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The Kitchen Gardener
Mushroom club finds many edible varities

Saturday, October 25, 2003

By Douglass Oster, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

There are few things more mystifying than the wild mushroom. That's why the idea of 100 people harvesting the woodland crop at North Park piqued my interest. On a recent Saturday, the fungi hunters were in a parking lot showing their trophies to John Plischke. There were large yellow oblong fungus, tiny mushrooms with gray caps and long white stems, and one that looked, well, like a human brain.

Plischke, a Greensburg resident, identified each one and several others, too, including a bolete, a chanterelle and something called the Hen of the Woods (surprise, it tastes just like chicken).

Joan Dytman of Highland Park picked this gilled bolete, which is prized for its beautiful color and subtle flavor. (Douglass Oster,Post-Gazette)

Along with his father, also named John, Plischke helped found the Western Pennsylvania Mushroom Club three years ago. They now have 400 members and nearly half of them came to this big fall event called a foray. The son is the club's mycologist (mushroom expert). He has a simple warning for novices:

"Never eat a mushroom unless you're 100 percent sure what it is."

His father adds: "Some mushrooms are so poisonous that there is no cure, like the Death Angel. The reason they call it that is because they kill you and there's nothing any doctor can do."

The morel, the wild mushroom perhaps best known to the public, is available only in the spring. But there are scores of edibles to harvest in the fall. Since the summer was so wet, it's been a bountiful year for mushrooms.

The Plischkes are passionate about mushroom hunting, picking hundreds of pounds a year for most of their lives. The father remembers introducing his son to the hunt one spring, carrying him into the woods on his shoulders.

"[We would] tell him he was shorter to the ground so he could see them better," he said, laughing.

Today, the student has become the teacher, his father said.

"He's the real expert; I know a couple hundred, he knows hundreds and hundreds and hundreds," he said proudly.

Like many club members, Joan Saz of Wexford discovered the joys of hunting mushrooms while she was growing up.

Joan Saz of Wexford sniffs a mushroom in the woods at Hartwood Acres during a recent Western Pennsylvania Mushroom Club foray. The basket she is using is the same one her father used to pick mushrooms when Saz was a child.

"My family is Polish and my grandmother from the Old Country grew up picking mushrooms. We lived on the edge of the woods. She and my father used to go out. My mom always said, 'If your father eats them and he's still here the next day, I'll eat them,' " she said with a chuckle.

Saz still uses her father's picking basket. She found it in the basement after he passed away.

"It was one of the few things I really wanted to take with me because I associated it with those nice times spent with my dad," she said.

Later in the day, she worked her way down the gentle slopes of the woods at Hartwood Acres, discovering different mushrooms along the way. The forest floor was blanketed with fluorescent-orange chanterelles. Saz easily filled brown paper lunch bags in her basket with the tasty finds.

Her friend, Joan Dytman of Highland Park, believed she'd found something special -- a gilled bolete, often sold as porcini mushrooms at specialty markets. It's prized for its beautiful color and subtle flavor. This one was a bright yellowish orange, from top to bottom.

The headliner of the foray was Gary Lincoff, author of the National Audubon Society's "Field Guide to North American Mushrooms." A Pittsburgh native and University of Pittsburgh graduate, he returns annually to hunt mushrooms and speak to the club. At the hotel where the club was meeting, he looked over table after table of mushrooms brought back by the members. Out of the hundreds of varieties, maybe 30 or 40 were edible.

Lincoff knows why searching for mushrooms has such an appeal.

"For some people, this is a sport, it's hunting. For some people, it's food, and for others it's social. It's getting together with like-minded people doing something in the woods."

The hunt is fun, but it's not blind luck.

"Once you see one mushroom sticking up, you know it doesn't come by itself," Lincoff said. "You find these other mushrooms coming up near it. They are all growing either with the tree or with some relationship with a certain pine tree or oak tree."

His success at the hunt determined his choice of transportation.

He took a bus from New York and was going to take one back because he figured he would have a basket of mushrooms and didn't want to go through airport security.

"Like, 'What are these? What are you taking onto this airplane?' On the buses they never ask that question."

For more information about the Western Pennsylvania Mushroom Club, go to or or call 724-834-2358. Dues are $20 for a family, $15 for a single and $10 for full-time students. Meetings are held the third Tuesday of the month at Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve. The club holds 35 walks and a couple of big forays each year.

The Backyard Gardener appears periodically. To read earlier columns and other garden features, visit PG Online Gardening at Oster can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 412-263-1484.

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