The rainy season is mushroom season in California, and if you are a forager, this weather has you haunting all your favorite wooded spots, looking for edible fungi. But mushrooms are more than a good excuse for butter and garlic. These enigmatic organisms have an amazing biology, continuing to confuse and surprise scientists.
Mushrooms, also known as fruiting bodies, are just the reproductive structure of a fungus. They are temporary, like flowers. If you pick a mushroom, you are not “killing” the fungus or “saving” a tree from decay. The actual fungus is a threadlike structure called the mycelium, often hidden underground, under bark or inside a compost pile. It is not known how many different species exist, because many are still undiscovered or unnamed. It is still possible to discover a new mushroom, and you don’t necessarily have to be a scientist to do it.
(Photo 2: Pink fungus at the base of a privet tree in front of Southern Exposure)
A few decades ago, middle-school biology taught us that fungi were part of the plant kingdom. Although fungi get their own kingdom now, it is also thought that they are more closely related to animals than to plants. The cell walls are made of chitin, a kind of sugar that also makes up the exoskeleton of crabs and beetles. Fungi also cannot make their own food from light, as plants do. Instead they exude enzymes to digest food outside their bodies, then absorb the digested material. We see this on decaying wood – the wood becomes spongy or brittle depending on the type of fungus breaking it down. Many fungi have a beneficial relationship with plants, helping plant roots take up water and nutrients in exchange for sugars from photosynthesis. These are known as mycorhizzal fungi.
(Photo 3: This phallic fungus appeared last winter and this winter in about the same place, just west of Slghtglass. )
Every winter, mushrooms pop up in the 20th Street Garden. We see them mostly on the east end of the block where it’s shadier, but I found one outside Central Kitchen last winter. Some are probably mycorhizzal, but others take advantage of moist conditions, such as these small fungi colonizing a fallen leaf. When the soil dries out, the mushrooms fade away, but the mycelium are still there unnoticed. (P.S. Don’t eat any mushrooms from the 20th Street garden unless you can identify them without a doubt as edible!)
(Photo 4: Tiny mushrooms colonizing a fallen leaf just west of Sightglass)
Recently I took a one-day introductory course in mushroom biology taught by Christian Schwarz from Santa Cruz. I’d highly recommend anything he teaches. His classes are informative but not overly academic – and his photos are really amazing!
For those who really want to get into mushroom ID, there is a 5-week course in Santa Cruz, one for beginners and one for intermediates. He also leads mushroom walks for small groups. He’s totally booked for this mushroom season (November-March) so get on the calendar for next fall/winter – http://www.redwoodcoasttours.com/
(Photo 5: Many mushrooms have “gills” on the underside of their caps, which can help identify the species.)
Before that, get your mushroom fix by reading Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast, co-authored by Christian Schwarz and Noah Siegel. This will serve as a field guide for identifying mushrooms from at least Monterey County to the Oregon border, and will probably work to a certain extent north and south of this region. Available in August from 10-Speed Press in digital or paperback.
Ellyn Shea is a gardener and consultant in San Francisco. Visit her at http://www.garden-guidance.com