Although trees and squirrels may be the most well-known natural features on the Bowdoin campus, the College’s surroundings are also home to hundreds of species of fungi. Several members of the Bowdoin community are taking full advantage of these resources.

Delmar Small, Concert, Budget, and Equipment Manager of the Music department, developed an interest in mushrooms after noticing their abundance in Maine’s natural environment. 

“We got a dog,” he said. “So I  started walking her every morning, taking her out in the woods and letting her run free in the woods. And I was  like, ‘hm, look at that!’”

When Small began investigating the fungi he saw, he was surprised to learn that many of Maine’s mushrooms are edible.

“Some of the ones that I’d seen all the time were edible—really good edibles. It’s like ‘oh my gosh, five years we’ve had chanterelles in the backyard and [I] didn’t know it,’” he said.
Like Small, Chair of the Biology Department Nat Wheelwright’s interest in mushrooms stemmed from his explorations in the woods.

“I was constantly on field trips with students and I could point out the trees and the insects and the birdsongs, but when they would point to fungus, I would have to plead the fifth. So I decided I needed to smarten up,” said Wheelwright. 

Wheelwright and Small both joined the Maine Mycological Association, a group committed to studying fungi and Maine’s natural environment. 

“Picture all these little old ladies in tennis sneakers, bright clothes, [with] great enthusiasm, [a] tremendous amount of knowledge, just picking their way through the woods excitedly, hollering out when they came across some great find… They’re just great naturalists,” Wheelwright described.

The organization, which meets in several Maine towns, hosts panels and presentations on mushrooms during the winter and conducts forays when the weather is more bearable. In August 2014, they hosted the Northeast Mycological Federation Foray at Bowdoin.

“Clubs from Quebec all the way down to West Virginia in this federation met at Bowdoin for three days for excursions and lectures and demonstrations and workshops,” said Small. “So we had 200 people here… we had Thorne Hall full of mushrooms.”

While the Maine Mycological Association certainly brings together mushroom enthusiasts, foraging doesn’t require big groups of experts, only some enthusiasm and common sense.
“The king bolete [is] super easy to recognize, very hard to poison yourself with, and delicious,” Wheelwright said.

He frequently forages for edible fungi near his home and also farms his own mushrooms using old aspen trees and mycelium plugs—batches of fungal cells that can be bought on the internet. His favorites include the suillus mushroom, which produces a flavor he likens to chicken fat.  
For some scientists, however, foraging is an exercise of intellectual curiously rather than a desire to eat mushrooms. Mycology—the study of mushrooms and fungi—is a very specific field with broad applications in sectors such as energy, ecology, agriculture and medicine, so there is much room for new research. 

“It’s one of those areas that the more you study it, the more you realize there is to study,” said Small. “You never come to the end of it. You never feel like, ‘oh, I’ve completely mastered mushrooms. I know every mushroom I’m going to encounter.’ You just can’t.”

Studying mushrooms here at Bowdoin could help students contribute to fungal research in the future. Several of Wheelwright’s former biology students went on to complete graduate work in mycology and a few now hold faculty positions as mycologists. 

The hobby is not limited at Bowdoin  to Wheelwright and Small. Gary M. Pendy Professor of Social Sciences Jean Yarbrough and Professor Religion Emerita Jorunn Buckley also share an interest in mycology. 

Sofi Lopez ’18, a biology major, is currently researching fungi as part of Wheelwright’s Behavioral Ecology and Population Biology course. 

“It’s very interesting to just look at the different colors of the caps, and whether the caps are slimy, or smooth, or bumpy,” she said. “I have been making a lot of spore prints with them, so you take the cap off the mushroom and put it on like a piece of paper... and it shows you the pattern of gills or pores, which is really cool to see. It’s really beautiful.”

Lopez and her biology classmates will present their findings at an open house on November 30 and December 1. However, enrollment in class or membership in a group isn’t necessary to forage for mushrooms. 

“Around the parking lot edges, sometimes there are things that grow kind of regularly,” said Small. “There are some big trees here on the central part of campus that periodically host some nice edibles.”

Lopez recommends the Bowdoin Pines as a starting place. 

“They’re just all over the Pines if you look for them,” she said. “Just take a walk in the woods and see what you can find.”