Gaston naturalist loves the fungus among us

During a recent hike Allein Stanley finds a bolete, Tylopilus alboater, that she's seen only in books. Photo: Amber Veverka

With quick eyes and slow 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.

Stanley has spent decades building an expertise and national reputation in the study of mushrooms. She’s helped amass a collection of 2,000 fungi now housed at the Schiele Museum in Gastonia, where she serves as an adjunct curator of mycology. At 84, she’s still eagerly tackling new areas of study in mycology, excited as ever to peer into the mysterious world of mushrooms.

And now, as the region is being rapidly reshaped by development, Stanley is seeking to find and study the mushrooms that inhabit woods and fields before those areas are gone.

Today, she’s visiting a privately owned forest tract 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!”

"Without fungi … we would have very few trees. They’re so intimately involved in all of life."

Allein Stanley, mycologist

Without fungi … we would have very few trees. They’re so intimately involved in all of life. - See more at: http://plancharlotte.org/story/gastonia-shiele-mushroom-expert-allein-stanley#sthash.TcYyCpAk.dpuf

The boletes – it turns out that’s what they are – 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.” Under the earth, 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 merely the fruit of the huge unseen organism. All the real action is under the soil, 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.

According to Washington-based mycologist Paul Stamets, author of Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, a single cubic inch of soil can contain up to 8 miles of mycelium cells. Stamets often refers to mycelium as “Earth’s natural internet.”

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.

Food-gathering germinates an interest

Stanley has been studying mushrooms 40 years. Her interest germinated even 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. “My mother had us out there gathering dandelion greens.”

The daughter of a teacher and a school superintendent, Stanley became a middle school science teacher after she raised three daughters (with a graduate degree in teaching from UNC Charlotte). Her interest in mushrooms sprouted when she found morels – a delicious edible – on her own property. She’s taken many classes, served as president of the North American Mycological Association and led countless forays to hunt for specimens. She’s quick to note that she doesn’t have a degree in mycology and that she partners with mycologist Deborah Langsam. 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 natural 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 the change wrought by development, May says.

Stanley, who happens to live near the Gaston County town of Stanley, works with her fellow mycology curator, Langsam, an associate professor emerita of biology at UNC Charlotte, and the two complement each other; Langsam focuses on microscopic fungi and Stanley on higher mushrooms. Langsam relates something Stanley is too humble to mention – that the North American Mycological Association in 2010 awarded Stanley its highest honor for a nonprofessional, a national recognition for having made the biggest contribution to amateur mycology.

Mushrooms face the same threats from development as plants and animals, Stanley says, “but nobody knows it,” she says. Mushrooms are so little known that it wouldn’t be hard for a species to slip, unnoticed, into extinction. “Mycology is like 50 years behind (other sciences),” she says. “Nobody studies mushrooms because there are no jobs.” Medical mycology is the exception; it draws scientists because drugs such as antibiotics often come from fungi, she says.

But spend time with Stanley and you will see loves nature and knowledge for their sake, not for how useful they are. In this way, she’s one of a dwindling tribe of natural scientists driven by a passion to know the world around them simply because it exists.

“The thing that bothers me is [that] we have to justify everything,” she says. “Saying, ‘well we have to preserve it because we might find a medicine.’ No! You don’t need to justify natural things.”

Beware 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 describes the mushroom’s toxins, for which there is no reliable antidote, and which 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 Atlanta 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 is careful about recommending mushrooms for the table. Some species have dangerous look-alikes, and she doesn’t want to be responsible for someone choosing the wrong one. For her own table, she gathers morels in spring, red and yellow chanterelles in midsummer, along with her favorite fungi, black trumpets. Fall brings hen-of-the-woods.

For the public, she advises, first, if you are certain it’s a safe edible, taste just a small amount in case you react badly. The second is even simpler: “If in doubt, throw it out,” she says. “It’s simply not worth it.”

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. The reddish, sticky mushroom’s nauseating odor – reminiscent of road kill – draws flies, Stanley says, which land on the slime, pick up spores on their feet, and spread them around the woods.

‘These things are knockouts’

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.  “Under the microscope, those things are knockouts,” she says of the deer mushrooms.

Some fungi Stanley carefully wraps in sheets of wax paper. She’s still adding to the Schiele’s collection. Back in the museum’s labs, Stanley will measure her mushrooms and describe the species on cards she keeps in numerous 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 nearby tree.  So, she’s asked, the mushroom scientist is focused on insects, too?

She smiles. “How can you be a lover of nature and not be interested in all of it?”