Book Review: National Audubon Society Mushrooms of North America
Debbie Viess, Cofounder, Bay Area Mycological Society
Any review of the new National Audubon Society Mushrooms of North America needs to acknowledge the elephant in the room: Gary Lincoff and his pioneering 1981 book by the same publishers. Many here in NAMA have an enduring affection for Lincoff and his “little book.” It has served us well for many years and some might find this new version a bit of an upstart; however, we cannot judge these two books by the same measure. They were produced in different times and with a different focus. The original book by Lincoff has a bit of an eastern-North-American bias, limited photographic references – but good species descriptions (including spore data) and plenty of information on both edibility and toxicology. It is also highly portable, in the spirit of a true field guide.
This new Audubon book doesn’t really try to be a field guide in the same sense. A large and heavy tome, it contains 660 species and 2,900 photos taken by at least 965 photographers. It refers to itself as “the complete identification reference to mushrooms” and for the first time includes reasons why we should care about mushrooms, various avenues of research on and with fungi, the daunting task of describing mushrooms, and how little we really know about North American species, and even touches upon some of the potential new tech uses of fungi for bioremediation, building materials and fungal medicine. Well-known professional mycologists Roo Vandergrift and Else Vellinga write the introductory paragraphs. Unlike with Audubon’s flagship organisms the birds, fungi are not well beloved or well known by the majority of American readers and it seems like these introductory paragraphs attempt to give people a reason to care; I am not sure how this information actually helps in a so-called identification reference.
Conservation status is emphasized in the pages preceding mushroom descriptions, and is also a focus in the three other books (birds, trees and flowers) within this updated Audubon nature series. Certainly birds are well studied and they show up regularly for their counts. This meticulous data has been published and can be referenced and compared over many decades; trends can be seen, whereas actual conservation status of most of these fungi is unknown and likely to remain so due to the unreliability of collections over time. Fungi do not always show up for our surveys.
Most fungi have not been analyzed as to occurrence and threats; it is the habitats where they live that are threatened. The sporadic use of Nature-Serve Explorer “G” ratings within this volume are often inaccurate; how can one claim that the pretty, blue-toothed fungus Neoalbatrellus subcaeruleoporus, which is small and subtle and rarely seen or collected, is any more common or uncommon than it has ever been? And yet in this book it receives a “Near Threatened” status. Perhaps it has always occurred in low numbers? The peppery little orange chanterelle found in Florida, Cantharellus coccolabae, has an “Endangered” status with the IUCN, since it is a sand-dwelling species along coastal Caribbean shorelines (boo, global warming, sea rise and tourist hotels!), and yet its host tree, which lives in the exact same areas, gets a “Least Concern” with the IUCN! Which one is it? Endangered or fine? Amanita novinupta, a common species in California, somehow receives an official G-3 status (“Vulnerable”) despite claims within that very species description that it is of least concern! Catathelesma ventricosum, the North American species, is commonly found and yet the Eurasian equivalent, C. imperiale has its G3 (“Near Threatened”) status shown in a book on North American fungi. Why? It seems as though the authors are grasping at ways to use some of the “official” conservation statuses, regardless of whether these fungi are from North America or even truly threatened! Who vetted these statuses prior to publication?
As with most places on Earth these days, save the habitat and you will save the fungi (and everything else). Detecting fungal DNA in high-throughput sequencing doesn’t tell you anything about abundance or health of the mycelia, just that bits of that fungal DNA are in the environment/spore bank. Fungal surveys cannot tell you how abundant the fungi are underneath the ground when those fungi may not fruit for years or even decades, and then only briefly when ground conditions are exactly right. Even more people posting photographs of fungi to places like Mushroom Observer (MO) and iNaturalist (iNat) doesn’t really tell us anything about population trends, just that more people are out there taking photographs.
There is one more issue with the conservation category as used in species descriptions within this book: use of the term “not uncommon” would be better served without the double negative. Perhaps merely “common” would do, or “somewhat common?”
Discussion of the medicinal use of micro-fungi (producers of penicillin and cyclosporine) is probably not a useful feature of this guide to identification of macrofungi, but more part of an attempt to convince the public that fungi are an important part of our world. We at NAMA need little convincing. Nor is a discussion of the use of neurotoxic macrofungi for shamanic healing or PTSD treatment for military veterans germane to mushroom ID. The efficacy of so-called “medicinal fungi” is also in dispute within our mycological community, but you wouldn’t know that to read this book’s intro. Nascent technologies of mycoremediation and mycofiltration have not been shown to be effective or affordable in large-scale applications and yet they are mentioned without critique in this book’s preface to the identification of fungi.
