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Edible and Poisonous Mushrooms of the World

Edible and Poisonous Mushrooms of the World
Ian Hall, Steven Stephenson, Peter K. Buchanan, Wang Yun, and Anthony L.J. Cole
Timber Press
Publication Date: 

cloth, 371 p., $39.95

I suspect that, if most readers are like me, they will be venturing into uncharted territory when they open the pages of this book. My experience with mushrooms is extremely limited: I enjoy them on steaks and in salads and soups; I look askance at them when they pop up unwanted as toadstools on my lawn; and I find them interesting but dangerous when I see them in the woods. Beyond that, mushrooms are a mystery to me, though less so now that I have read Edible and Poisonous Mushrooms of the World.

One is reminded of the positive role fungi play in the production of much of our food, such as beer, bread and cheese, and their medicinal value as antibiotics. More important is the function they serve helping to decompose huge amounts of plant and animal waste, and in recycling the nutrients found in dead matter. This excellent guide will help anyone learn more about mushrooms.

Edible and Poisonous Mushrooms of the World is divided into two sections, the first dealing with cultivated mushrooms and the second with those found in the wild. The description of the ways in which the various types of mushrooms are cultivated is extremely interesting, particularly since many of these varieties — straw, oyster, wood ear and erokitake — are much more common in oriental countries than in the U.S., where the button mushroom is standard. The most unusual mushroom under cultivation is the shiitake, and the accompanying photographs in this book bear this out: they show the shiitake growing on sawdust blocks as well as on wood logs inoculated with the fungus to produce a market ready crop in three months. Mushrooms, readers learn, are an international industry worth billions of dollars; in the U.S. they constitute the fifth largest agricultural crop.

The greater part of this book is given over to mushrooms collected in the wild, and what a fascinating group they are! There is a particularly useful section on how to collect mushrooms, where to find them, how to identify them, rules for picking and eating them, and what the various types of mushroom toxins are. Photographs bring out their amazingly vivid colors and show off some of their wonderfully strange and beautiful shapes. A few of them are given names that are enough to scare off anyone the least bit timid; there’s Death’s Cap, Destroying Angel, Poison Pie, and Dead Man’s Fingers, for example. Of course, there are bad actors in the fungi family, too. At the other extreme are the delectable truffles, the Perigord black truffle and the Italian white truffle — so prized that they earn thousands of dollars per kilogram on the market. Also high on the list of delicacies are the morels and the chanterelles, and the newest fungi craze, corn smut (huit la coche or cuitalacoche or Ustilago maydis). The latter is all the rage in hot Mexican restaurants. The parade of mushrooms is endless in its variety. There is one that looks like orange peels, another that resembles scrambled eggs; a third is a match for a bird's nest, and fourth is a caterpillar lookalike. There are mushrooms mimicking oysters, stars, corals, icicles, balls and fans, plus variations on the umbrella shapes with which most people are familiar.

Having gone on far too long, it must be obvious that I found Edible and Poisonous Mushrooms of the Worlda book that deals with an extremely involving project. The well-written text is accompanied with good photographs, and the book is handsomely put together. Another fine collaboration between the authors and their publisher, Timber Press.

— Jim Kemper, master gardener and volunteer, Chicago Botanic Garden