Spring Amanita Diversity in Santa Cruz

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Amanita vernicoccora - Hatching. Spring iconic. Hella symbolic.

Although spring is known to be the best season for diversity of Amanita fruiting in much of California, this year has proven to be record-setting. The reason for the exceptionally varied assortment we are seeing is (seemingly paradoxically) the extreme lack of precipitation most of California experienced during the preceding fall and winter.

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Amanita magniverrucata, an expected spring species.

Due to last year’s extreme drought, the soil-moisture levels stayed very low, and the fall and winter-fruiting Amanita species (A. calyptrodermaA. muscariaA. phalloides) were never triggered to fruit. This meant that the mycelia were still ‘lying in wait’ when a series of spring rainstorms fell, starting in late February and continuing into March and April.

In most years, these species have already been triggered to expend their fruiting resources well before the spring precipitation arrives. Although overall biomass of fruitbodies remains low due to the drought, the Amanita assemblage includes both fall, winter, and spring species, bringing the species count for the 30-day period between March 10 and April 10th. This is nearly 2/3 of our regularly-occurring taxa! Wild times.

A. ocreata
A. phalloides - rare for the season

A. calyptroderma - very rare for the season
A. calyptratoides - generally uncommon to rare, one fruiting at a known location in Aptos
A. vernicoccora
A. velosa
A. constricta
A. augusta - somewhat uncommon in spring
A. novinupta - a profuse fruiting this spring
A. protecta - sparse fruiting this spring, but one new mycelium found at Natural Bridges

A. aprica (generally uncommon to rare)
A. muscaria (somewhat rare for the season)
A. magniverrucata
A. gemmata group
Amanita “ohlone” nom prov. - generally uncommon species, undescribed

I also made charts (below) of a couple Amanita fruiting patterns using the Mushroom Observer database. Note the year-round occurrence pattern for Amanita phalloides (the deadly toxic Death Cap). This invasive species is known to be aggressive and flexible in forming mycorrhzial symbioses with a wide range of woody plants, and is equally phenologically adaptable, it seems.

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Contrast that pattern with the much more pronounced fall/winter fruiting of the Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria).

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Bolbitius titubans today at Humboldt Bay.Yellow. Slimy. Gregarious. What more can one ask for.

Bolbitius titubans today at Humboldt Bay.
Yellow. Slimy. Gregarious. What more can one ask for.

Can the tree set fruit so fast?

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Marasmiellus candidus - woobly gills

Probably not.

And neither can a fungal mycelium. Heavy drought for the better part of a year can’t be made up for by a single storm, no matter how impressive. 

It’s not just the water to swell the fruitbodies that’s been lacking, but the preceding months of water - softening the soil, ripening the humus, allowing the mycelia in normal years to scavenge, grow, prosper, and eventually, set fruit.

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These little, half-marcescent (look it up) Xeromphalina managed to set fruit, alright.

Like a tea flower, the first pour of water is just to loosen and prepare the leaves. The second, and third, and fourth pour of hot water each reveal new nuances of flavor.

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Dare we ask what nuances of flavor can be found in these saw-toothed Lentinellus? No.

And so it is with each pouring of the rains - there are early season mushrooms, midwinter mushrooms (that require more time to unfurl their fruitbodies), and finally the spring fungi that require a really well-seasoned forest floor and a bit of the sun’s kiss before they reveal themselves.

So the pattern we are seeing under this year’s dramatically punctuated conditions  is that the tiniest saprobic species respond first - they need less water to fill their fruitbodies, and they are not tied directly to the seasonal physiology of a host tree (as in the mycorrhizal mushrooms).

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These Mycena that are not only tiny, but also wood-rotting.

We are also seeing the wood-rotting fungi fruit well, since they can generate water by breaking down lignin, and since wood itself is often a good reservoir of moisture in dry times.

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Happy Valentine’s Day from this pinkish li’l sorrel leaf. Found by Faun.

