Photography changes how mushrooms are collected

Nancy Smith Weber

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Nancy Smith Weber [ BIO ]


Nancy Smith Weber

Nancy Smith Weber, affiliate faculty member of the Depart of Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University, holds both masters and doctorate degrees in botany from the University of Michigan, where she specialized in mycology. She is senior or co-author of over fifty publications on mycological topics, many about morels and related cup-fungi in western North America.

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Nancy Smith Weber, author of numerous field guides, explains how photography came to play a central role in the field of mycology and mushroom hunting.

“Can I eat it?” is the first question often asked about a mushroom. A better question to ask is: “What might happen to me if I eat it?” Many kinds of mushrooms can be chewed and swallowed; however, when eaten, some kinds cause problems including mild indigestion, serious illness, or death.

The safest way to obtain edible mushrooms is to “hunt” among the cultivated button and specialty mushrooms that can be “collected” in the produce sections of well-stocked grocery stores. These mushrooms are less expensive than a hospital stay and are species with good safety records.

Nonetheless, wild mushrooms are hunted for food in this and other countries. With thousands of described species and new ones being described every year, it is impractical to try to learn all of them. Wise hunters need to learn how to identify their local edible and poisonous kinds and pick, then eat, share, or sell only those kinds with a reputation of being safe to eat.

Aspiring mushroom hunters gather knowledge from many sources including their families and friends (and hope they were knowledgeable rather than just lucky), talks, classes, workshops, books, mushroom fairs, mushroom clubs, and the internet. Photographs are important components of many of these activities.

Mushrooms stay where they grow or are put and do not complain—welcomed attributes for photographers. Most mushrooms are short-lived, lasting between a day and a few weeks; few of them are attractive when dried. Photographs, however, can capture and preserve the beauty and detail of fresh specimens quickly and inexpensively in an easily-shared form.

By the late 1800s, mushroom photography had become a hobby for individuals and a tool for scientists, educators, and artists. The Ohio Mycological Bulletin, published from 1903 to 1908, included photographic and written contributions from subscribers. William Ashbrook Kellerman, a botany professor at Ohio State University, wrote for and edited the Bulletin. The internet now provides a venue for enthusiasts to share their contributions.

Educational materials about mushrooms abound. Through their bulletins, the Agricultural Experimental Stations and the Cooperative Extension Service have been leaders in educating the public about wild mushrooms. Most of the current bulletins are written by local experts, illustrated with photographs, and contain brief guidelines for eating mushrooms and concise descriptions of a selection of local, common, distinctive, edible, and poisonous species. George Francis Atkinson wrote two bulletins about mushrooms for the Cornell University Cooperative Extension program in the 1890s. They were so popular that Atkinson expanded them into a book, Studies of American Fungi Mushrooms Edible. Poisonous, etc., first published in 1900. It exemplifies the scientist-as-educator type of publication. His long range goal was to photograph and describe as many of the mushrooms of North America as he could. His photographs balanced scientific accuracy and artistry in ways that are still worthy of study.

Atkinson’s book was one of many written to be used at home or in a laboratory after a collecting trip; some books could not be conveniently carried in a pocket, pack, or basket. In such cases it was, and is, easier to take the mushrooms to the book rather than take the book to the mushrooms. In the first half of the 20th century a new style of book was developed-the field guide. These publications cover many species and are richly illustrated, usually with photographs. Their text balances detail and portability. They can be taken to the mushrooms easily.

The publication of The Mushroom Hunter’s Field Guide in 1958 triggered a boom in mushroom hunting and writing about mushrooms, thanks in large part to Donald Malcolm’s review of it in the New Yorker. Alexander H. Smith, a professor of botany at the University of Michigan, was the author and photographer for the book. The book’s sales surprised and delighted the publisher and author alike.

For the serious students of mushrooms, a broad range of topical and photographically illustrated books on mushrooms is available, e.g., about specific groups such as chanterelles or morels, the use of mushrooms for dying fabric and yarn, the role of mushrooms in nature, the diagnosis and treatment of mushroom poisoning, and on gourmet cooking with mushrooms.

An admirable feature of the community of mushroom enthusiasts is that its members come from diverse backgrounds and occupations and mingle with one another on an equal basis. Everyone knows something about the fungi in their home territory, but no one knows everything. Mycology is an equalizer and a humbler of the proud. Photography—at the intersection of art, food, and science—plays a central role in bringing people together in community to enjoy friends, fellowship, fun, and fungi.

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Anthurus borealis by George F. Atkinson
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Anthurus borealis by George F. Atkinson
The Mushroom Hunter's Field Guide by Alexander H. Smith and Nancy Smith Weber
  • The Mushroom Hunter's Field Guide, 1980
  • Alexander H. Smith and Nancy Smith Weber
Portrait of George F. Atkinson by Unidentified photographer

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