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Putting the fun back in fungi winter showers bring strange mushrooms
By Elizabeth Jardina - STAFF WRITER
Tromping through the damp wooded trails of Mills Canyon in Burlingame, Bill Freedman keeps a keen eye out for things most other people would hike right past.
He stops and crouches to point out dead man's fingers, delicate wisps of ashy gray fungus poking out of a rotting tree stump.
In the Bay Area, winter showers bring a host of mushrooms popping up among the fallen leaves in wooded parks and even residential lawns.
To celebrate the season, many organizations, including the Mycological Society of San Francisco (MSSF), host mushroom walks, guided tours of the fungi that surround us.
But even the casual hiker can have fun spying mushrooms growing from the damp landscape at this time of year.
There's the jack o' lantern mushroom, a big, sprawling yellow-orange fungus that grows at the base of rotting tree stumps. It's also bioluminescent, which means that if you plunge it into cold water in a very dark room it will glow faintly.
Even mushrooms that look ordinary can be interesting.
On a recent hike, Freedman has brought along an example of Garricus xanthoderma, a mushroom he found growing in his lawn. It could easily be mistaken for the common white button mushroom found at the grocery store, but this mushroom reacts to bruising by turning a brilliant yellow. Its name gives a clue: "Xantho" is "yellow" in Greek, and "derma" is "skin."
the way, Garricus xanthoderma is a relative of the button mushroom, but if you eat it you'll suffer gastrointestinal irritation and distress. It also smells faintly of phenol or embalming fluid.
In Mills Canyon, Freedman points out frequent examples of Lactarius xanthogalactus. The cream-colored mushroom, which has a round cone-shaped depression in the top, reacts to being cut by sending out a bright yellow milky substance.
Pausing to look at another mushroom, Freedman finds something he didn't expect: an orange-brown cup fungus. It's strange and gelatinous, like something you'd expect to see at the bottom of the ocean or on an alien planet.
"I'll bet you didn't even see that," he says. "But don't feel bad. I didn't see it either at first."
The 84-year-old retired Hillsborough physician has been interested in mycology, the study of fungi, since 1968.
"We go through life, and we don't see things very often that are right under our noses," Freedman says. "The mushroom people have to be better at (seeing)."
His excitement is visible as he finds a rotting log dotted with false turkey tail, a striped brown semi-circular fungus, and a yellow one called Sterium hirsuta, which loves to cling to and digest dead oak wood.
Oozing among the others are dabs of vivid yellow goo. "Witch's butter," he says. "It's a jelly fungus.
"What you see here is really exciting." He stares at the perfectly still tableaux and then grins. "Well, it all depends on your time perspective," he says.
"Witch's butter is a parasite on sterium and turkey tail. There's a big fight going on there. It's action, but you can't see it," he says.
Freedman's wife, Louise, is also interested in mushrooms "up to the hilt," he says.
They collaborated to create a poster warning people of the dangers of naively picking and eating wild mushrooms - particularly the dreaded death cap (Amanita phalloides) and the death angel (Amanita virosa). Louise did the botanical drawings on the poster, which is used by public service agencies around the world.
It at first seems like a contradiction that Louise also wrote a book called "Wild About Mushrooms," the official cookbook of the MSSF. Many amateur mycologists begin to amass their knowledge about fungi with a culinary aim.
"The majority of people are interested in going out to just find mushrooms to eat," he says. "But join the mushroom society. I think it would be dangerous to just buy a book and go out and collect. Many of the photographs in many of the books, especially the poisonous ones, are wrong."
The death cap and the death angel, the consumption of which leads to liver failure, are the most deadly, but many of the 6,000 kinds of fungi found in California cause abdominal distress - nausea, vomiting, diarrhea. It's nothing to mess around with.
In addition to the perils of eating fungi you find in the woods, it's also illegal to pick them in most open spaces. Many public lands - including those in the East Bay Regional Parks District and the Midpeninsula Open Space District - strictly forbid collecting anything from the parks.
The Freedmans try not to damage the fungi they find. Rather than plucking mushrooms, they use a hand-held mirror to peer underneath the caps to see the gills or pores.
To find mushrooms, all you have to do is go outside, says Mike Boom, a past MSSF president. "The funny thing about mushrooms is you can find them wherever you go," he says. "I walk down the street from the house and see 20 different species of mushrooms...It's a matter of opening your eyes."
The best places to look for them, he says, are areas wooded with pine trees or coastal live oaks, both of which provide fecund ground for fungi. Not so good are eucalyptus, redwoods and acacia trees.
"Most people get into (fungi) because you can eat them, but once you start looking for them, you get drawn into the natural world," Boom says. "You can go anywhere there are good trees and decent moisture and you'll find mushrooms."
Where to find them On mushroom hikes, the ground may be damp and soggy, and it might be raining. Wear layered clothing and sturdy shoes.
<-subtitle->Mycological Society of San Francisco hikes and events
Tomales Bay State Park - guided foray, 10 a.m. Jan. 17, free. Meet at Bear Valley parking lot in Point Reyes National Seashore and carpool to Tomales Bay Park. Call Peter Werner at (415) 289-0168 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Phleger Estate- Beginners foray led by Bill Freedman, 10 a.m. Jan. 18, free. Meet at the Phleger entrance where the end of Edgewood Road joins Canada Road. To get there, take Highway 280 to the Edgewood turnoff just north of Woodside. Heavy rain cancels. No children, please. Limit of 25 hikers. Call (650) 344-7774 or e-mail email@example.com.
Monthly meeting - The speaker is Gary Lincoff, author of "The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms," 7 p.m. Jan. 20, free. Randall Museum, 199 Museum Way, San Francisco. (415) 759-0495.
Lecture- "Amanitas of California," a slide show and lecture by Debbie Viess. Learn to identify California amanitas. 7:30 p.m. Jan. 22, free to MSSF members; $15 for general public. Oakland Museum, Oak and 10th streets, Oakland. (510) 238-2200. www.museumca.org
Mushroom Day at the Randall Museum- An event for kids and adults, with MSSF displays, identification table, books, T-shirts, mushroom modeling for kids, and homemade soups available for purchase for lunch, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Feb. 7, free. Randall Museum, 199 Museum Way, San Francisco. (415) 554-9600. www.randallmuseum.org
<-subtitle->Other mushroom hikes
Hidden Villa- Learn how to identify common families of mushrooms. Dress warmly, bring a basket for collecting specimens and a small knife. Hikes are for ages 10 and up, 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Jan. 17 and 31, Feb. 21, $10. Hidden Villa, 26870 Moody Road, Los Altos Hills. (650) 949-8653. www.hiddenvilla.org
Filoli- Bill and Louise Freedman lead a discovery excursion in the hills at Filoli. For ages 12 and up. The hikes are 10 a.m.-noon this Thursday, Jan. 17 and 24 and Feb. 2. Filoli, 86 Canada Road, Woodside. (650) 364-8300. www.filoli.org