Northwoods author introduces readers to fascinating fungi
A walk through the woods with Cora Mollen is an eye opening experience. While the birds in the trees and the woodland plants all hold a special allure, it’s the fungi that stand out the most for this spry and engaging author.
“I guess after hunting mushrooms all these years, they just seem to pop out when I see one,” she said with a smile. “It’s always a thrill when I find one though. I just think they are such fascinating parts of the landscape.”
Cora’s captivation with woodland fungi has resulted in a book, a second one in fact, that’s all about hunting and identifying mushrooms. Fascinating Fungi of the North Woods has recently been released, and anyone who enjoys hunting for mushrooms, or just finds them fascinating as a species, will come to rely on this appealing paperback as a must have for their library.
While Rick Kollath and Bonnie Wenborg illustrated the book with beautiful and real life depictions of Northwoods mushrooms, it was Cora (along with Larry Weber who is a biology teacher and phenologist) that wrote about the close to 200 species of fungi that are featured. That’s a lot of research, but for this former English teacher, the project was a work of love. “Ever since I moved up here I’ve loved hunting mushrooms and then indentifying them,” Cora said.
Cora’s fascination with mushrooms didn’t blossom until she moved to the Northwoods more than 40 years ago. She grew up in Wauwatosa, and then became an English teacher after graduating from college. She taught in Milwaukee for a number of years and then met and married a fellow teacher, Roy Mollen. The couple chose to move to the Northwoods when Roy decided to try his hand at selling real estate, and settled on a piece of property bordering a river near St. Germain. It was her youngsters, Dan and Anne, that started Cora on her quest to learn more about the wild mushrooms of the North.
“When we first moved up here we were fascinated with all the wildlife and flora of the Northwoods,” said Cora. “But I couldn’t find anyone who really knew a lot about mushrooms so I started doing my own research.”
Cora took numerous classes on fungi, including many at the Kemp Natural Resources Station in Woodruff and read hundreds of books about them. As the years passed, she came to be known as an expert on fungi, and in 1996 started the Northstate Mycological Club. Today that organization boasts about 40 members who are enthusiastic mushroom hunters, and meet every month during the spring, summer and fall months when fungi are growing.
“We meet at a certain spot and then everyone goes their own way for an hour or two looking for mushrooms,” she said. “Then we meet back up and look at and identify all the mushrooms we have found. I love this group. Everyone is so friendly and interested in mushrooms.”
While many go on mushroom hunting forays to find food to add to the table, Cora’s focus is more on the beauty and unusual shapes of the many fungi that grow here.
“I’m not a big mushroom eater, although there are a few I enjoy,” she said. “I just like being out in the woods hunting for them. To me it’s like hunting treasure.”
The book Cora co-authored is a must for anyone who also enjoys hunting these alluring growths. Not only does the book have beautiful illustrations but it also helps identify mushrooms correctly by including gill pictures, stem and cap measurements, spore prints, the time of year they fruit and the types of trees or habitats they grow on or near. She includes edibility logos signifying if certain mushrooms are good to eat or are poisonous for those who enjoy hunting mushrooms for the table. Even for those who only have a passing interest in mushrooms, this book will become a favorite. Cora included fun and unusual facts about many of the fungi that are featured.
Take for instance the Fly Amanita mushroom. This is a beautiful specimen with a bright orange cap dotted with white flecks. It is believed to have been revered by Vikings when they went on a raid for its side effects when eaten that include superhuman strength sometimes followed by a coma like sleep. This mushroom is not recommended for consumption however due to the fact that it contains amatoxins which can cause liver failure.
The Burnt Sugar Milk Cap can be used as an air freshener, especially in a car as the smell of these fungi grow stronger when dried. The Blue-staining Bolete has a unique feature. You can write your name on its cap and the letters will turn blue. And the Jack O’ Lantern mushroom, while orange will give off an eerie green glow at night. Cora also highlights how mushrooms relate to trees which brings even more awareness to hunters when they go “‘shrooming.”
The recent release of Fascinating Fungi of the North Woods is just in time for prime fungi finding. “The best months are coming up right now,” said Cora. “July, August and September are the top months for seeing a lot of the mushrooms featured in the book.”
So does this self taught expert have a favorite fungi? “I really love Chanterelles,” Cora said. “They have a pleasant apricot smell and they are very very good to eat.”
Cora also believes this will be a good year for seeing mushrooms. Fungi are fickle growths but almost all like moisture and the Northern part of the state has experienced adequate amounts lately for prime mushroom growing. But that doesn’t matter to Cora, who finds exploring the forests for mushrooms in itself a pleasant way to pass the time. “There’s always this element of surprise,” she said. “In a lot of ways it’s about the hunt because you just never know what you are going to come across.”
Editor’s Note: Fascinating Fungi of the Northwoods is available at local bookstores and is also available at Amazon.com. To find out more about the Northstate Mycological Club visit their website at northstatemycologicalclub.com.