With quick eyes and deliberate steps, Allein Stanley moves through the forest on a clear summer morning, taking in the big-leaf magnolia overhead, the arching ferns below. She spots her prize, a tiny mushroom poking up from the leaf litter.
Many might stride right past something so small, but not Stanley.
She has spent decades building an expertise and national reputation in the study of mushrooms. She has helped amass a collection of 2,000 fungi now housed at the Schiele Museum of Natural History in Gastonia, where she is an adjunct curator of mycology. At 84, she’s eagerly tackling new areas of study, excited as ever to peer into the mysterious world of mushrooms.
And as the region is being reshaped by development, Stanley is seeking mushrooms that inhabit woods and fields before those areas are gone.
Today, she’s visiting a privately owned forest in Gaston County, leading a group of budding naturalists on a walk to find summer mushrooms. Before the hike even begins, Stanley leans over on her cane and picks two drab-looking black mushrooms from the ground.
Her eyes light up. “Oh! These are important!”
The boletes have pores beneath their caps instead of gills. They’re an important species, Stanley explains, because they are mycorrhizal, “myco,” meaning “mushroom,” and “rhiza,” meaning “root.”
Mycorrhizal mushrooms perform a secret, barely understood dance with trees. Their vast underground network of mycelium – that white, webby stuff you see if you dig a spade into woodsy soil – winds around the tiniest rootlets of plants and trees. The fungus web brings nutrients to the plant, and the plant brings water and protection to the fungus.
These velvety black boletes, Tylopilus alboater, which Stanley is cradling in her hand, are the fruit of the huge unseen organism. All the real action is under the surface, where the mycelia are attaching themselves to root hairs of the trees around where we are standing, forming a mantle over the roots, nourishing and perhaps connecting trees which are decades old.
Stanley gestures at the trees towering over her. “We think at least 90 percent of green plant families have to have fungal connections. They’re talking to each other. Without fungi … we would have very few trees. They’re so intimately involved in all of life.”
She puts down her boletes and frowns. “This is what distresses me so much about developers coming in and bulldozing and developing and planting Bradford pears. Because what you’ve done is destroyed an entity.”
Few of the fungi are well-known, Stanley explains, so it’s easy for them to be swept away by development before anyone knows they exist.
Stanley has been studying mushrooms 40 years. Her interest germinated earlier, as a child growing up in Gaffney, S.C.
“We gathered wild foods,” she says. “Nobody had any money in the Depression, so on Sunday afternoons you went for a walk in the woods – the family did – and that was your entertainment.”
Her family picked wild strawberries, blackberries, nuts, dandelion greens.
The daughter of a teacher and a school superintendent, Stanley became a middle school science teacher after raising three daughters and earning a graduate degree in teaching at UNC Charlotte. Her interest in mushrooms sprouted when she found morels – a delicious springtime edible – on her own property. She took classes, attended workshops, led mushroom-hunting hikes.
She’s quick to note she doesn’t have a degree in mycology. The field, she says, is “one of the rare sciences where professionals and amateurs still work together.”
Stanley’s work helps the Schiele provide education about the natural world, says Alan May, the museum’s research coordinator and curator of archaeology.
The collection forms a benchmark for the condition of the region when the specimens were collected, to be compared with future conditions, he says.
“It’s an indicator of how healthy are our forests, how healthy are our woodlots, how healthy are our green spaces? How healthy are those remnants of the Piedmont’s past?”
Without a physical collection of mushrooms gathered over time, there is no way to measure change caused by development, May says.
Stanley, who happens to live near the Gaston County town of Stanley, works with her fellow mycology curator, Deborah Langsam, an associate professor emerita of biology at UNC Charlotte. The two complement each other; Langsam focuses on microscopic fungi and Stanley on higher mushrooms.
Langsam relates something Stanley is too humble to mention – the North American Mycological Association in 2010 awarded Stanley its highest honor for a nonprofessional, recognition for having made the biggest contribution to amateur mycology.
NAMA President David Rust praised Stanley for her “diligent, detail-oriented” ways. Stanley was responsible for creating a field meeting for fungi enthusiasts, an annual event which brings together eager amateurs and scientists alike, Rust says. That regional foray in the Blue Ridge helped bring to light species undiscovered for the area.
“Every year, approximately 5 to 10 percent of the species brought in are brand new,” Rust says.
Stanley also organized NAMA’s national forays, in a new location each year. “This year we’ll go to the Ozark National Forest in Arkansas. (We) will identify, photograph and dry specimens and send them to the Field Museum in Chicago.”
It’s important to have a record of what exists because it’s all too easy for a species to slip, unnoticed, into extinction.
Mushrooms face the same threats from development as plants and animals, Stanley says, “but nobody knows it.”
The destroying angel
As she makes her way down the trail with her followers, someone locates a tall, chalk-white mushroom with a bulb at the bottom and a collar-like ring around the stem, a member of the Amanita genus.
Stanley handles it carefully. It’s a destroying angel, as deadly as its name suggests. Stanley says the mushroom’s toxins have no reliable antidote. Its toxins have the diabolical tactic of not surfacing until hours after the mushroom is eaten, then after a severe reaction, retreating enough so that the victim thinks he is improving. Then the poisons attack again, shutting down major organs until the victim is dead.
She spots another Amanita, tiny, with a yellowish cast. “And this little one,” she says, “probably wouldn’t kill you. But a fully mature one? Oh yeah.”
It’s for her expertise on such matters that Stanley has been called on by the Centers for Disease Control in poison cases and by the Carolinas Poison Center to train the staff in identifying toxic mushrooms.
A fellow hiker brings Stanley a stately looking mushroom, orange-capped with a slight dimple in the center. “Oh! This is one you take home and eat,” she says approvingly. “A Lactarius volemus. It smells like fish but (when it’s cooked), I think it tastes like smoked meat.”
Stanley holds the volemus mushroom for others to sniff its faint fishy scent. It’s pleasant – unlike the odor of another species growing nearby – the aptly named stinkhorn.
A lifetime’s work
Much attracts Stanley’s enthusiasm: a log flush with turkey tails, so named for their wavy brown markings. Deer mushrooms, growing from another chunk of dead log, their coloration delicate, fawn-like.
Some fungi Stanley carefully wraps in sheets of wax paper. She’s still adding to the Schiele’s collection. In the museum’s labs, Stanley will measure her mushrooms and describe the species on cards she keeps in file boxes. She dries the mushrooms to preserve them.
Even with years of study, Stanley still tackles new subjects and finds new fungus to classify. She points to some nickel-sized circles of yellow fungus on a log and shakes her head.
“Believe it or not, I’m having the worst trouble with these crust fungi. They’re driving me nuts,” she says. “That’s one of the appeals – I know I’ll never be able to master this. (Yet) you can’t help but feel you’re contributing to the knowledge a little bit if you’re working on it.”
The day grows warmer and the walk nears its end. Stanley stops to comment on a daddy longlegs delicately climbing a tree. So, she’s asked, the mushroom scientist is focused on insects, too?
“How can you be a lover of nature and not be interested in all of it?”
Amber Veverka is a freelance writer and informal environmental educator: www.backyardandbeyond.org. This article originated at PlanCharlotte.org, an online publication of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute.
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