Open main menu

TWELVE EDIBLE MUSHROOMS OF THE UNITED STATES.

For several years past the Division of Microscopy of the U. S. Department of Agriculture has been in receipt of numerous letters from regular correspondents and others to the effect that in various localities, representing almost every section and climate of the Union, there are found large quantities of edible mushrooms and other allied fungi, few of which are utilized because the great majority of the people do not know how to distinguish the edible from the poisonous species. To obtain some clear and trustworthy criteria by which to make this essential distinction has been the object of the various communications received, and, in view of the highly nutritious properties of this class of esculents and of the great possible value of their aggregate product, as indicated by the vast quantities produced in countries where attention is given to their cultivation, the importance of a satisfactory answer to these inquiries will be readily appreciated.

FOOD VALUE OF MUSHROOMS.

Eollrausch and Siegel, who claim to have made exhaustive investigations into the food values of mushrooms, state that "many species deserve to be placed beside meat as sources of nitrogenous nutriment," and their analysis, if correct, fully bears out the statement. They find in 100 parts of dried Morchella esculenta 35.18 per cent of protein; in Helvella esculenta, 26.31 per cent of protein, from 46 to 49 per cent of potassium salts and phosphoric acid, 2.3 per cent of fatty matter, and a considerable quantity of sugar. The Boletus edulis they represent as containing in 100 parts of the dried substance 22.82 per cent of protein. The nitrogenous values of different foods as compared with the mushroom are stated as follows: "Protein substances calculated for 100 parts of bread, 8.03; of oatmeal, 9.74; of barley bread, 6.39; of leguminous fruits, 27.05; of potatoes, 4.85; of mushrooms, 33.0." A much larger proportion of the various kinds of mushrooms are edible than is generally supposed, but a prejudice has grown up concerning them in this country which it will take some time to eradicate. Notwithstanding the occurrence of occasional fatal accidents through the inadvertent eating of poisonous species, fungi are largely consumed both by savage and civilized man in all parts of the world, and while they contribute so considerable a portion of the food product of the world we may be sure their value will not be permanently overlooked in the United States, especially when we consider our large accessions of population from countries in which the mushroom is a familiar and much prized edible.

In France mushrooms form a very large article of consumption and are widely cultivated. Mushroom beds are cultivated in caves, frequently miles in extent. A cave at Mery is mentioned as containing, in 1867,21 miles of beds, and producing not less than 3,000 pounds daily. Another at Frepillon contains 16 miles of beds. The catacombs and quarries of Paris and vicinity, aud the caves of Moulin de la Roche, Sous Bicetre, and Bagneux produce immense quantities of mushrooms. They are all under Government supervision, and are regularly inspected like the mines.

The mushroom which is cultivated in these quarries and caves almost to the exclusion of all others is the " Snow Ball" (Agaricus arvensis). The truffle is held in high esteem and is largely exported. In 1872 the quantity of truffles exported from France was valued at over 3,000,000 francs. In 1879 at nearly 10,000,000 francs. Immense quantities of the Agaricus deliciosus are sold in the Marseilles markets. The Fistulina hepatica is also in great demand, and many other varieties appear from time to time in the markets throughout France. The natives of Australia use largely a truffle which attains a weight of more than 2 pounds, and is known under the name of "native bread." The Chinese, who are noted for the care bestowed on their esculent vegetation, consume large quantities of edible fungi, importing largely from Japan and Tahiti. Tne trade in edible fungi from Tahiti to China commenced about the year 1866; in 1868 only 70 tons were shipped; in 1,873,135 tons were exported to China, and in 1,874,152 tons were exported.

