A Story of Texas Chantarelles
One mycologist wag said of mushroom-eaters, “There are old mycophagists and there are bold mycophagists, but there are no old, bold mycophagists.” Thankfully, says chemist David Lewis ’72, ’78 today there are ways other than by tasting to tell if the fruits of your foray are delicious rather than deadly.
Even in the chill of an overcast February day, with the crunch of fallen leaves underfoot, David Lewis spots a russula, boletes and a few small amanitas, all but covered by leaves and pine needles. Amateur mushroom hunters shouldn’t be discouraged, though. In the summer months, the hobbyist can spot them quite easily, even without an eye as trained as Lewis’s.
In October on their property in Bleakwood just outside Newton at the Big Thicket’s edge, he and his wife, Patricia, harvested pounds – 20 pounds – of boletes, considered around the world to be some of the most delicious edible wild mushrooms. The couple owns 65 acres of pine-oak floodplain forest along Thickety Creek, quiet and serene in winter, fragrant and verdant in summer.
“We had to pay 13 years of back taxes to get it, but it has the most magnificent hardwood trees. It’s unbelievable. I’m so thankful we were able to save this land from clearcutting,” Lewis said.
“There’s a lot of biodiversity here,” Lewis said. “There are mushrooms everywhere. There’s about 30 acres across the road that border Thickety Creek where we harvest chanterelles – one of the best edibles – by the dozens of pounds.”
He and Patricia met at a mushroom foray near Cleveland – the Texas Mycological Society annual foray – and later married in 1994. “We always tell people,” he chuckles, “we have the only mushroom preserve in Texas.”
Oaks, beech, longleaf and loblolly pines, yucca and magnolias mingle with cypress, sweet gum, bay magndia, gallberry holly and hickory. The canopy they form shelters fern and vine, cardinal and woodpecker, deer and racoon.
And the thready white strands of mycelium underlie it all, feeding root systems by converting lignin (a primary component of trees) to nutrients. Fungi are the only things in nature that can break lignin down, Lewis said, creating a symbiotic relationship: mycorrhizal fungi give water and nutrients to the trees, and the trees send sugar to the fungi.
Lewis has spent 30 years hunting mushrooms, scrutinizing, comparing, identifying . . . and tasting. His interest in these fruits of the forest subfloor began as an undergraduate, and, for him, the choice between biology or chemistry was a tossup.
He began study at Lamar as a chemistry major but changed to environmental science mainly because of Richard Harrel, he said. “When I took the courses for environmental science, it kept me interested in the Big Thicket area because Richard would take us up there on field trips and it was wild,” he laughs. “A Richard Harrel field trip is a real adventure.”
Interest in organic chemistry and the exotic compounds to be found in fungi and plants led Lewis to a graduate degree in biology. He started photographing mushrooms at about the same time. Identification was difficult for several reasons, Lewis said, “primarily because the taxonomy of fungi on the Gulf Coast still has a long way to go. Even today, probably a third of the mushrooms here are undescribed.”
While developing his avocation as a mycologist, Lewis worked as a chemist at Great Lakes Carbon in Port Arthur for a number of years before moving to Temple Inland (the mill is now Mead Westvaco). He retired in August of 2004 and now plans to spend more time writing and organizing his collections – he has 500 to 750 in the process.
Lewis has donated around 5,000 collections to museums. “Most are at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. My russulas are in the National Museum in Paris and my amanitas go to a specialist in New Jersey,” he said. Others have gone to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge and universities in Oregon and Michigan. A few are at the Farlow Herbarium at Harvard.
“I’m working on a presentation right now on the symbiosis between orchids and fungi and trees and fungi,” he said. He’s also working on several manuscripts, often leads nature walks and gives lectures for clubs and societies such as the Birmingham Botanical Gardens and the Native Plant Societies of Texas and Louisiana.
During the years, Lewis has made wideranging contacts in the specialized field. He counts himself lucky to have met and worked with Rolf Singer, one of the world’s experts on fungi, and Greg Mueller, curator of mycology at the Field Museum.
“Their holdings of mycological material are one of the biggest in the country . . . I told Greg about my large collection of Texas fungi, which no one seemed to be interested in down here. He said, ‘Oh, we would be interested.’
Lewis has co-authored a description of a new species from Mississippi and Texas in Mycotaxon and is working with other mycologists on papers on several other new species. There are three that carry his name: Cortinarius lewisii published by Orson Miller, Pulveroboletus lewisii by Rolf Singer and Russula lewisii by Bart Buyck.
At a North American Mycological Association foray – the Lewis’ organized and hosted the 2000 weekend in Beaumont – as many as 300 collections of mushrooms can be identified and displayed, from boletes, polypores and chanterelles to coral-like fungi, toothfungi and slime molds. During the weekend, experts and amateurs take field trips and attend identification seminars, beginners’ workshops, preparing and tasting sessions and talks.
Lewis is president of the Gulf States Mycological Society, which has members from Florida to central Texas. The group has forays twice each year, usually in Mississippi and in Florida or Louisiana, and mushroom walks in June and November in Texas.
Even today, only a handful of mycologists have focused on Texas. It has been estimated that as many as 8,000 to 10,000 species of fungi are to be found in the state, but fewer the 1,000 have been identified to the species level, making mycology a field in which amateurs can make significant contributions to science.
Lewis enjoys the challenges of identification. He takes pride in “going into a field (mushroom taxonomy) with little knowledge of it and teaching myself the basis of it.” But the real joy comes from the friends made and colleagues met in the pursuit. Many are some of the foremost mushroom authorities.
In Mexico, which the Lewises visit every year or two, they’ve hunted with Gaston Guzman, the premier Mexican mycologist, an expert on hallucinogenic mushrooms. In 2002, Lewis invited Bart Buyck, a friend and the leading specialist on the genus Russula, to visit. “I took him along the creek, and, two hours later, we had a number of new species. That just shows you how little we really know about lower organisms like fungi and bacteria. We don’t have the appeal of the charismatic megafauna and flora. Nobody pays any attention to the fungi and bacteria, except specialists, but they’re the ones that run the whole ecosystem.
“The neat thing about mushrooms,” Lewis said, “is that I’ve become acquainted with people from France, Russia, Taiwan, Canada, Mexico – friends and colleagues – and they all come here – to Bleakwood.”