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Mushroom hunting: A wet but rewarding winter pastime Thursday, January 22, 2004
By ELIZABETH JARDINA San Mateo County Times
BURLINGAME -- 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 San Francisco 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.
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.
Freedman has brought along an example of Agaricus xanthodermus, 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."
By the way, Agaricus xanthodermus 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.
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.
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. "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."
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 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.
"You can go anywhere there are good trees and decent moisture and you'll find mushrooms," Boom says.