turbinellus floccosus, also known as the wooly chanterelle.
At first, I had thought we found some more true chanterelles, but I wasn’t immediately convinced. The choice chanterelles have false, clumsy looking gills that branch. This species had bumpy ridges that I couldn’t even call false gills. Without any mushroom field guides and poor internet connection, I slowly but surely uploaded a photo of the fungus to a mushroom identification page on facebook. Harold Bannin was a first responder who identified the mushroom to species-and what a species it is! It is truly incredible looking! It is rather robust, and forms a funnel shape that collects rain water. In true bachelor party fashion, Danny was encouraged by the fungal caravan to take a sip of the water that had pooled in the funnel. I heard someone in the background shout “You found it, you drink it!” He regrettably obliged.
After doing some research on the wooly chanterelle, I found out that it is a mycorrhizal species. Its hyphae radiate throughout the forest floor in search of nutrients. Fungi in general can readily scavenge and mine for soil nutrients because their fine strands of hyphae can navigate the smallest pockets of soil. Additionally, these hyphae have a suite of enzymes they can release into the environment, thereby breaking down organic matter or liberate minerals from rock material. These functions may seem challenging, but over millions of years, natural selection has fine-tuned these forest floor inhabitants to easily acquire rare soil nutrients. These particular species of fungi pair with coniferous trees like pine, hemlock, fir and spruce. Danny located them in a moist cove dominated by eastern white pine.
Reading even more about the species has revealed that it is becoming rarer because of its occurrence with old-growth forests; a threatened natural resource in this human dominated era. I had also learned that although in America it is considered toxic, the species in Mexico is readily consumed and actually generates profit as it has been commercialized in regional markets. This really got me thinking about the human genome, and how certain groups of people may be able to consume and breakdown the tissue of certain species while others may have gastrointestinal issues. Now I’m not saying certain people may be able to consume poisonous mushrooms like Amanita phalloides, but maybe indigenous people that have coevolved with certain species for generations can digest fungal tissues that cause gastrointestinal issues in people with ancestors that have not interacted with the species for millennia (European decent). We see this exact situation with man’s interaction with alcohol.
Europeans that settled started brewing alcohol, and as a result their decedents carry genes that metabolize the substance quite well (trust me, my fiancée is Scottish and Irish). Early nomads that traversed the land bridge from Asia to North America did not distil sugar solutions into alcoholic beverages so as a result, their descendants cannot metabolize alcohol nearly as efficiently as someone of European decent. Do you catch my drift? Turbinellus floccosus is found in Asia and North America so geographically, this theory holds up. Nonpoisonous, species like this may be only toxic to people of European descent because their ancestors never came across these species in their forests. People native to North America traversed through Asia so may have been interacting with Turbinellus floccosus for several thousands of years.
An alternate theory I have stems from my understanding of the edibility of Laetiporus sulphureus. On the East coast as well as the Midwest, Laetiporus sulphureus like its common name suggests (chicken of the woods) is a choice edible. However, on the West coast, when the species is collected from a eucalyptus tree, it can cause some nasty gastrointestinal ailments. There is no eucalyptus growing in the Midwest or East coast so the coast is clear! But maybe this is what’s going on in Turbinellus floccosus. In Mexico the fungus readily pairs with a tree endemic to Central Mexico-Abies religiosa. Here, the products passed to the mushroom from the evergreens native in this region might directly alter the fungal tissue, making it inedible. Whatever the case, the species is still insanely cool and I’m so glad we found it!
The climax of the entire weekend was making our way to the summit of the third tallest mountain in the Catskills. The mountain was called Black Dome, and it was a riveting experience I will never forget. 100 yards from the summit, there was a flat region with densest beds of mosses I’ve ever laid eyes on. In this high elevation ecosystem above 3,500 feet, there where thousands of mushrooms popping through the moss. I felt like Alice in Wonderland. But at this point I kind of had to put my mushroom blinders on since we started the hike later in the day and were racing against the dropping sun. The safety of the convoy outweighed my fungal fixation during one of the more strenuous hikes I have experienced. We made our way to the summit, drank a beer, laughed a ton, and turned back down the mountain.
We descended in separate groups, because the terrain was rather difficult and there was varied levels of mountaineering experience. As the first group to make it down, the five of us found a creek, and we lied down in a state euphoria on some large boulders. We reminisced on the sights we saw, the adrenaline, and the pain we felt during the final push for the summit. 15 minutes later, another group arrived. 5 minutes later, another. The worst part was seeing the two hikers who trailed everyone; the anchors of the convoy. Their descent signified that the second last group was lost. Daylight was fleeting and panic sunk in like a hot knife.
My friend Cody and I ran up the first section of loose rock. The 15-minute run felt like an hour. A lone hiker we didn’t know turned a corner in front of us. We thought it was them in the distance, as we joyfully exclaimed their names. The guy looked at us like we escaped a nuthouse. 3 minutes passed, and we finally see them descending. What a relief! We cut it really close to sunset but we made it! The drive home was incredibly satisfying as the pinks, purples, yellows and blues painted themselves above the outline of the Catskills. An INCREADIBLE experience, filled with joy, pain, discovery, euphoria, anxiety, relief and satisfaction. It was a series of moments we will forever hold in our heads. I can’t believe that the closest friends I have, actually became closer that day.