Book Review: Mushrooms of the Gulf States

Published by Kaylee Walters on

Bessette, A.E., A.R. Bessette. D.P. Lewis. 2019. Mushrooms of the Gulf Coast States: A Field Guide to Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. University of Texas Press. $39.95

In 2011 I moved to the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida, to start a job as an assistant professor in fungal biology. I had visited Florida only one time prior to 2011; I visited DisneyWorld and the Kennedy Space Center with my grandmother when I was a junior in high school. I remember feeling like a steamed dumpling due to the intense heat and humidity of August in Orlando.

Moving to Gainesville was my first REAL experience with the Gulf Coast region. Both the seasonality and the fungi were baffling to me. Unlike the restrained and sensible collecting season of California where I grew up where fruiting is typically restrained to the cool, wet months from November to April, the Florida fungi are far less predictable. As long as there is enough moisture (and there often is), the fungi will emerge. In the summer (when no fungi are to be found in California’s oak woodlands) the macrofungi of Florida are an unbridled explosion of colors, shapes and sizes: boletes, Amanitas, Lactarii, chanterelles and Russulas comprise a steady stream of fungal diversity that is visible in even the smallest patch of woods. Some of the genera here in Florida were familiar to me when I arrived while others were altogether new to me; strange Southeastern things like Glaziella, Rhopalogaster and Climacodon.

My new position at UF was the “state mycologist” job, which seemed daunting. I was charged with teaching fungal biology, conducting fungal biology research, curating the fungal herbarium collection, and responding to the many queries about fungi from homeowners and extension agents. Although some questions from homeowners were about wood decay and mold growth, most of the questions were about macrofungi: What is the genus and species of this fungus photo in my smartphone? Is it safe to eat? Will this thing kill my dog or my toddler if they eat it? I needed to become familiar with Florida´s fungi – and I needed to do it quickly.

But what resources were available to help me in this onerous task? I learned about a few. The first go-to reference was “Common Florida Mushrooms” by James Kimbrough (University of Florida IFAS Extension, 2000). This book had the advantage that it was clearly focused on Florida and it was written by Jim Kimbrough, who lived in Gainesville for more than 30 years. This book includes many of the most common mushrooms in north Florida, including some Gulf Coast wonders such as Boletellus ananas and Macrocybe titans. This was a critical resource as I got started in my job. Unfortunately, this book did not have any polypores, gasteromycetes or other fungi that were not “classic mushrooms.” 

I turned to other Gulf-oriented books in the hopes they might help but I soon realized that there were only a few books available. One was “Texas Mushrooms” by Susa Metzler and Van Metzler with scientific advice from Orson Miller (University of Texas Press, 1992). This was a nice little piece and it definitely included some of the Deep South’s typical finds, such as Lactarius paradoxus, Boletus albisulphureus, and Anthracophyllum lateritium. However, because this book focused on Texas there were plenty of mushrooms featured in the book that I have never seen in Florida.

The last book that I turned to for identification of the many lawn mushrooms that I received was “Mushrooms of the Southeastern United States” by Alan Bessette, William C. Roody, Arleen Bessette and Dail Dunway (Syracuse University Press, 2007). This one was a breath of fresh air because it had well curated photos and adequate descriptions. It also included a wide array of common mushrooms as well as puffballs, polypores, and other assorted lovelies. I could not complain and have now used this book extensively in my own work but also for students in my fungal biology class. Over time, I realized that this book too lacked some of the most common fungi here in Florida.

I have used a number of other resources over time and become pretty familiar with the most common fungi of Florida. I am now armed and dangerous enough to be able to fire back a quick email when I receive a photo of Chlorophyllum molybdites or Desarmillaria tabescens without consulting a book. However, I continue to receive photos of mystery fungi and am expected to identify them quickly and with confidence. In my fungal biology class I also typically assign a project where students need to collect, photograph and identify local fungi to make herbarium specimens. They always ask for “a book to identify local fungi” but instead of one book I always offer a stack of books. I have long pined for a one-stop-shopping option that I can use and recommend to students to identify the most common macrofungi of the Gulf Coast region.  

I had almost given up hope that there would ever be such a book…until this year when I received Mushrooms of the Gulf Coast States: A Field Guide to Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. What a delight it was to open this book for the first time! This field guide has 632 pages and includes coverage of 1400 of the Gulf Coast’s most common and interesting fungi, including 650 species featured with color photos. This guide was designed for amateur readers but is definitely useful for the professional (particularly if that professional identifies a large number of Gulf Coast mushrooms every year!).

The introduction is well written and up-to-date. I am particularly fond of the “notes on the descriptions of illustrated species” which is a concise explanation for an amateur audience about how to interpret scientific names and taxonomic synonyms (this is incidentally a nice explanation for beginning mycology students, too). As with all books published in recent years by the Bessettes and their collaborators, this book has wonderful photos. The Bessettes have done a tremendous job of capturing the beauty and diversity of the Gulf Coast macrofungi with a wide array of high-quality pictures that typically show each mushroom from several angles. Most importantly, this book compiles the descriptions of most of the common fungi in my region in one place for the first time. Everywhere I look throughout the book I find the Florida fungi of Murrill and Singer! The book is filled with little treasures that are exclusively or mostly found in the Deep South, such as Inonotus amplectens (a strange little polypore that specializes on the wood of pawpaw (Asimina) bushes), Buchwaldoboletus hemichrysus (a bright yellow bolete that strangely fruits on decaying pine wood), and Amanita westii (a unique Gulf Coast Amanita named after University of Florida’s famous collector Erdman West).

Another thing I love about this book is how the Bessettes have embraced the chaos and uncertainty of our molecular mycology era. This is a marked improvement over many guidebooks of the past where name changes and phylogenetic results were swept under the proverbial rug. The Bessettes know how to stand their ground – they know that these phylogenies just keep on coming at a rapid rate and that phylogenies continue to change our views of fungal evolution. Accordingly, they have included comments on molecular data in their “remarks” sections of several of the classic Southeastern species to provide context for the reader. One good example is for Laetiporus persicinus, where the authors mention that “molecular analysis indicates that this species does not belong to Laetiporus” and that “additional research is required to resolve this issue.” Although not all of the remarks in the book capture the current state of taxonomy for every single species treated, I really appreciate the effort to dive deeper for at least some of the taxa. This detailed approach is useful for professionals, but I also think it is important for the amateur readership because it accurately conveys the true state of affairs. The reality is that there is so much more we still need to learn about fungi, particularly in the Gulf States where the diversity is incredibly high but there are still relatively few fungal biologists. Although I not-so secretly hoped that the book would have a key to all of the treated species or maybe a key to the genera for each of the sections, that is a huge effort that is beyond the scope of this field guide. Perhaps when the dust settles and the flurry of name changes slows to a trickle, an intrepid mycologist might take on such a monumental task. 

Overall, I highly recommend “Mushrooms of the Gulf Coast States” to any mycologist or mycophile who plans to travel to the Gulf Coast region and wants a guidebook to help them to enjoy our local fungi.

Reviewed by Dr. Matthew E. Smith 
Associate Professor
University of Florida, Gainesville, FL,