Thanks to two Maine mycologists (experts in fungi) who each published a book in 2009, 2010 will be the year of the mushrooms for me.

Those books are “Edible and Medicinal Mushrooms of New England and Eastern Canada” by David L. Spahr (North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, Calif.) and “Mushrooms for Health–Medicinal Secrets of Northeastern Fungi” by Greg A. Marley (Down East, Rockport, Maine).

Spahr’s book covers mushroom collecting basics, edible and medicinal mushrooms, dyeing with mushrooms (and not dying with mushrooms!), preparing and cooking mushrooms, and propagation strategies to increase desirable populations on your own property. Each chapter is easy, enjoyable and fascinating to read.

About the delicious maitake or hen of the woods mushroom (Grifola frondosa), for example, Spahr notes that it boosts the immune system to fight cancer, stabilizes blood sugar and blood pressure, and may help counter diabetes. Various mushrooms have so much promise for treating or avoiding illnesses, in fact, that Spahr recommends checking with your doctor if you are taking medication for a health issue before consuming some mushrooms. His story of a girl whose brain cancer stopped growing once she started consuming maitake mushrooms, and who is still alive four years after being given one year to live, is fascinating.

Marley’s book focuses on mushrooms as medicinals and “functional foods,” i.e., foods that provide protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber as well as other compounds that promote health, such as glucans, polysaccharides and terpenes. He explains how our immune systems work and what researchers have found or are studying in relation to the health properties of mushrooms. He even mentions the meditative effects of walking in nature to look for mushrooms.

Turkey tail mushrooms (Trametes versicolor, Coriolus versicolor), for instance, have been used medicinally for centuries in China and Japan, and in Japan for the last century to help treat gastric and colorectal cancers. A compound called PSK, isolated from turkey tails, is the second leading anticancer “drug” in Japan and is being investigated in U.S. clinical trials. And regular use of oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus and P. populinus) may help treat high cholesterol, notes Marley.

These books are almost spiritual in the ways that they suggest expanding your perception of the world around you. Spahr, for example, talks about learning to explore washes (places with intermittent streams on slopes) to find black trumpet mushrooms and chanterelles. “Once I understood that washes were prime locations, Black Trumpets seemed to be everywhere,” he writes. “It is all about how one directs his or her attention” — a lesson that can apply to so many aspects of life.

Marley mentions calls from people soon after they take one of his mushroom identification classes. Callers exclaim “at the numbers of mushrooms they are seeing on their walks in the woods … they have had their eyes opened to the fact that mushrooms are living in their world, and like magic, they suddenly see them in numbers they never imagined. Such is the power of our mind that until we are made aware of the existence of something, we are unable to see it.”

Marley’s own description of finding black trumpet mushrooms is elegant: “The mind embraces the form enough to see one, and, if you stop to really look, an entire small village of Trumpets emerges from the duff.”

These are books to read through once to gain an understanding and appreciation of the mushroom world, and then to read and study slowly as you learn first one, then another mushroom. Both have excellent photographs. Both also have important warnings about poisonous look-alikes.

After reading the books, I walked through the woods and soon found a chaga mushroom that was easy to identify and that I would feel confident in harvesting and using in tea (flavored with chai spices, like the commercial Chaga Chai that Marley makes and sells). For many of the other mushrooms that Marley and Spahr describe, I would want to go on field trips before collecting and consuming them; and for some, I may never feel that comfortable.

Fortunately, Mainers can go on such field trips, announced by the Maine Mycological Association (themushroomjournal.com); in Marley’s Coastal Mushrooming Newsletter, available via e-mail from Marley at mushrooms@midcoast.com; on Spahr’s Web site, http://mushroom-collecting.com and on the Northeast Mushrooms Yahoo group at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/NortheastMushrooms/ that Spahr moderates.

Even if collecting wild mushrooms does not appeal to you, these two books are valuable for their health and culinary information, especially since so many mushrooms are now available at grocery stores and at some farmers markets.