9/5/08 THR, "Wet summer brings mushroom boom to Northeast"

ACRA, N.Y. (AP) -- There's a mushroom boom in the wet woods of the Northeast this summer.

Hillsides bloom with black trumpets. Disc-shaped mushrooms called artist's conch sprout from tree trunks. Forests are laced with tasty chanterelles giving off faint whiffs of apricot and with a pretty but deadly variety called destroying angels.

"For the last two summers we've had lousy crops of mushrooms because it was too hot and it was too dry," agroforester Bob Beyfuss said during a recent ramble through a Catskill forest. Not so during this season of soaking rains. Beyfuss found caps sprouting from the forest floor practically behind every tree.

Rainfall has been well above average around New York and New England this summer, with some areas hit with twice as much precipitation from July 1 through Aug. 18, according to the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University. Rain is fungus fuel, and it has helped along a bumper crop for mushrooms that is expected to last into the fall foraging season.

"It's been the best summer since 1989," said Russ Cohen, a veteran forager from the Boston area who hunts around the Northeast.

Cohen said porcini mushrooms have been particularly easy to find this year. He added that chanterelles, a horn-shaped mushroom popular with foragers, have been notably larger. In New York's northern Catskills, Beyfuss, who works at the Cornell Cooperative Extension Agroforestry Resource Center, left the woods on a recent tour with a baseball cap full of black trumpets and a plump chanterelle.

In Warner, N.H., George Packard said he and his wife recently came back from a night forage with about 15 pounds stuffed into plastic grocery bags. That included a bear's head tooth that was 8 inches across and weighed about a pound. But it was mostly black trumpets.

"We came upon, basically, an entire hillside that was threaded through with black trumpets, which are in our estimation one the best, most delectable mushrooms that are out there," Packard said. "We've never collected anything like this many mushrooms in that short a time."

Health officials generally discourage people from eating wild mushrooms because the price of misidentification is so high. To an unpracticed eye, a poisonous jack o' lantern can look like a chanterelle.

New York health official reiterated warnings about eating mushrooms this summer after a series of incidents involving the aptly named destroying angel. Also called the death cap, it is a bright white mushroom loaded with toxins. Even a little bite can kill.

"A piece as big as your fingernail, that's it," Beyfuss said, pointing to a destroying angel deep in the woods.

A 61-year-old Westchester County woman died in July after eating death angels she found growing near a highway rest stop. Two more women from the Albany area suffered kidney failure later that month after eating death angels foraged from the side of the road.

The mushrooms also have been blamed for sickened and dead dogs in New York.

Foragers have strategies for mushrooms they're not absolutely sure about, like eating a little bit and waiting 24 hours before eating more. Beyfuss, coming across a tan-capped mushroom that looked like a bitter bolete but might have been a tasty porcini, sliced a tiny bit of flesh off a cap with a pocketknife and placed it on his tongue.

"Ptooey!" he spat. "Yeah, that's definitely the bitter bolete."

Still, Beyfuss's advice experts to neophyte mushroom hunters is: Don't eat them. He said identification should be left to experts, not a book or a Web site. Differences between a fine meal and one that could kill are too subtle to judge without a trained eye.

"You can buy really good tasting mushrooms in the store," Beyfuss said as he foraged. "So why risk your life?"

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