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Wild for 'Mushroom Lady'

Loss felt at Newton Farmers Market

Annette Maleson, with her wares. Annette Maleson, with her wares. (THE BOSTON GLOBE/FILE)

For nearly a decade, Annette Maleson coaxed children and adults at the Newton Farmers Market into enjoying wild mushrooms -- chanterelles, chicken mushrooms, and more exotic varieties.

Bewildered parents like Deborah Strymish found her 2- and 4-year-old sons eating Maleson's mushrooms and asking for more at her table at the market last summer. "I think it was because she was so captivating," Strymish said. "She made it all seem so magical."

Maleson died on July 5 at age 83. But she is remembered by many for helping children and adults reconnect with nature through mushrooms. Judy Dore, who coordinates the farmers market for the city, said customers have been asking for The Mushroom Lady nonstop since her disappearance from the market. In recent weeks, she set up a memorial table, with flowers and a laminated obituary, in Maleson's honor.

"People just keep asking for her," Dore said. "They want to know who's going to sell the mushrooms."

A native of Baltimore, Maleson graduated from Goucher College and moved to Newton 48 years ago. She married a lawyer, had five sons, and later divorced. Maleson worked for many years as a consultant to agencies that served the blind.

Her son, Benjamin, said the 1951 book "The Sea Around Us," by Rachel Carson, sparked her interest in the environmental movement. She became an activist, frequently writing letters to politicians about such issues as recycling, which she passionately supported, and water fluoridation, which she ardently opposed, he said. She joined Newton's Recycling Committee.

"She would get riled up about things," Benjamin Maleson said. "She was very civic-minded and politically astute."

Benjamin Maleson said he and his mother went on their first mushroom hunt with a family friend while he was a boy. It became a ritual for the two, who honed their skills over the years using guide books. Both joined the Boston Mycological Club, one of the oldest mushroom hunting clubs in the country. Benjamin Maleson currently earns his living hunting mushrooms worldwide and selling them to establishments such as Maison Robert and L'Espalier, both in Boston.

Maleson began selling her son's mushrooms at the Newton Farmers Market in the late 1990s, after retiring from her work with the blind.

A friend, Ruth Levens, said she used her knowledge of mushrooms as a way to reach out to others and stay active and involved. She said Maleson also began to lose her own sight, ultimately becoming legally blind. That never stopped her from setting up shop at the market. One season, when mushrooms were few, she hawked recycled canvas shopping bags instead.

"She was always wanting to try anything new," she said. "She wasn't just some soggy old lady who hunted mushrooms."

Maleson described herself as an educator in a 2001 interview with The Boston Globe.

"People have become interested and excited about mushrooms, including kids, which I love," she said. "The market is the one place in the world I get unconditional love."

Strymish, the mother of two, said her oldest son typically begged to visit The Mushroom Lady before any other vendor at the market, including the ice cream booth. She suspected that he was enthralled with her stories. She often unveiled a rare or unusual mushroom at the end of her story, dramatically pulling it out of a brown paper bag "like it was a golden nugget," she said. "It just felt so ancient, so uncommercial."

Of Maleson's death, Strymish said, "It's such a loss."

Benjamin Maleson said he doesn't know if he will find a successor to sell his mushrooms at the Newton market. For now, he, too, is coping with the loss.

"The last thing she put in her mouth were two golden raspberries I bought for her at a produce market," he said, adding that whenever she ate something "a little different, unusual and tasty, her eyes would light up."

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at