Jacob Kalichman, a well-respected mycologist in the North American amateur community, wrote up the species descriptions and provided a guide to the various orders discussed within this book (pgs. 690-697). He also broke with tradition and organized the book into these orders, rather than by mushroom shape, size and hymenium as was done in the past. It certainly needed to be done, but it does not make it easier to use this book, especially by those who are not already well versed in fungal identification. It is however quite useful to flip through the various color-coded sections of fungal orders and see just who is related to whom. The answers might surprise you!
There are no keys which would serve novices in their ID attempts and the section called “How to Use this Book” was unfortunately left out of this first printing. At the very least, Audubon should make those pages available free somewhere online.
The use of icons to represent each of these orders is also a bit confusing. Several of them appear as only slightly differing ”blobs.” Pezizales, with its myriad cups, is represented by a vague morel-ish shape. The Rhystismatales, which contain mostly tiny cups and discs and spots on plants, is represented by capped and veiled mushrooms in a cluster! Phallales, the stinkhorns, have a simple capped mushroom with a straight stipe despite so many of their shapes being highly distinctive. The Hypocreales, including many parasitic fungi, are represented with what looks to be a fat bolete! The actual Boletales are represented by a slender, somewhat boletoid fungus but with a prominent low partial veil! I don’t get it.
Audubon chose to leave out most information on fungal toxicity (with only a very brief paragraph by Roo Vandergrift) or edibility, and in fact takes pains to discourage people from foraging fungi. And yet, as we well know, the desire to eat these fungi as well as interest in their toxicity, is what draws most of us to this field, at least at first. It was an odd choice.
In the introductory identification pages, a sentence states “Gills, also called teeth or pores …” would have benefited from use of the terms hymenium or fertile surface; gills are not teeth or pores, but they are all hymenial structures. Yes, those structures can be morphed into each other with evolution and gene expression but I wouldn’t call them all gills. The words hymenium/fertile surface was added to the glossary of terms, so why not use them? Speaking of the glossary, a volva is just another term for the universal veil, and not merely the volval remnant at the base of certain amanitas. All Amanita have volvas, but not all have basal volval remnants. This discrepancy could confuse new mushroomers attempting to identify an Amanita with no obvious basal volva at all! In fact the glossary is oddly truncated to only two pages. Compare this to the five pages of glossary words given to the new Audubon bird guide despite the fact that fungi and their vocabulary terms are far less well known.
A field guide or identification guide that purports to cover the entire continental United States will never be able to show enough species from one particular region to satisfy a serious hunter/identifier. At best, the author will select the most interesting, common or showy species, an engaging introduction to fungi as it were. In this case, Kalichman does his best to mix things up between the Eastern and Western species, probably in the end pleasing almost no one. I read one reviewer on Amazon comment that Kalichman has a Western bias;I did not find this to be so. Of course, the opposite could be said about Gary’s book. This is exactly why regional guides are much more valuable to regional hunters. There are only so many mushrooms that can fit into any one book.
Lincoff complained that he was compelled by his publishers to make up common names for his guide, but also stated that it was easy enough to learn the Latin names and that Latin was the preferred form amongst serious mycologists, both amateur and professional. Kalichman appears to have embraced the iNat version of “keeping things simple” for the masses and avidly made up a slew of brand new, not-so-common “common” names, like “Candlelight Vigil” for Multiclavula mucida (which perversely I both love and hate). And why call the former Boletus satanas in North America (now Rubroboletus eastwoodiae) “Satan’s Bolete,” when it is really Alice Eastwood’s bolete?! Although Kalichman approaches the making up of new names with enthusiasm and creativity, I am sure that Audubon also mandated that he do so and he seemed to look for common names already in use where possible, so kudos to him for that. The name changes in Latin and common are both befuddling!
I share another reviewer’s concern that former Latin names are not cited along with the new. With the current rate of Latin name changes, it is very useful to know what it used to be called, at least in the recent past. As we know, all fungi have gone through many name changes over the centuries; see Index Fungorum if you don’t believe me!
Kalichman writes all of the species descriptions with an insider’s knowledge; no small feat but the information given for each mushroom is not consistent, and sometimes not enough for good identifications. A distinctive odor might only be mentioned in the intro paragraph but sometimes it isn’t mentioned at all. It should have been in the description of Agaricus xanthodermus. Knowing the taste of fungi also can help in identifications, but often is not given. It would be nice to see standardized descriptions for each mushroom.
Spore print color is emphasized but a white spore print is a worthless ID feature within the genus Amanita (and for species distinctions within other white-spored genera; why not also provide some useful spore data on every example given? Although latex color is provided for most of the Lactarius species, it is not given for the Western candy cap (Lactarius rubidus) even though a pale skim-milk color, changing to almost clear, is a main feature for telling it apart from the myriad other orange, bright white-milked California Lactarius species!
Perhaps Audubon’s insistence upon including multiple and ofttimes redundant photos with every species description interfered with Kalichman’s ability to add in all of the relevant and important details for making good identifications?
How about all of those pretty photos, anyway? Audubon trumpeted the fact that this book has 2,900 photos (and I counted/estimated at least 965 photographers!). And what a bargain they were! The publishers/Audubon made an effort to choose only online photos that had a Creative Commons (CC) commercial license; this means that the photos can be used for free, even in a commercial publication, as long as certain criteria are met. Those criteria include citing the author, citing and linking to where the photo was first seen and citing the license used. In a best-case scenario, that photographer would also be contacted about the use of her/his/their photo(s) and perhaps offered financial compensation (often, a free book is given in the case of the use of photos for mushroom books; this has certainly been my experience.). What Audubon did in practice was to cite the photographers’ names (if known) or otherwise their screen names in the credits. Period. No attempt was made to contact them for a real name if a pseudonym had been used. No source for that photo is given and there is no way to know who is associated with what photo and where, because page numbers aren’t given and photos aren’t labeled. It is also possible that a handful of folks who did not have the commercial CC license also have their photos used, as claimed by a few.
It is obvious that no one with specific knowledge of the field of mycology chose and vetted these photos. If you are going to have multiple photos per species entry, at least attempt to show salient features! The entry for Leratiomyces ceres, a common species in California, has multiple cap shots, all with the typical orange color. How many examples do you really need? How useful it would have been to show the dramatic changes in gill coloration as they mature. I know those photos exist because I created some of them. Photos appeared to be chosen for artistic rather than taxonomic merit. Amanita are not shown in their entirety. Mushrooms with ridiculously long “rooting” stipes like Oudmansiella and Caulorhiza are not shown with their dramatic stipes illustrated, despite the existence of an excellent photo of author Kalichman with a typical Caulorhiza in hand!
Finally, no one who knows fungi vetted the identification of all of those photos. Not all fungi on MO or iNat are accurately labeled. How else to explain the photo of the cap of Calbovista subsculpta on the Amanita magniverrucata page? Coltrichia perennis with a white agaric as its page header? Heliocybe sulcata with a photo of Coltrichia perennis? Amanita calyptroderma with an Amanita vernicoccora photo? You can play along at home and find your own photo errors!
Note: Jacob Kalichman had nothing to do with the selection or placement of these photos, nor with the final editing of this book. It’s all on Audubon. Here’s another irony: the cover jacket photo is a commercial and pretty crappy stock photo by Stephen Morris Photography/Alamy; THAT one they did pay for. Sigh.
So, what did I think about this book overall? It’s not useful as a field guide, it’s too heavy and its scope both too broad (all of North America north of Mexico) and not detailed enough for regional use. It provides no easy way for novices to identify their finds, no keys, no useful hints to finding the identity of that mushroom in your hand (which might be improved with the addition of the dropped “How to Use this book” page). It is very useful if you want to get a better feel for the modern placement of fungi by flipping through images associated with the various color-coded orders. The descriptions of the fungi covered are generally insightful, and the Latin names up to date, at least from the date of publication! If someone knows nothing about fungi and wants to see a spectrum of things found all over the country while cozied up at home in a favorite armchair, this book will provide an entry point. It is at best an introduction to some of the modern concepts of fungi, and that’s not nothing.
I do think that the treatment of the hundreds of photographers is disgraceful. Next time, use fewer, better, more illustrative photos and give real credit, including page references and photo sources to photographers – and let a mycologist select those photos, not an art director.