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Heavy winter rains bring bumper crop of wild fungi.
WHENEVER RAINS SOAK the county, mushrooms abound. For mycologists such as David Campbell, who drove out to Point Reyes during this month's heavy rains, there is little more satisfying than a walk through the woods, nose and eyes pointed downward, with a basket waiting to be filled with fungal fruit.
"Where there's water, there's mushrooms," said Campbell, 55, of San Rafael, a home inspector who is also vice president of the San Francisco Mycological Society and co-owner of a small business that organizes gastronomically focused mushroom hunts.
"The mushrooms we see today aren't responding to this rain; they're responding to the rain two weeks ago," he said. And with recent above average rainfall here, local fungus hunters can expect to see mushrooms popping up all over Marin.
Campbell was in Point Reyes to check up on familiar fungal fruiting grounds, places he refers to as his "address book."
The oldest listing in his book is Vision Ridge, a stretch of hilltop covered in oaks and pines 13 miles east of the Point Reyes Lighthouse.
Thirty years ago, as a student at College of Marin, he came out here mushroom hunting with a group of friends, classmates and a professor. He found a mushroom called an "elfin saddle," the cap of which looks, he said, "like knuckles in a tightly stretched black rubber sack."
He brought it home to sketch it and became infatuated with fungus.
He was looking for that same mushroom, as well as one called "the man on horseback" (Tricholoma flavovirens) and others - the "candy cap" (Lactarius rubidus) and the "hedgehog" (Hydnum repandum). If he's lucky, he said, he might find some chanterelles, though he's pretty sure these spots already will have been picked clean of those prized edibles.
Most of those mushrooms are the fruit of mycorrhizal fungi - the type of fungi that grow in symbiosis with certain trees. In these ecological relationships, the mycelium, or threadlike roots, of a fungus such as the elfin saddle actually work their way between the cells of the roots of, say, a Bishop pine.
The elfin saddle can break down the organic material in the soil to provide enough nitrogen, phosphorous and other minerals for both itself and its pine tree neighbor. In exchange, the pine tree sends down to its roots the sugars it has created through photosynthesis.
As University of California at Berkeley mycology professor Tom Bruns sees it, this relationship is a kind of ecological outsourcing.
"It's basically that they're contracting out for their nutrients," Bruns said. "What the fungus gets out of it is sugar. Most of the big mushrooms that are on the ground in the forest are mycorrhizal, and they have a direct pipeline to the sugars in the roots of any tree."
According to even conservative estimates, Bruns explained, at least 20 percent of the sugars produced by forest trees go to the fungi that provide them with the nutrients they lack.
Campbell pushed through undergrowth and plunged his fingers into the soil in search of what mushroom hunters call "mushrumps," the small mounds in the forest floor created by a mushroom growing from below. Most of the mounds he investigates turn out to be nothing.
"It's a kind of numbers game. I might see a hundred bumps on the forest floor, and five will be mushrooms," Campbell said. "The rest are from gophers or something else."
Of course, the Point Reyes forest floor is not the only place to find fungi. A walk around your backyard can be almost as fruitful.
Peter Thut is an amateur mycologist and a lab manager at Dominican University. He finds most of the mushrooms he likes to photograph in mulch-covered landscape beds on the Dominican campus. That's habitat similar to many backyard gardens, and that's where one can often find saprophytic fungi, the type that live off of decaying organic matter.
One of Thut's favorites is the lacy stinkhorn, a fungus that, rather than spreading its spores through the wind, as most fungi do, relies on insects to carry the spores to new breeding grounds. To do that, the fungi produce a smell halfway between canine feces and rotting meat, Thut said.
"On a sunny day and the sun's hitting them, people are checking their shoes. And you see tons of flies, they walk around looking for a place to lay their eggs, and then they fly off, with the spores stuck to their legs, and leave the spores (elsewhere)," he said.
The red mushroom gets its name from the lacy shape of the cap, which seems to have developed to expose more surface area on which flies can land, Thut said.
Whenever people hunt mushrooms, there is the possibility they might come across Amanita phalloides. Found on the roots of cork and oak trees, it is commonly known as the death cap and is responsible for most fatal mushroom poisonings in California.
For that reason, Campbell is adamant that people should not eat any mushroom they can't identify.
As a volunteer for Marin poison control authorities, he is often called on to identify whether a possible mushroom poisoning was, in fact, caused by a death cap. He said the "phloid," as he has nicknamed them, is often found in backyards and resembles a few different species of edible mushrooms.
This resemblance, in fact, extends beyond appearance. Unlike most poisonous mushrooms, the death cap is not bitter. Nevertheless, it is among the most toxic to humans.
"It's the most serious mushroom poisoning that occurs," he said, shaking his head as he turned back into the woods. "And the funny thing is, no one ever complained about the taste."
-------------------- Which is better: to have fun with FUNGI or to have Idiocy with ideology, to have wars because of words, to have tomorrow's misdeeds out of yesterday's miscreeds? - Aldous Huxley