As summer nears its end and fall encroaches, mushrooms begin rearing their toadstool heads.

The coastal temperate rainforests of the Tongass and Chugach national forests often produce prolific fruitings of mushrooms.

Many Alaskans are searching for mushrooms for food, a source of pigments for dyeing wool or for just to enjoy the different types of fungi out there. 

We joined Christin Swearingin, a local mushroom expert, for a mushroom hunting walk at Goose Lake Park in the latest "Get Out" segment.

The park was filled with all types of fungi -- we spent an hour and found dozens of different species. The mushrooms were all different sizes and colors: tall, fat, short, white, colorful, plain or spotted. Each had a different look and spongy like feel. 

I learned that each fungi can produce unique odors. Some smell grassy while others can offend the senses -- it's that bad.

Mushrooms are produced by fungi, and their primary purpose is to make and spread tiny reproductive propagules called spores, which function much like plant seeds. After long being considered primitive plants, fungi now are accepted as their own kingdom.

Unlike plants, fungi cannot make their own food, and their cell walls contain chitin rather than cellulose. Interestingly, chitin also is found in insect exoskeletons, providing evidence that the fungi are more closely related to animals than they are to plants. 

Mushrooms come from a mycelium, which is the actual “body” of the fungus and is comprised of a network of many tube-like microscopic filaments called hyphae.

Spores need a location with suitable moisture, temperature, and nutrient conditions to germinate and grow into a new mycelium. Each mushroom is capable of producing anywhere from thousands to billions of spores, but only an incredibly tiny fraction of them survive. 

Fungi are the second most diverse group of organisms following the insects, with known mushroom-producing species currently totaling around 40,000–55,000 worldwide.

When harvesting mushrooms remember:  collect the entire mushroom and, if possible, collect several specimens that show a range of variation; keep collections separate to reduce possible confusion when you return home; take note of the surroundings in which you found each collection.

It is suggested you record details like what kind of trees are in the area and the substrate the mushroom is growing on –  wood, soil, moss, other mushrooms. Also make note of the color and odor of the mushroom and any color changes that may occur when you cut it in half or handle it. 

Five percent of all mushrooms are choice edible, 5 percent are deadly poisonous and 90 percent are in the “meh” category: they could give you a stomachache, or are just too slimy or tough or tiny to eat. The only way to be poisoned by a deadly mushroom is to eat it; they’re safe to touch.

Finally, when harvesting wild mushrooms: 

    • Remember there are no “rules of thumb” to determine whether a mushroom is poisonous or edible. The only reliable approach is to know exactly what species you have. When in doubt, do not eat.
    • Collect only fresh mushrooms in good condition from uncontaminated environments (e.g., avoid major roadsides and chemically treated lawns). 
    • Save two or three specimens in good condition in the refrigerator for later inspection by experienced identifiers in the event of adverse effects. 
    • Always cook mushrooms well before eating. 
    • When trying a new species, eat only a small amount of that one species and then wait 24-48 hours before eating other mushrooms.

People can have reactions to edible species, as with any food. If you have an adverse reaction report it to the North American Mycological Association poison case registry at www.namyco.org

Eat wild mushrooms in moderation. Some contain toxins that appear to accumulate in our bodies and adverse effects will manifest over time. Overeating even edible species can still make you sick because mushrooms can be difficult to digest. 

Learn more about fungi and mushrooms Sept. 7-9 at the Girdwood Fungus Fair at the Girdwood Community Room: www.fungusfair.com.

Curious about mushrooms near your home? Share your photos with us and we'll try to help you identify them!