Undaunted Fruits

dessication be damned

The news is old: this is California’s driest year on record.
But February and March hold promise yet, and unfortunately we will undoubtedly weather worse in the future. For now, the woods and my curiosity are left high and dry, with mushrooms few and far between and my field of vision filled with the feathered ones (not the gilled).

What can be found?
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Hygrocybe singeri. Indomitable.


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Xerocomellus zelleri, bearing punctules

I am at a conference where someone actually suggested that we all bleed our wrists in the lawn to call down the rain. I was supportive of the idea but no one seconded her motion.

Modern Mycophobia - Shoegazing Lunatics vs Seasonal Succulence

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My cousin engaging her totally innocuous affinity for mushrooms.

Online writing about mushrooms and mushroomers abounds these days – most of it in orbit around buzzy topics like bioluminescent species, myco-ethnography, bioremediation, and citizen science. The majority of this writing is superficial and poorly researched, some is middlingly decent as an introduction to the world of mushrooms, and a small minority is actually quite good. But a friend pointed me to an article recently that, beyond being poorly researched, is actually misleading and weirdly offensive.

In mid-December of last year, Aeon Magazine published an article by Cal Flyn, entitled “The Deadly Sport of Mushroom Foraging”, a piece which managed to make me wince more than once as I read it. The topic: people who gather mushrooms for food. The message: it is a wildly risky hobby undertaken by lunatics and reckless “shoegazing nature lovers”.

————-The rest of this piece references Flyn’s article heavily, so it’s worth having a look at it here before reading on.—————————                         

I’d love to say that Flyn’s article was a partial success, but it wasn’t. There is a pervasive cultural bias issue with the article that I’ll address, and on top of that, a number of statements littered throughout the article are either hyperbolic or factually unsound, and deserve only a basic pointing-out-of-wrongheadedness.

For example:

"Mushrooms are bloodthirsty." 

This is such an exaggerated statement that I have a hard time imagining that Flyn herself didn’t chuckle while typing it. So: Mushrooms don’t move. They don’t chase people and forcibly intoxicate them. The vast majority aren’t poisonous. Enough said.

But the fearmongering doesn’t end there:

"Every time mycologists bring home a fresh batch [of mushrooms], they risk an upset stomach at the very least, and at worst a slow and painful death."

This isn’t even close to true. The word mycologist might as well be replaced here with ‘risk reducer’. The reason people study things is to understand them better - one advantage of greater understanding is an ability to minimize the risks involved in engaging that thing. Mushrooms are no exception.

Then there’s the problem of made-up species (what exactly is Amanita regalla?), and a very suspicious quote from her reference book - “Poison acts like A. phalloides but is stronger” (I have no idea what she might have been reading about, since A. phalloides is just about the most toxic species in the world).

But argumentatively speaking, this is the low-hanging fruit, and relatively trivial. The main problem with Flyn’s article is that it is written within the bounds of knowledge of someone coming from a mushroom-fearing (and thus mushroom-ignorant) culture. 

Flyn laments the ambiguity of using a field guide as a tool for distinguishing edible and poisonous species. This is not at all surprising - I sympathize with her! Most mushroom field guides are difficult to use, incomplete, outdated, and poorly illustrated.

But here’s the thing - only a tiny minority of the mushrooms that people gather to eat are identified using a field guide. If I had to make a conservative estimate, I’d guess that less than 0.001% of the total volume of mushrooms collected globally for food on any given day are identified with a field guide. It’s probably less than that. Flyn (obviously out of touch with the people she’s putatively writing about) apparently doesn’t realize this.

Only folks from decidedly fungophobic cultures (and thus lacking any sort of familial or cultural heritage-based knowledge) would have to resort to using a book to identify mushrooms. In American and British mainstream cultures, for example, we inherit a fear of mushrooms, and year after year we are passed on admonishments to keep our distance from them. Meanwhile, in mushroom-loving cultures, grandmas are teaching grandsons what morels are, which milk caps are good to eat and which aren’t, and how to string up slices of boletes to dry over the fire. 

