Death Around Every Corner: Looking for Mushrooms at Woodlawn

By Ariel Hahn

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Yellow capped honey fungus (edible), small white puffballs, and unidentified red capped mushrooms.

All over the country, there are mycological societies devoted to mushroom foraging and mushroom education. In New York, the group is a robust collection of experts and novices who spend weekend mornings walking through parks, forests, and cemeteries in search of the strange and the savory. On one foggy October day a few weeks ago, a large number of us trolled through Woodlawn Cemetery.

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Cemeteries are a prime location for mushrooms – I love that a place created for the dead can support so much life. We found pink bottoms (Agaricus campestris), an array of puffballs (Calvatia), reishis (Ganoderma lucidum), blewits (Lepista nuda), honey fungus (Armillaria mellea).

Even a death cap (Amanita phalloides)!

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An array of small white puffballs, not collected by me. Some are potentially edible but could also be early stages of poisonous mushrooms. I wouldn’t risk it.

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A meadow mushroom, common in grassy areas. Affectionately called a pink bottom, edible and delicious.

Though many edible varieties are easy to identify, any forager will warn you that one wrong assumption could result in a rather painful death. A hard and fast rule is to avoid anything with a white cap and white gills, which you’ll find on the fatal death caps and destroying angels. Also, some edible varieties mimic poisonous relatives at various stages of development and vice-versa. Very tricky, indeed.

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Reishi mushrooms, very tough but often dried and used in tea.

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Unidentified sponge like mushrooms, potentially some very dried out boletes.

A few notes about Woodlawn…

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The back of an exceptionally beautiful piece of stained glass. Her facial details appear to be hand-painted and are only visible from the inside of the mausoleum it watches over.

Cemeteries are densely occupied spaces filled with emblems of the past. Woodlawn has tombs decorated with carved logs and floral arrangements, headstones wrapped in delicate script, and individualized stained glass panels featured inside nearly every mausoleum. The cemetery boasts a population of over 300,000 residents across 400 acres, with many structures built in likeness to Greek temples, French cathedrals, Egyptian monuments, and Art Deco buildings.

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Mushroom hunting is all about examining the world around you, searching for the overlooked. Since there are approximately 10,000 varieties of mushrooms within North America alone, I think foraging seems best left to those that are cautious and detail oriented. Two necessary skills that I’m always trying to develop within myself. – ALH