Island produces impressive mushrooms

Fall is one of the best times to walk the dog on Whidbey Island because of all the mushrooms.

What a contrast to spring, when the wild roses hide fences along the roadside, madrona trees drop white beads in bunches, and salmonberry blossoms brighten the green roadsides.

Thanks to mushrooms, the fall walking experience is entirely different, particularly if you live in a moist, woodsy area that hasn’t entirely fallen victim to Whidbey’s time-lapse tsunami called development. The dampness, vast quantities of decaying materials, and lack of sunshine combine to produce what must be some of the weirdest mushrooms on the planet.

The variety is too vast to catalog. There are dainty, white mushrooms protected by cedar trees, plump, gray mushrooms on the lawn, and bumpy brown mushrooms beneath the rhododendrons. Every day is different, as mushrooms can pop up overnight, or change just as instantly. What starts out as a Space Needle shape broadens into an umbrella, and then becomes an inverted umbrella before raindrops splatter it to smithereens. Some shapes can’t help but remind the observer of certain body parts, once unmentionable except during health class but now widely alluded to on TV sitcoms.

Mushrooms often grow in groups, taking advantage of a particularly nourishing underground decomposition. One bunch looks like a bountiful plate of stemmed pancakes, while another looks like a modernist bus shelter for mice. Some are big enough for fairies to have a hoe-down on, or serve as giant platters in a feast given by the Queen of Hearts.

And some mushrooms are utterly gruesome, particularly the brownish-green ones that rush to the surface in November. With stems as thick and gnarly as a boxer’s wrists, they rudely shove the soil aside in their hurry to appear. Their broad tops are bulbous and oozy, and soon glisten with the combination of rain and rot. Slugs love these ugly things which, when combined with the slugs and their slime, make a mixture that would turn away the boldest Fear Factor contestant. Even the dog won’t sniff them.

It’s too bad that Whidbey’s wild mushrooms are so widely ignored, except for those few varieties that are good to eat when fried in butter. In other words, these are the ones that won’t kill you if ingested, as anything fried in butter is good, from shoe tongue to trouser strips to mushroom slices.

Nobody advertises Mushroom Days on Whidbey Island, and nobody hosts Mushroom Tours to benefit charities and promote towns. You won’t find mushroom growers who brag about this hybrid or that, or the amazing new color they’ve coaxed from mixing species.

You can’t make money from them or impress your friends with them, so people pretty much leave mushrooms alone to grow as they please wherever they please. Mushrooms are one of our last reminders of what nature can do without the hand of man, and it’s pretty impressive.

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