Greg Marley, mushroom man, seeks to heal fungus fears

Posted July 23, 2010, at 11:15 a.m.
Marley made a tincture from the Chaga mushroom by immersing ground, dried chaga in distilled alcohol. Letting the mixture set for two days will make a usuable tincture. 2010. Bangor Daily News/Michael C. York
Marley made a tincture from the Chaga mushroom by immersing ground, dried chaga in distilled alcohol. Letting the mixture set for two days will make a usuable tincture. 2010. Bangor Daily News/Michael C. York
Greg Marley separates Oyster mushrooms in preparation for cooking Saturday, July 17, 2010, at the Field's Pond Nature Center in Holden.  Bangor Daily News/Michael C. York
Greg Marley separates Oyster mushrooms in preparation for cooking Saturday, July 17, 2010, at the Field's Pond Nature Center in Holden. Bangor Daily News/Michael C. York
Using an old cast-iron meat grinder Marley ground up dried Chaga to make a tincture. In the foreground is the oyster mushroom sauteed with olive oil at the Fields Pond Nature Center in Holden, Saturday, July 17, 2010. Bangor Daily News/Michael C. York
Using an old cast-iron meat grinder Marley ground up dried Chaga to make a tincture. In the foreground is the oyster mushroom sauteed with olive oil at the Fields Pond Nature Center in Holden, Saturday, July 17, 2010. Bangor Daily News/Michael C. York
Some of the more commonly seen mushrooms on display at the Fields Pond Nature CEnter in Holden , Maine, Saturday, July 17, 2010. Bangor Daily News/Michael C. York
Some of the more commonly seen mushrooms on display at the Fields Pond Nature CEnter in Holden , Maine, Saturday, July 17, 2010. Bangor Daily News/Michael C. York

Greg Marley always tells the people who take his wild mushroom foraging classes a cautionary tale about the time in 1986 that he accidentally poisoned himself.

“It was a lilac brown bolete that I’d foraged. I looked it up in Audubon and they called it edible, and compared it in another book and decided it was fine. So, I cooked it in olive oil and garlic,” said Marley, a Rockland-based mushroom educator. “Three hours later, I was very, very sick. It was not good at all. They took me to the hospital and kept me overnight. Despite my research and what the books say, it was not edible. That was the only time that ever happened.”

For the past 35 years, Marley, 55, has been a devoted amateur mycologist, teaching interested people about the many mushroom species right in our backyards in Maine that are delicious to eat and may confer a number of health benefits. One bad experience out of thousands of instances of foraging for and eating wild mushrooms is a pretty good track record. If there’s a champion for fungus, it’s Marley.

“We live in a mycophobic culture. We fear mushrooms. Growing up, our parents tell us not to eat the mushrooms you find because they are poisonous,” said Marley. “Places like China and Eastern Europe are very much mycophilic cultures. Collecting mushrooms is part of the culture. They eat them, and they celebrate them. We don’t do that here, and we really miss out.”

Marley, originally from New Mexico, got hooked on fungus in the early 1970s. He attended college at University of New Mexico, graduating with a degree in biology and botany. In 1981, he moved to Rockland, where he’s lived ever since. Mycology started as a hobby for him, but developed over the years into a full-blown passion and eventual occupation. You can learn and forage with him during the warmer months, during one of the many classes and guided walks he offers around the state, at libraries, nature centers and other community gathering places.

Though he’s technically an amateur, Marley has been called an expert for several decades. He’s authored two books, including “Mushrooms for Health: Medical Secrets of Northeastern Fungi” and the soon-to-be published “Chanterelle Dreams and Amanita Nightmares: The Love, Lore and Mystique of Mushrooms,” out at the end of August through Chelsea Green Publishing. He publishes an e-mail newsletter, Coastal Maine Mushrooming, and he’s a consultant on poisonous mushrooms for the Northern New England Poison Control Center and various Maine hospitals.

Marley can talk at great length about the chaga, a large fungus that grows on birch trees in northern climes. Many species, like the chaga, grow in symbiosis with trees. Chaga looks like a lumpy hunk of burned wood and, when made into a tea, offers countless health benefits, from its immune boosting properties to anti-inflammatory benefits. In the field, Marley’s keen eyes will spot a handful of delicate yellow chanterelles or dark, delicious black trumpets nestled inconspicuously among dead leaves and rotting wood. Other eyes simply wouldn’t see them.

Those chanterelles and black trumpets might end up in an omelet, over pasta or served with fava beans. Or, Marley might find the ruffled, grayish-brown miyatake, also known as Hen of the Woods, which are firm and great for deep-frying. Perhaps he might find the mottled, disc-shaped turkey tails growing on a tree — not good for eating, but marvelous as a health supplement. The forest and the field are ripe with culinary and medicinal possibilities, in the form of tragically ignored edible wild mushrooms.

“A friend of mine, an artist from Russia, once told me, ‘You Americans have no idea what you’re missing’ [in regards to mushrooms],” said Marley. “In Russia and China, it’s an everyday thing. There’s been a lot of research in recent years on various species in terms of their cancer fighting agents. The second most widely used cancer treatment in Japan is derived from the turkey tail mushroom. And the research has really only just started.”

This year is shaping up to be an excellent year for mushroom foraging, as the abundant rain of March, April and early May and the dry, hot conditions of June and July have created ideal conditions for a wide variety of species. Marley regularly collects several pounds of mushrooms in the Rockland area, and has secret spots around the state where he often finds large patches of them.

Just don’t ask him for a one-on-one walk. When he forages for fun, he forages alone.

“I like to go alone. It’s meditation. It gets me back to myself. So much of what I do can be stressful,” said Marley, who by day is a social worker with teenagers. “I might bring my dog. But that’s me time. That’s part of why I love mushrooms.”

Greg Marley will give a series of four workshops from 9 to 11:30 a.m. Sundays, July 25, Aug. 22, Sept. 12 and Oct. 3 at Merryspring Nature Center in Camden. To register for the workshops, call 236-2239. The cost for all four workshops is $175 for nonmembers, $150 for members. He will lead a mushroom walk and talk at Saddleback Mountain Ski Resort from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 8; there will be a fee. He also will offer his class “Identifying Maine Mushrooms; An Introductory Class on Wild Mushrooms” from 9 a,m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 21 at Fields Pond Audubon Center in Holden. The cost is $45, $40 for members; to register, call Fields Pond at 989-2591.

For information, e-mail Marley at mushroom@midcoast.com.

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