Mushroom picking: In search of Aureoboletus projectellus

05.11.2019 (Tue)
Leading: Andrzej Marzec i Sara Grolewska

On October 5, 2019 at 10:00 a.m., despite rain and adverse weather conditions, wearing raincoats and equipped with biodegradable cardboard containers and penknives, we left Arsenał Municipal Gallery to pick some mushrooms. We went to the “Strzeszyn” protected ecological zone, which is located in the north-west of Poznań, in the Goleniów forest in the valley of the Bogdanka River (in the district of Jeżyce). The protected ecological zone covers the area around Strzeszyńskie Lake (about 100 ha). It was created to protect botanical diversity from the effects of urbanization. We asked local foresters for advice. They said that Aureoboletus projectellus mushrooms grow in this zone.

Found in North America, Aureoboletus projectellus was first reported in Europe in 2011 in Lithuania. In 2013 it appeared in Latvia, where it became so popular that in 2014 it was named the mushroom of the year. It has been found in the Polish forests for the past several years. At first, it could be found only by the sea (this species prefers sandy soils); however, thanks to mushroom pickers who travel around Poland (who spread its spores), it has been gradually “annexing” inland year by year. It is a new species in the Polish forests, therefore its name is still changing. In Polish, it is referred to as the slender gentilis, the slender bolete, the Łeba bolete (it first appeared near Łeba), the heather bolete, or the American bolete. It has become incredibly popular among mushroom pickers in a very short time, mainly due to the fact that it can be found almost everywhere, it is easy to spot and identify (it is distinguished by a long and slender stem) and it is rarely attacked by worms. The Aureoboletus projectellus grows in a mycorrhizal association with Polish pine trees and native insect species are not interested in it; perhaps, it will change in the future.

Our search for Aureoboletus projectellus took the form of traditional mushroom hunting in the “Strzeszyn” protected ecological zone, where it was also easy to find other non-human new species from various parts of the world that had settled there earlier. Let us only mention the plants that came from North America (the American dogwood, the Douglas fir, the blue spruce), the Balkans (the European horse chestnut), China (the tree of heaven) and Asia (the Siberian peashrub).

We wanted to find Aureoboletus projectellus together and teach the people who participated in the workshop more about it. Most mushroom guides and identifiers have not been updated and fail to mention it. Usually, non-human and non-native species in Poland are labelled as “invasive species.” Both city dwellers and countrymen treat them with caution and suspicion. The new boletus species, however, has been enthusiastically embraced by the Polish mushroom pickers. During our trip, we were able to find the following species of edible mushrooms: the boletus edulis, the saffron milk cap, Macrolepiota procera (the parasol mushroom), Leccinum scabrum, Suillus luteus and the bay bolete. Unfortunately, we did not find Aureoboletus projectellus. This was probably caused by the difficult and adverse weather conditions that made us stop our trip after two hours.

However, this is not the only reason for our failure, which was also an extremely important lesson for us. It turns out that one of the most important characteristic features of mushrooms, as described by, among others, Anna Tsing, is their unpredictable nature.1 According to Tsing, mushrooms effectively undermine the Enlightenment discourse of progress and the capitalist narrative of productivity and the unlimited accumulation of goods. Mushrooms are unpredictable, which makes mushroom picking so exciting: we never know whether we will find anything. The difficulty we encountered during mushroom picking allowed us to come face to face with unpredictability, i.e. the uncertainty and randomness of material existence. This is the lesson that mushrooms teach us. Tsing points out that the European civilization was modelled on a plantation – it was (and still its) governed by the principles of exploitation and violence, but above all by certainty and predictability of production (including the production of food). Our trip allowed us to experience the world as gatherers, coming face to face with uncertainty, similarly to other living organisms. We also wanted to answer the question: why are mushrooms so inspiring for the contemporary humanities? Picking them not only builds a different type of relationship with a place that you do not own or exploit, but also implies a specific type of mindfulness – being sensitive to the unexpected and the unpredictable – which has been lost in modern philosophy.

[1] A. Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World. On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton University Press, 2015.