Mushroom hunting sometimes gets a bad rap, whether because of associations with “magic mushrooms” or horror stories about accidental poisonings. But mushroom hunting offers a fascinating glimpse into the mycological wonderland of our backyards, parks, and forests.
By Daria Syskine
Unidentified mushrooms (possibly family Psathyrellaceae) at Rancho San Antonio Park. Like other fungi, they’re small and easy to miss if you’re not looking for them – but their beauty makes it worth it. (Photo: Daria Syskine)
The forest is wet. The rains came last night, the third or fourth rains of the year. The mosses and ferns that blanket the tall, old oaks let the water drip through them down to the forest floor, now that they’ve drunk their fill. The wet season has come.
And so have the mushrooms. They began to spring up after the first rain. When there was hardly a slick of moisture on last year’s dry grasses, you could already spot the tissue-paper-thin white smears of turkey-tail mushrooms starting to emerge on fallen logs.
Now, what with the chain of storms blowing in across the Pacific, carrying fleecy gray clouds and life-giving water, they’ve emerged in their full glory. Just walk along this trail and look down at the weedy borders. There’s the coppery helmet of a bolete, proudly supported by a white stalk. There’s a group of slim sulfur caps glowing in a shady nook beneath a gooseberry shrub. There’s the ubiquitous white, crimini, portobello mushroom attaining domestic ripeness in leaf litter. Fluted black elfin saddle, dog-vomit slime mold, artist’s conk, bleeding fairy’s-helmet — their very names speak to the bizarre poetry of these denizens of the forest.
Welcome to the wonderful world of fungi.
The Beginner’s Guide to Mycology
While the identification of specific edible and nonedible mushrooms is best left to expert mycologists, there’s plenty to say about the fascinating daily lives of mushrooms.
Let’s start with a few basic terms. A “mushroom” is the fruiting body of a fungus — the bit with a stalk and cap. The mushroom only appears above-ground to release spores (mushroom ‘seeds’) during its reproductive season, and it’s what mushroom-hunters usually gather when they’re foraging. The distinctive shapes of different mushrooms name a few different categories of fungi: puffballs (the spores are released from a sac inside), boletes (the spores are released from pores under the cap), and gilled mushrooms (the spores are released from gills under the cap), for a start.
From left to right: stump puffballs (Lycoperdon pyriforme) in Rock Creek Park, Washington D.C.; an unidentified bolete in Yosemite National Park; and a blewit (Clitocybe nuda) in the Famberhorst Nature Reserve, in the Netherlands. Compare the small spore openings in the puffballs, the porous underside of the bolete cap, and the gills of the blewit. (Photo Credit, from left to right: Katja Schulz/Wikimedia Commons, Daria Syskine, Dominicus Bergsma/Wikimedia Commons)
Most of the fungus is hidden underground. Those parts include its hyphae, fibers through which it intakes food, and the hyphae make up the mycelium.
The mycelium is the most fascinating part of the fungus and also the most important for the fungi’s function in a forest ecosystem. You may have learned a little about mushrooms in biology — how they decompose dead organisms and cycle nutrients through the food web, for example. But fungi do much more than that for the forest. In fact, in what sounds like the plot of a sci-fi book, mushrooms can allow plants to talk to each other.
All right, so plants don’t exactly send text messages through fungi. However, they can and do hook up to the widespread network of mycelia formed by fungi in order to share chemical information. The connection between plant roots and fungi is known as a mycorrhizal association. Through these mycorrhizae, plants can spread toxins that inhibit the growth of competing plants, send each other signals to put up a defense against a bacterial pathogen or to prepare for marauding aphids.
More than that, mycorrhizae provide both a case study of mutualism and of natural black markets. The mycorrhizae benefit both plants and mushrooms. Plants share some of their carbon-rich sap with the non-photosynthetic mushrooms, and mushrooms return the favor by sending the plant nutrients (like phosphorus or nitrogen) and by increasing the plant’s access to water (thanks to their wide nets of mycelia).
