Alaska 'shrooms are in bloom

Jeff Lowenfels
Pia Cottini of Palmer carefully carries her entry, a giant puffball mushroom that weighed more than 12 pounds, to the crops department for the 2009 Alaska State Fair.
Daily News archive 2009

It never fails. August approaches and people start to ask about mushrooms in their lawns and around their trees. Lots of questions, but always centering around what they are or how to get rid of them.

Let's deal with getting rid of them first. Again, I have to divide this into two parts as there are two types of mushrooms.

The first type of mushrooms come from saprophytic fungi. These live off rotting material in your yard.

The second type of mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of ectomycorrhizal fungi, the ones that form a symbiotic relationship with trees. From a yardening point of view, these are a very positive sign. Their presence means your trees have at least a healthy mycorrhizae and should be getting all the nutrients they need. That is what the fungi do; they feed the plants, in return for some carbons from the plants.

In either case, mushrooms are the norm in healthy, organic yards, especially here in Alaska. They are not something to fear. They do not indicate any deficiencies. In fact, not having them is really a problem. No Amanitas around your birches? Then you should be a bit worried.

Which brings us to the first question. What are they, exactly, often coupled with are they edible. These days, it is getting easier and easier to identify mushrooms.

The longtime reader knows I am a big believer in having at least one mushroom identification book around. You could start with Harriette Parker's "Alaska's Mushrooms, a Practical Guide." which is published by Northwest Books and runs around $15 new. It is not a complete book of all the mushrooms you might find, but most are here along with how to go about identifying them, which ones are edible and how to cook those that are.

A bit more expensive, about $25, is "Mushrooms Demystified" by David Arora and published by Ten Speed Press. It has a bunch of 'shroom lore and a somewhat humorous approach to mycology. I picked mine up used and noted there were several copies. And, as a matter of fact, since most mushrooms that grow here grow elsewhere, almost any of the other used identification guides would do just fine.

Then there is the web. As you can imagine, there are all sorts of sites dedicated to mushrooming in Alaska because there are so many mushrooms up here, some of which are quite tasty (others are very poisonous. Never eat a mushroom you are not positive is safe to eat). For example, has some fine pictures and identifications of Anchorage area mushrooms. Unfortunately, the last entry was in 2005. I wonder if there was a bad mushroom involved?

Check out which I have to admit is a long URL, so Google "constantine mushroom alaska." Laurie's cooking blog has a great section of pictures and discussion of local mushrooms of the edible variety. You will be surprised to see how many you have right in your own yard.

Finally, don't forget the "images" section of your favorite search engine. Type in "Mushrooms, Alaska" and you will be presented with a collection of pics that you can use to help learn what is growing in and around your yard by way of fungal fruiting bodies.

Jeff Lowenfels is a member of the Garden Writers Hall of Fame. You can reach him at or by calling 274-5297 during "The Garden Party" radio show from 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays on KBYR AM-700.