What else can be expected? People who come from cultures where mushrooms are treasured parts of daily life (at least seasonally) know how to recognize them, how to find and gather them, and how to enjoy them. And people who come from backgrounds in which mushrooms are feared and vilified grow in only one aspect: ignorance.

The most complex response I had to this article came after reading this statement: 

"When we hunt for mushrooms, we encounter a species with which we have no natural affinity." 

At first I thought this was probably meaningless. What is a ‘natural’ affinity for an organism? Do I have a natural affinity for manioc roots (full of cyanide)? For undomesticated bananas (knobby-seeded green starchy monstrosities)? How about for scallops (the adductor muscles of seafloor-dwelling bivalves)? What about a Twinkie?

 But all of this misses the point. I can’t pretend I don’t know what Flyn is talking about. The problem is that’s she’s wrong! Regardless of the exact definition, it’s clear that humans have a very deep affinity (whether natural or cultural, or more likely, naturecultural) for mushrooms.

Much evidence points to our long and intimate history together. Giant Termitomyces are sold to passing motorists in southern Africa, centuries of Chinese herbalists have prized yartsa gunbu (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) for its medicinal properties, and divinatory and shamanic usage of Amanita muscaria has gone on for at least as long among the people of the Kamchatka Peninsula. The markets of the central Mexican highlands are filled with scores of different wild mushrooms, matsutake fetch hundreds of dollars for a single fruitbody in Japanese markets, and even Otzi the iceman was carrying two species of fungus on him when he died (one for medicine, one to carry fire). 

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Wild mushrooms for sale in Munich’s Viktualienmarkt

In contemporary times, maybe the best cultural illustration of profound human affinity for mushrooms is found in eastern Europe and Russia (count for yourselves the number of mushroom references in Nabokov’s works!). In these cultures, folks of all ages express the same zealous reverence, excitement, and protectiveness for food and medicinal mushrooms that American hunters and fisherman afford to walleye and trout and deer and ducks. In such fungus-friendly cultures, mushroom gathering doesn’t end in “meager returns from enormous risk” (Flyn’s words), but rather in an abundance of tasty delicacies at functionally no risk - these people are as familiar with chanterelles as you are with carrots (and have about the same risk of misidentifying one).

But Flyn (quoting Melissa Waddingham) presents us an entirely different narrative:

'Ultimately, I use a microscope. It gets that geeky when you want to eat different species but you don’t want to die.’

This was the moment of realization for me - Flyn really didn’t write an article about the large global body of people who gather mushrooms for food. She wrote about a very particular, unconventional, and actually rather rare brand of mushroom-eating. I guess we could call it ‘list-oriented gastronomy’ or ‘daredevil mycophagy*’. Although I hate that word (myco-phagy just means fungus-eating), I have no problem using it to describe the approach to mushrooms that Flyn describes and engages in. In this context, ‘mycophagy’ is appropriate - the word is obscure, dry, scribbled from the pens of academics (not bubbled up from the mouths of foragers). 

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Carl Atilano - a man (not) living dangerously.

Mushroom eating (which is what most of the rest of the world is up to while Flyn and Waddingham are peering down microscopes and fretting over field guides) has nothing to do with elitism, and nothing to do with frustrating technical identification manuals or fearful adrenaline rushes. People who grew up with mushrooms wallow in their seasonal cycles of succulence, pass on their family’s secret foraging grounds to their children, and relish in the familiarity of finding their food.

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A Sicilian couple enjoying mushrooms and each other.

I don’t think mushrooms need much advocacy - even in the United States there seems to be a relaxing of old fears, and a wave of cultural reconnection with these organisms (in affairs both culinary and taxonomic). I write this rather to dispel myths, to encourage fence-straddlers, and hopefully to let Flyn know that she doesn’t have to fear the outcome of every one of her wild mushroom meals. Go foraging with someone who knows mushrooms like a gardener knows his plants. The dinner you cook with what you’ve gathered will be much more comfortable. Then again, if the discomfort, adrenalin, and elitism were actually what you were looking for, perhaps you should take your own advice and look into a fugu dinner. And invite me! 

