Scientist Joins New Jersey Mycological Association Foray in the Pines

For His Worldwide Study of Hebeloma Mushrooms
By PAT JOHNSON | Oct 24, 2018
Photo by: Pat Johnson THE GATHERING: Liz Broderick of the New Jersey Mycological Association leads an Oct. 20 foray from the New Jersey Forest Resource Education Center in Jackson. Behind her (with case) is Belgian mycologist Dr. Henry J. Beker.

Mycologists Dr. Henry J. Beker PhD and Dr. Linda Davies PhD were only in New Jersey for five days but these were five important days, part of Beker’s worldwide search and study of the hebeloma mushrooms, a poisonous group of fungi that form symbiotic relationships with certain trees.

Beker and Davies were guests of Nina Burghardt, a member of the New Jersey Mycological Association and chairperson of mushroom forays. She was taking them to mushroom forays sponsored by the group, including one held on Saturday, Oct. 20 at the Forest Resource Education Center in Jackson.

The morning was overcast and wet – perfect for fungus hunting. The air even smelled of decaying hummus, one of the favorite foods of fungi.

The NJMA is a loosely formed but professional group of mushroom hunters, citizen scientists and those who love the woods. Anyone can join for a $10 check; anyone can join the club’s mushroom forays free of charge.

First to arrive at the Forest Resource Center were John Guibert, Peter Szczepankiewicz and his girlfriend Jamie Forand.

Guibert was wearing a patch on his jacket identifying him as a member of the Chemical Corps of the U.S. Army. He was particularly interested in studying poisonous mushrooms of the amanita family.

Szczepankiewicz was new to the group but not new to the woods. An avid “stump jumper” from New Gretna, he studies snakes of the Pine Barrens, in particular, the timber rattlesnake; he showed photos of him handling a rather large rattler. But on this day, he was interested in the foraging possibilities of mushrooms because he spends so much time in the woods. Guibert suggested he get a number of field guides and books, including his favorite, Mushrooms of the Northeastern United States and Eastern Canada by Timothy J. Baroni.

Common names of some more easily identifiable edible mushrooms are “chicken of the woods” (a shelf fungi); black trumpet’ (a chanterelle); and giant puffball. NJMA foray leader Nina Burghardt explained to the growing number of mushroom enthusiasts tumbling out of their cars as the 10 a.m. start time approached, the experts from NJMA would help them identify their finds. But they would not be telling them which were edible. To do so, could result in dire legal problems for the NJMA members if someone were to eat a poisonous “fruit.”

The day's foray leader, Elizabeth “Liz” Broderick, arrived at the same time as the Belgian celebrity in the mycological world: Dr. Beker, a mathematician, founder of an internet security IT company, and visiting professor at the Royal Holloway University of London.

Broderick asked how many in the group were members of NJMA. Six hands went up. About 20 hands went up when she asked who were there for their first or second foray. She explained that NJMA is a club comprised of citizen scientists who, for whatever reason, find mushrooms fascinating.

“This is their passion and their hobby.”

If people had first gone to the website, they would have known to bring along a wicker basket or wax or paper bags for collecting. Plastic bags are useless, as they cause the mushrooms to sweat and deteriorate. The second essential was a knife to cut around the base of the fruit to collect the entire mushroom from its mycelium (fibrous “root”) to the top of the mushroom cap. A notebook or paper was helpful to record where the fungi were found, the conditions and the date.

After his introduction, Beker also asked that people note what type of tree they had found the mushroom growing near. If they were unsure of what tree it was, they should include a leaf.

“I’m studying the hebeloma group of small, brown mushrooms that grow off the roots of trees and form a symbiotic relationship with them,” Beker said. “The symbiosis benefits both the mushroom and the tree: the mushroom passes nutrients in the soil to the tree and the tree, through its chlorophyll, passes sugars back to the mushroom. Neither could survive without the other. They are major partners of trees.”

He has already catalogued the hebelomas of Europe and written a monograph, The Hebelomas of Great Britain. He is now engaged in cataloguing and studying the hebelomas of North America. Beker and his traveling companion, ecologist Dr. Davies of the Imperial College of London, had just returned from Alaska and the Arctic Circle in their search for hebelomas. After their stay in New Jersey, they were moving on to Boston to join the Boston Mycological Society forays.

“They have been in all the 50 states except Iowa,” said Burghardt.

Beker asked that while collecting in the forest, boggy areas or the sandy trails, the mushroom hunters should try to find hebelomas.

“Although they are common in the Northern Hemisphere, they have not been studied or well understood. The cap could be any color but the underside of the gills are cream to chocolate-colored and they may have the characteristic of smelling like chocolate or marzipan.”

Once the citizen scientists brought back their finds to be identified, it was hoped Beker would get a good selection of the species. He would then take them, dry them and extract their DNA to catalogue them. It was possible that a new, unnamed one could be found and then named for the finder, he tantalized.

So off went the hunters for two hours of searching. All would meet back at the education center for an identification session.

Some searchers were intent on the gastronomical possibilities of the day, but were told to consider all mushrooms poisonous until positively identified as those few that are edible, which have close neighbors that are deadly poisonous.

Beker also went out in search of his special LBMs (little brown mushrooms).

The Forest Resource Education Center in Jackson, northwestern Ocean County, has many distinct mini-environments including a pine forest; fast moving stream; sphagnum moss bogs; uplands of oak, pine and hawthorn, also known as ironwood; sandy, disturbed outcrops and trails; plus wood chip gardens – all good spots for scavenging, as we found out when the time was up and all the forest gems were displayed on three picnic tables.

The variety was astounding. Colorful mushrooms from orange to violet; shelf fungi that could be eaten or used as a dye; cup fungus that looked alien; lichens with British soldier’s hats; puffballs, earth stars and tooth fungi; those that could glow in the dark; and those that could kill painfully.

Just picking a poison mushroom does not pose a problem. It would have to be ingested. Yet washing one’s hands before eating lunch was a good suggestion.

The identification process would go for two more hours. Those that could not be readily identified on site would go back with Burghardt to her house. “I’m crazy, I have to know what everything is,” she said.

Particularly nice or unusual specimens would be sent on to the Chrysler Herbarium at Rutgers University, along with the catalogue of the day’s finds, to help increase the knowledge of when and where mushrooms are located in New Jersey.

Beker’s trip had been fruitful. On his own he had found a few hebelomas. And as he perused the picnic tables, he was overjoyed to announce a young person’s find. Salina La Brocca of Jackson Township had found a cluster of small hebelomas that he would take to identify. He took a photo of them on the ground in a wad of moss while La Brocca watched and fidgeted with a few puffballs. She couldn’t resist pinching them to release their cloud of spores. It was a good thing to see a budding scientist get her first sign of recognition.

Another collector, Alexia Maizell from Howell, also had a hebeloma among her collection and was pleased to turn it over to Beker for scientific study.

This writer, with beginner’s luck, found a lone hebeloma near the pinelands stream under a type of beech tree. Beker took it for study.

This was a grand feeling! Others have stars named for them. Would we have a mushroom moniker?

The NJMA has two more local mushroom forays planned this fall: at Estelle Manor Park in Atlantic County on Oct. 28; and at Wells Mills Ocean County Park on Nov. 4. Check with the informative website.

If collecting on your own with a field guide, remember most mushrooms are poisonous or at the least will cause “gastric distress.” Also, many public parks do not allow collection of specimens (the NJMA always requests permission). Be safe and conservation-minded by taking a photo instead.

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