However, some plants take advantage of this exchange by tapping into the mycorrhizae and ‘stealing’ sugars from the plant-mushroom pair. These non-photosynthetic or partially photosynthetic plants, including the yellow coralroot and phantom orchid, get all the benefits of a symbiotic relationship without paying the price.
Mushrooms and Those who Love Them
Mushrooms have played an important role in human history, too. Apart from their obvious value as a food source, they’ve also been imbued with religious and spiritual significance, due to the hallucinogenic properties of some mushrooms.
Still, it wasn’t until the 19th century that the West — and America — overcame its fears of the risks of poisonous mushrooms and began to embrace the mushroom in everyday cuisine. That transition is what brought the portobello to your grocery store and the truffle to your restaurant plate.
Today, mushroom hunting is still somewhat stigmatized, but it’s becoming increasingly popular among non-mycologists, thanks to the Internet and a boom in foraging classes and guides.
And it’s become popular for good reasons. MVHS math teacher Katie Collins started mushroom-hunting a few years ago, when her friends invited her and her husband to go together.
It was another activity to fill up dreary winter days, and it was fun — like a treasure hunt in the forest. For her, it’s been an eye-opening experience.
“[M]ushroom hunting is one of those things — you cannot do it fast,” Collins said. “If you do it fast, you’re gonna miss mushrooms. It kind of requires you to slow down a little bit and be more mindful and have more attention to detail.”
Once you start looking for mushrooms in the forest, even if you’re not actually foraging them, you’ll inevitably start to notice other things. Banana slugs, say, or sprouts of mint-scented yerba buena.
Of course, mushroom hunting is not without its risks. Collins made it clear that if you have even a passing interest in mycology, it’s a necessity to start by taking classes and going out in the field with an experienced mycologist. Though some mushrooms are easily-identifiable, a mistake can be fatal.
There’s less obvious dangers, too. Collins recounted one memorable mushroom-hunting occasion last year, when the rains had caused an explosion in the population of local fungi. Over Christmas break, she went with her friends on a quest for chanterelles and other mushrooms. They stopped in a particularly mushroom-rich clearing. That’s when the trip turned sour.
“I must have stepped on a […] yellow-jacket hive,” Collins said. “And I got stung. I got stung in the face. And then I got stung in the face again. And then I got stung in the back. And so then I started freaking out. […] The next day I came to school and I looked like I had my wisdom teeth pulled.”
However, even that mushroom hunt had its rewards — after she had fended off the yellow jackets, they returned for the mushrooms.
For the Love of Fungi
If it sounds like something you’re interested in, it’s best to follow Collins’ advice and start off by getting involved in one of the Bay Area’s numerous fungi associations. The Bay Area Mycological Society organizes forays and mycoblitzes for beginners and hobbyists alike; the Mycological Society of San Francisco offers classes in cooking with mushrooms and basic mycology.
And if mushroom hunting sounds intimidating, it’s not necessary to actually pick and eat mushrooms to enjoy them. Once the wet season hits, the Bay Area’s local parks come alive with an amazing variety of fungi — from eyelash cups, to witch’s butter, to coral fungi. Just seeing these mushrooms is a treat.
Eyelash cup fungus (Scutellania scutelata) on a mossy log. This tiny mushroom’s vivid colors and bizarre shape are a reason to ponder the forest floor during the wet season. (Photo: Rick Watts/Wikimedia Commons)
The forest is wet. Take an hour; take two. Wander the trails that wind their way through the foaming green underbrush and get down on your hands and knees to peer at the miniature universe of fungi that, in the rainy season, makes itself known to us. Scour fallen logs for signs of the diversity of fungal life even now patiently eating it from inside out.
Take an hour; take two. Breathe the air, washed clean, notice the sharp blend of new greenery and decomposing humus.
And take an hour or two to be grateful for those lowly, bizarre, elegant, confounding, most glorious of nature’s creations: fungi.