Book Review

Fascinating Fungi of New England

By Lawrence Millman
2011 / ISBN 978-1-936571-01-7
$14.95 (softcover, vii + 134 pp.)

This little (8 x 6 inches) book was written to introduce the curious amateur to the fascinating world of fungi. As such, it includes a number of common species, some not-so-common species, some weird ones, colorful ones, and popular edible ones. It makes no attempt to be comprehensive and expressly excludes the “little brown jobs,” or LBJ’s, known elsewhere as LBM’s, little brown mushrooms.

Although ostensibly targeted at fungal newbies, the publisher touts the book as “the first ever guide to the mushrooms of New England,” seemingly in an attempt to attract buyers from among the already-initiated. Now while the publisher’s claim might strictly be true (I can’t recall any other guide dealing with the mushrooms of New England and only New England), it is more than a bit misleading as there are already several good guides that cover New England’s mushrooms, including Mushrooms of Northeastern North America (Bessette, Bessette, and Fischer) and Mushrooms of Northeast North America (Barron). So, if you already have one of the earlier, more comprehensive, guides for the Northeast, do you also need this one? And, if you have no guides for the area, should this be your first? Let’s see.

The book commences with 11 pages of introductory matter explaining what mushrooms, ascomycetes, and basidiomycetes are, main features of mushroom anatomy, the general mushroom life cycle and lifestyles, where, when, and how to collect mushrooms, hints for identifying your finds, the question of edibility, and how to use the book. The species accounts comprise the bulk of the book, and are followed by a list of recommended books, glossary, index, and short list of magazines, websites, and New England mushroom clubs.

The species accounts cover 134 mushrooms, 1 mold, and 4 slime molds. Each typically occupies about two-thirds of a page. With the exception of a subheading for habitat and season, the text is presented in commentary format rather than strict categories (cap, gills, stalk, edibility, etc.), and includes a variety of information, not just the descriptive details of size, color, and so forth. Millman has a fondness for the unobtrusive and little-appreciated fungi and many of his comments present information that you won’t find in other books. He also has a somewhat corny sense of humor and is not bashful about sharing it. It contributes to his distinctive entertaining style, but I must confess to emitting a “really-bad-pun”-type groan now and then. For each species, there is an attractively rendered illustration (by Rick Kollath), usually in pictorial, rather than documentary, style. The main illustration is accompanied by a small icon depicting gill attachment, often one showing spore color, and others indicating non-edibility or deadly toxicity, plus notes on the months in which it fruits, cap diameter and stem height, and key ID features. The illustrations are charming and mostly accurate, although the color is off in a few and many do not show all the features you would need for identification. A first in my experience is the inclusion of the author, for scale, in the illustration of a rather large Bondarzewia berkeleyi!

The species accounts are augmented by a number of sidebars that provide interesting information about such things as the Meixner test, the reason russulas are brittle, and mushroom bioluminescence.

Millman makes clear that the book is not intended to be a guide to edibility, and he is true to his word. Edibility is ignored for most species, typically being explicitly addressed only for the poisonous ones. While this likely won’t bother non-mycophagists, I suspect that many readers will be unhappy with that approach. For those who would use the book for identification in general, it should be noted that there is little, if any, discussion of look-alikes.

Although I think this is a fine book in most respects, disappointingly, many bits of misinformation have crept into it. For example, the description of fungus sex has it backwards. With respect to two “horny mycelia” of the same species in a myco-singles bar, we are told “... they try to mate the moment they encounter each other. Most of the time they aren’t successful because they’re of different genders or mating types.” In actuality, for most fungi, a high percentage of encounters with other mycelia would be successful because a strain is compatible with all mating types other than its own. Thus, a horny mycelium of a fungus such as Schizophyllum commune has its choice of many thousands of different mating types and would be able to play the field. It is not true that “a mycelium will eat anything that’s organic.” Different species have different preferences and none can “eat” everything. The Canadian morel mass poisoning occurred at a retirement banquet for the Vancouver, B.C. Chief of Police. It did not involve a bunch of Mounties at a convention, although admittedly the vision of red-coated Dudley Do-rights in gastrointestinal distress is a bit more evocative than the actual event. The American matsutake was described by Charles Horton Peck in the early 1870’s from material collected in New York, so the speculation that it migrated to the East from the West Coast in the last 50 or so years cannot be correct. Boreal forests have evolved with and are well adapted to fire, so the statement that “In all probability, the Yukon’s forest fires are the consequence of global warming” is true only if one is referring to the warming that has taken place since the end of the Pleistocene glaciation 10,000 or so years ago (although the recent warming attributed in large part to human activities could be increasing the frequency of fires). And there are (usually minor) problems with many descriptions, such as the illustration for the coral-like Clavaria zollingeri showing unbranched clubs that appear to be C. purpurea (destined to reside in the genus, Alloclavaria, when the transfer is validly published).

So, given these accuracy issues, should you buy this book? I say “yes” whether it would be your first guide for the Northeast, or an addition to your existing guides. I think it will do a good job of engaging those new to the world of fungi. It is informative, but not too heavy, and Millman’s humor makes for a fun read, despite those occasional groans. The pleasing layout and attractive illustrations make it perhaps more accessible to a newcomer than the existing photographic field guides would be. Thus, it would make a good gift for someone to whom you would like to introduce the Fungi. It also is worth having for those who already own a Northeast guide, as it includes some species not found in other books, the illustrations provide additional images that give a different perspective than photographs, and the comments often present information you won’t find elsewhere.

— Review by Steve Trudell, Seattle, WA
— Originally published in Mycophile