There is fungus among us.
The median in Egan Drive has sprouted a respectable crop of shaggy mane mushrooms this week. The fast-growing, edible fungus thrive this time of year, and the shoulder of the busy expressway is ideal habitat.
``They like to grow in disturbed areas, and that's a perfect place for them,'' said Juneau mushroom aficionado Bart Watson. ``They're a common urban and suburban mushroom and come up often in lawns and roadsides.''
Given their abundance, there are undoubtedly safer places to gather the mushrooms than the Egan Drive median. One also should use a mushroom field guide for positive identification.
Shaggy manes are recognizable by the fluffy scales that rise from their tall, thin, brownish-white cap. They also have a bizarre quality known as deliquescence -- they melt into an inky puddle of black liquid as they age.
Watson said shaggy manes occasionally grow up to 2 feet tall, but normally average between 3 and 8 inches. They are simultaneously fragile and mighty, with the power to push up through asphalt.
``There's one documented case of one mushroom lifting a 10-pound piece of concrete. They're known for destroying tennis courts,'' Watson said.
Juneau biologist and prankster John Palmes has been intrigued by the annual roadside crop of shaggy manes for years.
``You see those shaggy manes and you're going by at 55 mph. You'd like to stop but you can't. We decided to play a special joke on mushroom hunters,'' he said.
Two years ago Palmes and a friend, Edna Deerunner, ``planted'' the median with clusters of fake mushrooms. They carved decoys of the highly prized edible morel mushrooms out of potatoes, adding details with a magic marker. Some had carrots for stems.
``I don't know if any mushrooms come out on April First, but that's when we did it,'' he said.
A fan of edible mushrooms, Palmes has collected pounds of the shaggy manes for the dinner table.
``The best stage to eat them is the button stage, when you first see them come up,'' he said.
Although shaggy manes generally are easy to identify, the button stage is the time when they are most likely to be confused with a different species of sprouting mushroom. Watson recommended picking the young ones when you see the mature ones deliquescing nearby. He said he's offering no guarantees, but that's a pretty good indication you're into a patch of shaggy manes.
``They're awfully good sauteed in butter and garlic. They have a nice flavor,'' he said.
Watson consulted a half-dozen mushroom guides for cooking tips. One said they're known as a good substitute for asparagus, especially before the cap has expanded and they're still white.
``One author said they're particularly good in soup, another suggested rolling them in egg batter and crumbs before sauteing,'' he said.
Watson offered two truisms about wild mushrooms. It's always good to cook mushrooms before eating them, he said. Even edible mushrooms can contain minute quantities of toxins, which break down when cooked.
``And don't overindulge, especially the first time you're trying them. Some people react to wild mushrooms,'' he said. ``Try out just a little, just to be sure.''
Mushroom season coincides with deer season, and years ago Watson began identifying mushrooms he found when he was hunting. He took a mushroom class from a visiting mycologist and eventually grew more interested in hunting mushrooms than hunting deer.
``It's like an Easter egg hunt. You don't know what you're going to find around the next bush,'' he said. ``Get a mushroom guide, start with a few of the easy-to-identify mushrooms and expand your repertoire.''