*. Which is not to say that I am against these approaches per se. They simply are rare, globally speaking. For an extreme example of list-based gastronomy in which I was involved, see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jxhxYDronq4

You’ve all heard the news. 2013 was the driest year on record for central CA. So there are not many mushrooms. It’s bad. I was out birding traitorously (but hell, I cannot meet an unresponsive universe halfway) when I unexpectedly found this Tricholomopsis rutilans growing from a pine stump. It is (delightfully, in a sort of quaint Victorian way) known as “Plums and Custard” due to purple/creamy yellow color combination.It’s the Year of the Selfie. So. I. Selfied. With a mushroom.

You’ve all heard the news. 2013 was the driest year on record for central CA. So there are not many mushrooms. It’s bad. I was out birding traitorously (but hell, I cannot meet an unresponsive universe halfway) when I unexpectedly found this Tricholomopsis rutilans growing from a pine stump. It is (delightfully, in a sort of quaint Victorian way) known as “Plums and Custard” due to purple/creamy yellow color combination.

It’s the Year of the Selfie. So. I. Selfied. With a mushroom.

The Fate of a Tanoak (Hammer of the SODS)

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Bolbitius aleuriatus- you won’t read about the partial veil of this species in any book (I think), but look closely - the wispy fibers of that structure adorn the edge of the cap of very young fruitbodies.

Tanoaks (Notholithocarpus densiflorus) These majestic members of the oak family are one of the few hardwoods (along with Madrone) that regularly infiltrate dense redwood forest. They are well known and well-loved.

But alas, they are a species getting completely getting hammered by Sudden Oak Death Syndrome (better known as SODS). This oomycete (read: NOT A FUNGUS) pathogen was introduced from the Himalayas to Scotts Valley on nursery rhododendrons. There it began its rapid and deadly spread throughout the state and beyond.

It’s a tragic situation, much more so for a mushroom afficionado (consider the loss of habitat for their mycorrhizal partners). But it ends up yielding a lot of tanoak wood rotting on the ground.

And lo, even after death tanoaks provide habitat (albeit rather ephemeral) for a really distinctive suite of mushrooms. Why such a particular cadre of fungi on these dead trees? The exact explanation is unknown to me, but it’s undoubtedly related to wood chemistry.

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Pluteus cf. romellii- green cap, yellow stem, pink spores. What’s not to love? These guys are confirmed tanoak fiends. (Full disclosure I think I’ve seen them on Quercus oaks as well).

I’ve been interested in this phenomenon for a couple years, so today I spent some time in Big Basin Redwoods State Park looking through the remains of a single large old tanoak, in which I found 18 species of fungi, some of which are illustrated in this post.

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Simocybe centunculus  
(Well, at least what passes for it in CA). Although found on other trees as well, this species seems to particularly love tanoak. I have never seen milky exudate on the cheilocystidia of this species, but these fruitbodies were insulated from drying wind and were very young, so… there you have it. Simocybe. Milky.

Marasmius quercophilus. These tiny mushrooms are quite brown when young; most people are familiar with the whitish-capped older fruitbodies. The entire mycelium (=individual) is restricted to a single tanoak or oak leaf.

Marasmius quercophilus. These tiny mushrooms are quite brown when young; most people are familiar with the whitish-capped older fruitbodies. The entire mycelium (=individual) is restricted to a single tanoak or oak leaf.

Gasp. Rain. Finally. Mushrooms. Pleurotus ostreatus. The Oyster Mushroom.

Gasp. Rain. Finally. Mushrooms. Pleurotus ostreatus. The Oyster Mushroom.

Two-tone Mycena. I love Big Basin State Park. Endless wonders.

Two-tone Mycena. I love Big Basin State Park. Endless wonders.