A very laudable practice of the Chinese Government alluded to in an English journal, and which might perhaps be advantageously adopted in this country, is the publishing for annual gratuitous distribution of numerous treatises, describing the different herbs which can be utilized in whole or in part for food purposes. One of these treatises is called the "Anti-Famine Herbal," aud consists of six volumes, containing descriptions, with illustrations, of over four hundred plants which can be used as food. These volumes are of inestimable value in districts where the ravages of insects, drought, etc., have destroyed the grain and rice crops, and famine is imminent. For some years past New Zealand has exported large quantities of an edible fungus to San Franciso and Hongkong for use of the Celestials. A full account of this industry may be obtained from the United States consular reports. The gathering and drying of the fungus give profitable employment to large numbers of colonial children, as well as to the Maoris. The species grows abundantly in the wooded regions of New Zealand, and when dry is worth from 4 to 5 pence a pound. The Chinese, who are singularly free from prejudice in the matter of food, use it, as they do the edible nest of their swallow, as a chief ingredient in their favorite soup. They also employ it as a medicine, and, stranger still, for making a valuable dye for silk. Another remarkable edible fungus of New Zealand is the Sphccria Eobertsii, which grows out of the body of a large caterpillar, practically converting the latter into vegetable substance. The caterpillar lives under ground, and the fungus springs upward through the soil till it reaches a height of 8 or 10 inches. It is eaten by the Maoris, who use it also, when burned, as a coloring matter.

The Japanese grow several species of edible fungi in logs of decaying wood in a manner peculiar to themselves, and, aside from the home consumption, they in one year exported to China mushrooms to the value of $60,000, In 1879 mushrooms were exported from Japan to the value of 243,440 yens. The yen is equal to 99.7 cents. Among the northeastern tribes of Asia fungi are largely used as food. One species, when pounded, forms their snuff, while auother, the Fly Agaric, which is utilized in Europe as a fly killer, and is regarded as one of the most poisonous forms, is used by them as a substitute for ardent spirits. One large specimen is sufficient "to produce a pleasant intoxication for a whole day," the alcohol being obtained by the usual method of fermentation. In many parts of Europe fungi are a favorite food, being eaten fresh, and also preserved in vinegar for winter use. For pickling purposes, all kinds, it is said, are gathered, the vinegar being supposed to neutralize the alkaline poison of the noxious species. The common mushroom, the morel, and the truffle are, however, the favorite edible fungi. In Italy the value of the mushroom as an article of diet has long been understood and appreciated. Pliny, Galen, and Dioscorides mention various esculent species, notably varieties of the truffle, the boletus and the puftball. At Rome it has been the custom of the Government to appoint inspectors to examine all the mushrooms brought into market and to reject such as are poisonous or worthless, which are thrown into the Tiber. It was forbidden also to hawk mushrooms about the streets, and all were required to be sent to the central depot for inspection.

The yearly average of the taxed mushrooms sold (all over 10 pounds being taxed) in the city of Home alone, for the past decade, has been estimated at between 60,000 and 80,000 pounds weight. Large quantities of mushrooms are consumed in Germany, Hungary, Russia, and Austria, and in the latter country a list is published, by authority, of those mushrooms which upon official examination maybe sold. Darwin speaks of Terra del Fuego as the only country where cryptogamic plants form a staple article of food. A bright yellow fungus allied to Bulgarin forms, with shellfish, the staple food of the Fuegians. In England the common meadow mushroom Agaricus campestris is quite well known and used to a considerable extent among the people, but there is not that general knowledge of and use of other species which obtains on the continent. Much has been done of late years by the Kev. M. J. Berkeley, Dr. Curtis, Dr. C. D. Badham, Dr. M. C. Cooke, Worthington G. Smith, Prof. Charles Peck, and others to disseminate general knowledge on this subject. That America is rich in the quantity and variety of her esculent fungi is readily seen by the fact that one hundred and eleven species of edible fungi have been described by the Bev. Dr. Curtis, State botanist of North Carolina, as indigenous to that State alone. Late investigations show that nearly all the species common to the countries of Continental Europe are found in different localities in the United States. Dr. J. J. Brown, of Sheboygan, Wis., writes that edible mushrooms are found in his neighborhood in great abundance.

In preparing this paper for publication I have made selections from such of the species of edible mushrooms as have marked peculiarities of structure, habits, taste, odor, color, juice, and changeof color of juice on exposure to the atmosphere.