RICE TWP. — Dave Wasilewski held death in his hand.
Minutes later, he clutched a delicacy.
That’s the routine when it comes to mushroom hunting – the poisonous varieties are just as common as those that are tasty.
With a summer full of rainy day and humid weather, mushroom hunting is at its peak for several varieties. During a recent walk in a hardwood forest, it didn’t take long for Wasilewski to find succulent black trumpets and chanterelles along an old logging road.
And just a few feet away, Wasilewski also spotted a few dangerous varieties with ominous names, such as destroying angel – a deceivingly beautiful species with a white cap, delicate gills underneath and a thin skirt around the stem.
After a brief examination, Wasilewski discarded the destroying angel and went back to plucking smooth chanterelles from the forest floor.
And there were plenty.
“This is as good as it gets right now,” Wasilewski said. “This is one of the best summers I’ve seen.”
After a 200-yard walk, Wasilewski had a bag full of chanterelles and black trumpets and had identified more than a dozen species.
While weather conditions have made for prime mushroom picking, it also helps that Wasilewski, who is the president of the Wyoming Valley Mushroom Club, knows where to look.
“Some species of fungi are mycorrhizal, meaning the organism establishes a long-term symbiotic relationship with a given tree or other plant. In some cases, a fungal species may associate with only one particular species of tree,” Wasilewski said. “For example, the species Suillus spraguei — painted bolete — is a mushroom produced by a fungus that associates exclusively with eastern white pine.”
There aren’t any species that associate with maple trees, he said, but stands of oak and hickory are a haven to many types of mushrooms.
And that’s where Wasilewski focuses his efforts during late summer hunts.
He lists the popinky, black trumpet and chicken of the woods as among his favorite species to eat, but Wasilewski’s hunts have another purpose other than to fill a frying pan.
The Wyoming Valley Mushroom Club has been funded to participate in the North American Mycoflora Project – an initiative to gather information on the types of fungi and their geographic range. Samples are collected and placed in a vial filled with a preservative, which will ultimately be DNA-sequenced and sent to a herbarium for storage. Wasilewski is focusing on mycorrhizal species and said there are 100 or more in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
While Wasilewski is certainly an expert on mushrooms, he admits that wasn’t always the case.
His first exposure to mushroom hunting came from his father and uncle, who frequently hunted the fall woods for popinkies.
“It seemed interesting to go out in the woods and find things you could eat growing on the ground,” Wasilewski said.
Later, he and a friend went on their own mushroom hunt, filling a shopping bag with everything they could find.
“We dumped it out on the kitchen table with our identification books and three hours later we may have identified just three species,” Wasilewski said. “I knew then if I wanted to expand my knowledge base beyond popinkies, it was going to take a lot of work.”
Today, Wasilewski has become so proficient at mushroom identification that he even played a role in naming a species – amanita luzernensis – that he found in Ricketts Glen State Park.
Still, even though the science aspect plays a large role in Wasilewski’s hunts, he always keeps an eye out for something that will go good with dinner.
“Here’s a nice cluster of chanterelles,” he said, leaning down to a bright orange cluster of fungi. “They’re good with a steak. Slice them, fry with onions and add some salt and it’s delicious.”
And, thanks to a rainy summer, easy to find.
“The heat and the rain together brings out the summer mushrooms like crazy. It might not make for the nicest weather, but it’s really good for mushroom picking,” Wasilewski said.
Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky