Irene Aftermath: When It Rains, It Spores

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When Hurricane Irene tore through the Northeast last month, it caused severe flooding and damage to homes, trees and power lines. But it also left behind something rather delicate: mushrooms.

Foragers say they've seen more fungi in the past few weeks than ever before.

On a recent weekday morning in Northampton, Mass., three 50-something adults wander into the woods. The oak leaves fall alongside the pine needles, and the tall maple trees are just starting to show color.

Pat McDonagh often takes friends out to forage for mushrooms and teaches them which species are edible.

"It does not have gills like a store mushroom," she says. "It has spongy tubes. It's very distinctive. It has these black flaky scales on top. You can usually see if they're wormy, because there'll be little worm holes. This one's nice and clean. It can go in my basket."

Even though it hasn't rained in days, there's still a damp feeling in the air. It smells brisk and slightly musky. McDonagh has been taking to the woods almost daily. In her 40 years of foraging, she's never seen a harvest like this one. She often brings her friend Paul Redstone.

"This is like treasure hunting," Redstone says. "I walk through the woods with her and it's like, 'Oh, look there, there's a little lump of gold.' "

There are more than 1,000 mushroom varieties in these woods, McDonagh says, but she eats only about 24 of them. She recommends taking a course on edible fungi before foraging alone.

McDonagh gets down on her hands and knees to pick black trumpets. "They smell a little bit fruity, like apricot," she says.

McDonagh says the dry weather last year and even earlier this summer meant fewer mushrooms.

"The mushrooms you see — this isn't the whole organism," she says. "This is just the fruiting body of a larger organism that has a vast network in the soil and rotten wood, depending on the species. So they don't fruit when it's dry but when it's wet. This has just been an incredible year. Where you'd normally find one, you find a hundred."

The great picking will continue until mid-October. Frosts can trigger even more growth. McDonagh plans to dry and freeze her abundance for use all winter and spring.

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