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story.lead_photo.caption Keith Bryant/The Weekly Vista Bella Vista trails coordinator Kay Curry leads a group of hikers into the Back 40 trails for a mushroom picking group hike.

A crowd estimated at 100 people stepped into the Back 40 trails to check out fungi last Saturday.

Jay Justice, a "free-range" mycologist with a bachelor's in chemistry and a master's in natural sciences as well as 30 years of experience studying mushrooms, led the hike and helped hikers identify mushrooms -- including lion's manes, honey mushrooms, forest hens and others -- along the way and after the fact.

Justice said he became interested in mushrooms when he was studying chemistry in grad school. He was researching toxins, he explained, and became fascinated by the deadly toxins in amanita mushrooms, which do not denature readily from heat.

"You can cook deadly mushrooms and it doesn't make them edible," he said.

There was also a lot less readily available when he started studying, meaning he had to learn more in the field.

"Back in the 70s there were only two or three mushroom books," he said.

Fungi are also an essential part of the ecosystem, he explained. Fungal growth on the roots of plants, for example, is not parasitic but rather essential for the plants to survive.

But hikers would be looking at macrofungi, the larger kind of mushrooms that can be seen by the naked eye.

Kay Curry, trails coordinator for the city, said she was glad Justice could come out.

"He has a huge following," she said.

The hike has been planned since earlier this year, she said, and the cool, rain-free day was perfect for it.

"It's a great day to be in the woods," she said.

One hiker, Dusty Love, of Bella Vista, said she was having a great time foraging. She's been a mushroom hunter for about a year, she explained, and it started with foraging for morel mushrooms to eat.

She's joined a Facebook page, Arkansas Mushrooms and Fungi, moderated by Justice, where she's learned to better identify mushrooms, particularly edible ones.

Love said she went on the hike in part because she's a fan.

"He's legendary," she said. "I was so excited he was coming here."

She appreciated the chance to meet Justice, she said, and had a good time foraging.

It's a fun hobby but it can be risky, Love explained. Eating the wrong mushroom is a mistake people tend to only make once, but it can be hard to tell which mushrooms are the right ones -- some have lookalikes, others are safe unless they're growing on conifers.

But it's also one that allows her to bring her four-year-old daughter along. It's a good excuse to get her kid outside, she said, and picking and identifying fungi keeps her entertained.

"We're very lucky to have all these trails that cut into these woods because it's like a mushroom Mecca out here," Love said.

General News on 11/06/2018

Print Headline: Mushroom hunting on the trails

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