Alien Fungus of the East Coast

I grew up in rural Maryland in a developed neighborhood in the woods (although when my family first moved there, we were the only house on our non-square block). I picked a lot of berries in the forest and along the lake, but my foraging didn’t go much beyond that. This winter, my boyfriend accompanied me to my childhood home. All of our recent mushroom study has been for the Pacific Northwest. I had no idea what to expect in mid-winter Maryland. I knew there wouldn’t be a lot of greens, but as far as winter mushrooms, it was an alien landscape, and we found something quite alien.

strange earthstarWe found yellow and red puffballs, or something probably more correctly called earthstars, popping up from the forest floor. We dug a couple out of the duff to bring home to my parents. Each yellow ball came attached to a column of spongey material in the soil. When I roused my father from a nap to see the specimens, he nearly popped one into his mouth, thinking I was bringing him a piece of holiday cake. I’m nearly certain those were not edible, and even if they weren’t poisonous, I doubt they would taste good.

My family has an old aluminum canoe. It’s older than I am and I trust it more than the lighter fiberglass canoes. They always leak. I didn’t use it nearly enough when I was a teenager at my parents’ house. My boyfriend loved the canoe and we took it out any day that it wasn’t raining or too windy. The lake has a few islands from decades of built up silt. We landed on one island populated by sycamores (the trees with the patchy constantly shedding bark) and another tree, which I couldn’t identify in the winter. Many of those other trees were dead and growing mushrooms. I’m pretty sure several of those mushrooms were a type of oyster mushroom, but we didn’t bring our identification books with us. We can easily recognize fresh oyster mushrooms. These were dry and frozen. If I had more time, I would have taken a spore print and a closer look. If I could get a positive confirmation, I would go back to the island for a larger collection to cook up for my family.

Another day, my boyfriend and I hiked on a path I had taken many times as a surly, depressed teenager. During a particularly acute point of adolescent mental illness, I walked miles into the woods in order to get away from human sounds, because any noise from a human voice threw me into a rage. I walked until I came across a clearing with an isolated old ruddy red house and retreated back into the woods, concerned I might get shot for trespassing.

My boyfriend and I walked deep into the woods and came upon the house again. I could see from far away that it was abandoned. The windows were blown out. A yearling deer was dead on the porch, its body preserved by the freezing temperatures. It didn’t seem to the be the casualty of a hunting expedition. The deer had become sick, lain down on the porch for shelter, and died. The floors inside were covered in plaster rubble, broken dishes, and clothes. I carefully climbed up the rotting stairs to the second floor, spreading my weight out on both feet, placed on either side of each stair, nearest to the supports. In a bedroom were paintings of a smiling sun and flowers, probably done by a child, with “Keep on trucking!” written painted below.

Outside the house were falling goat sheds and an overgrown meadow covered with wild chives. We harvested enough to fill half a plastic shopping bag and got through most of it over the next few days by adding it to salads, turkey soup stock, and garlic bread.

2 thoughts on “Alien Fungus of the East Coast

  1. This story makes me feel like I was actually there. It’s fascinating to think what may have happened in that red house over a decade ago!

    How did you know that the puffball mushrooms were inedible?


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