In the midst of the stress and bustle of modern life, some Northwest Arkansans have gone back to nature and found peacefulness, fun and food by gathering wild mushrooms.
In the Facebook group Arkansas Mushrooms and Fungi, more than 7,700 members post pictures of mushrooms they have found in the wild and debate the best places to find wild fungi. Many of these fungus enthusiasts are only interested in learning if they can eat the mushrooms they have stumbled upon. For others, it is about much more.
Jimmy Davis, 33, a Fayetteville resident and member of the group, likes to spend his free time outdoors, often mushroom hunting, he said. Davis has been hunting edible morel mushrooms since he was nine, but this year he got more interested in fungus hunting and identification as an entertaining scientific pursuit, he said.
For Davis, collecting mushrooms, edible and otherwise, is about the love of the hunt and communing with nature. His favorite place to search is in the woods surrounding Lake Fayetteville, and he wants to find every species of mushrooms and fungi he possibly can in Arkansas, he said.
Davis estimates that he has found 200 species of wild mushrooms while hunting in NWA and at his property in Madison county, only a few of which are edible, he said. The edible types he found include oyster mushrooms, chicken of the woods, hen of the woods, shrimp of the woods and wood blewits, Davis said.
“I’ve noticed mushrooms I’ve never seen before, that I didn’t even know existed,” Davis said. “Some of these mushrooms I’ve been seeing since I was a kid and I never even knew they were edible.”
Davis takes everything he finds home with him, researches it using the internet and field guides and, when he is confident he has identified the species, either throws it away or sautés and eats it. Davis thinks most wild mushrooms taste better than store-bought ones, he said. His favorite so far is the wood blewit.
“I don’t even know how to describe it,” Davis said. “It’s one of those tastes that when you bite into it, it’s like the heavens open up and light shines down on you.”
Jay Justice, founder and president of the Arkansas Mycological Society and fungus taxonomy lover since 1977, spends much of his time helping members of the group identify the mushrooms they find. It is hard to know how many fungi species are native to Arkansas because more are being discovered all the time, but estimates put the number upward of 14,000, Justice said. At least 45 edible varieties can be easily found in the state, especially in the summer and fall, he said.
Tyler Usrey, 31, of Rogers, got interested in mushroom hunting this year, he said. While Usrey mostly does it to find edible mushrooms and save on store-bought ones, he has developed an appreciation for the diversity of the fungi kingdom and the complexity of mushroom identification, he said.
“Mushrooms are such a complicated hobby,” Usrey said. “It’s like fixing a car but not knowing what a wrench is. And so you’ve got to learn what all the tools are before you can even start working on the car.”
Justice estimates that “probably one out of several hundred people” will “get that spark” that leads them to look beyond edibility and into the study of wild fungi. Those who do, however, reap the benefits, Justice said. These include a greater understanding of the way fungi interact with their environment, such as how they form symbiotic relationships with trees.
“It causes people to develop an appreciation of the intricacies of nature that we see around us, Justice said. “The deeper you go into the rabbit hole, the more amazing things one sees.”