Local fungi expert helps residents discover the bounty in their backyard | News

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If you’re taking a hike through the woods near Norwood Pond, Misery Islands, Willowdale Forest, or other wooded areas throughout Essex County, you may run into a group of people in the midst of a hunt. Carrying baskets, brushes, and booklets, these individuals may look different than the typical big-game hunters you’ve seen, because they’re in search of a different kind of prize — fungi.

Jana Harris, a member of the Boston Mycological Club — a nonprofit group that studies, collects, and spreads information on mushrooms and other fungi — is a local fungi expert who you could expect to see out foraging. For the past couple years, in collaboration with organizations such as Essex Heritage or local libraries, Harris has been hosting fungi foraging walks across the North Shore for people looking to learn more about the world of mycelium.

“I was born and grew up in Slovakia, and in lots of Central or Eastern European countries, (foraging for mushrooms) is really like a national sport,” said Harris, who lives in Beverly. “I used to go out as a kid alongside my aunt and my mom, and then I kind of forgot about it when I grew up. But then when I got married and moved to New England, I ended up joining the Boston Mycological Club.”

The Boston Mycological Club, made up of around 800 members, holds foraging walks every Sunday between the end of June and end of October in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, or New Hampshire. At the height of COVID, the group held weekly calls to continue their lectures and education on different topics including growing edible mushrooms, avoiding deadly/poisonous mushrooms, how to grow mushrooms at home, and even the complexities of psychedelic mushrooms.

In 2021, Harris obtained her wild mushroom food safety certification and started her own foraging group, “Essex Forays” to guide residents of the North Shore of all ages through local mycology.

“I worked a little bit in the education field, and the tutoring center I was trying to get back to after COVID told me they weren’t hiring, so I decided to do something else. Some of my friends in New Hampshire had been taking people on walks and doing lectures for libraries about fungi, so I ended up doing that myself. I started doing the walks for different homeschooling groups, private schools, Essex Heritage, and then Greenbelt, Essex County’s Land Trust,” said Harris.

At the beginning of these forays, Harris typically gives a short, basic overview of the fungi kingdom, including how they reproduce, which species to look out for, and how to ID them, before heading out to whichever trail, forest, or dune the group has gathered to explore.

“ Lots of people will be completely new, they’ll just see lots of mushrooms on their walks and so they want to learn what (species of fungi) they are seeing,” explained Harris. “Then there’s also a small group of people that immigrated from the other countries and they know some mushrooms from back home, but since they’ve moved from across the ocean or wherever, they want to learn about the local mushrooms. Then some people love to do art with them. They use the actual dry mushrooms to make art, take them home to do a spore print, or dye fabrics and yarn with the mushrooms, there’s lots of avenues.”

With this summer seeing a fair amount of rain, there’s no shortage of fungi sprouting up. In particular, edible species such as the popular, sweet-tasting chanterelle mushrooms are appearing in droves. However, at the same time, the poisonous look-alike to chanterelles, Jack-O-Lantern mushrooms, are also a common sight, warranting caution when identifying species for consumption.

While a variety of apps and websites exist to assist in identifying fungi species, Harris advocates for hands-on interaction with fungi alongside local mycological groups as the safer and more effective way to learn.

“All the mushrooms, even the deadly toxic and poisonous mushrooms can be safely touched, as long as you don’t consume anything,” she said. “You should never consume raw mushrooms or anything that you haven’t identified. But if you’re willing to learn, you can save yourself from any (harm).”

Harris also produces an informational talk-show called “Fungi Finders” through Ipswich’s public access TV, with episodes covering topics like medicinal mushrooms, fungi reproduction, and more.

Information about upcoming walks or lectures, or how to schedule them, can be found on the Essex Foray’s Facebook page . The most immediate event is a mushroom walk at Norwood Pond in Beverly on Sept. 20, followed by a walk at the Weir River Farm in Hingham on Sept. 30.

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