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Nature adds water, and everything mushrooms

NEW YORK — In midsummer, the prized black trumpet sounded its horn from the forest floor in the Bronx. The coral-pink Merulius, never before seen east of Ohio, turned up in a park in Queens.

Then came the near-hurricane, and clusters of aptly named Phallus rubicundus, the giant stinkhorn, rudely reared their slimy heads from piles of wood mulch in Prospect Park. In Harlem, gray-brown umbrellas sprouted stalactitelike from a couple's apartment ceiling.

Now, in the drenched autumn of what is already the fourth-wettest year recorded in New York City, the creamy-white giant puffballs have reached the size of human skulls. And in Central Park, beside the lawns carpeted with amber honey mushroom, dense frills of delectable hen-of-the-woods explode from oak trunks by the bushelful, tempting those who would bend the city ban on foraging in parks (it mentions only "vegetation," and mushrooms, after all, are not plants) and mocking the foodies who pay $35 a pound and up at the gourmet grocer nearby.

In and around the city, seemingly from every nook, cranny and sidewalk crack, in cemeteries and street-tree pits and median strips, months of biblical rains have yielded a prodigious harvest of mushrooms in a riot of rainbow colors and in every possible shape, size texture and degree of edibility — savory, poisonous, even mildly psychotropic.

Mycophiles have spent the season in a sort of extended delirium.

"It's that kind of year that people will talk about in the future," said Gary Lincoff, the author of the "The Complete Mushroom Hunter" and an instructor of a mushroom-identification class at the New York Botanical Garden. "'Remember 2011, the year the hen took over New York?' Two years ago, I found one hen-of-the-woods in Central Park. This year I'm finding two or three clumps per tree."

New Yorkers who seldom pay attention to nature have taken note, too.

"A group of grotesque white mushrooms growing in a planter on 88th Street between Riverside Drive and West End Avenue are attracting large crowds," the blog West Side Rag reported last month in a piece that read like a "War of the Worlds" dispatch.

In some quarters, the mushroom visitors have been less than welcome. After the August earthquake cracked open the roof of his building in Brooklyn, and Tropical Storm Irene brought gallons of rain into his top-floor apartment, Ryan Meisheid, 29, found off-white minitoadstools sprouting from the ceiling. He got out the bleach.

"Mushrooms inside my apartment where they should not be growing equals bad," he said.

In Harlem, in an apartment plagued with leaks, Nicole Press, a stage manager, was getting a massage from her husband one night when something in the corner up above caught her eye.

"In the shadows of the candle I just saw this dark thing," she said.

Four cone-headed mushrooms protruded where wall met ceiling; they had not been there in the morning. Lincoff identified them, from a photograph that Press had sent in, as inky caps. They make a great soup stock, he said. Alternatively, he said, "if you put it on a plate, it'll disintegrate and turn into a muck, and you can use it to paint a picture."

Even in a normal year, Lincoff said, "the city is a phenomenal place to go mushrooming." A continuing survey by the New York Mycological Society has turned up more than 500 different mushrooms in the city, more than 200 in Central Park alone.

The key is New York's mix of wild and cultivated nature.

"The city has 20 different oak species, some introduced, some native, and they all support different kinds of mushrooms," he said.

Mushroom spores, Lincoff said, are all around us, floating on the air. All they need is moisture and a little bit of food to set down rootlike mycelia and send up fruiting bodies, as the above-ground portions of the mushroom are known.

Lots of things can qualify as food. Last year, Lincoff said, he got a call when oyster mushrooms shot up between the floor tiles of a radiation center at a Brooklyn hospital.

"They somehow imagined mushrooms and radiation go together and thought maybe the mushrooms were indicating a radiation leak," he recalled.

The mushrooms had simply been eating the glue that held the tiles.

Last week, Lincoff had been one of the leaders of the mycological society's annual hunt in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, a majestic 400-acre haven of dignified decay. On a crisp morning, two dozen seekers fanned out like grown-ups at an Easter egg hunt, lifting low-hanging branches and peering around the corners of mausoleums.

Beneath a juniper tree, Lincoff found a small knife.

"Here's a good sign," he said. "That's not the sign of a murderer. That's a sign of a mushroom hunter who left his knife here."

A professor from New Zealand brought over a handful of firm-fleshed tawny mushrooms, their undersides tinged corpsy blue.

"You've found the jackpot," Lincoff said: the fall's first specimens of blewit, a choice edible "more like an entree than a side dish."

Afterward, on a picnic table near the cemetery entrance, Athena Kokoronis, a choreographer who has worked with Lincoff on a ballet about mushrooms, set down a paper shopping bag bulging with hen-of-the-woods. She explained her foraging technique.

"Every time I saw a large tree," she said, "I danced around the entire tree, and then went on to the next one."