Last spring, the University of Washington Botanic Gardens hosted a bioblitz to take a stab at identifying the myriad organisms for which Washington Park Arboretum is home. Last week, we continued this effort but with a focus on fungus. During Bioblitz: Mushroom Edition, Puget Sound Mycological Society members teamed up with over 60 citizen scientists for a full day of mushroom hunting that by sundown netted approximately 500 specimens.
The folks from PSMS had been with us in the spring for the all-taxa bioblitz, and had expressed a desire to come back in the fall during prime mushroom season. The mushroom people I’ve met in Seattle are like that – deeply passionate, and genuinely enamored with their quarry. As for the 60 more or less random people that showed up on this predictably drizzle October day, they were almost as diverse as the mushrooms that were collected. (I say almost because everyone smelled pretty good; the same cannot be said for the mushrooms.) But what is it about mushrooms that so captures our collective curiosity? It’s a difficult question to answer because the answer differs depending on who you ask.
I participated in all three of the 2-hour hunts, and attended Marian Maxwell’s presentation on “The Role of Mushrooms in the Ecosystem”, and so I had the chance to mingle with a good number of attendees. I hunted briefly in the afternoon with Alex, a recent transplant from California where he worked as an environmental educator – a man after my own heart. Alex likes the way mushrooms force one to slow down and really look at one’s surroundings, even under one’s surroundings. He used to do this on hikes with kids in California. I’ve done this with fieldtrip groups at the arboretum, and I can verify the mesmerizing power of fungi. Alex and I agreed that anything with the power to keep a group of 4th graders captivated for any real span of time borders on miraculous.
That being said, often times kids make the best mushroom hunters. The Allgood family, with their two young daughters, joined us for much of the day (including the lecture), and contributed dozens of carefully collected specimens to our total. The Allgoods are avid P-patchers who believe that the healthiest food is the food you grow yourself. The desire to learn more about a potentially free, natural and local food source is what brought them out.
With the “eat local” movement gaining momentum and food security conversations becoming household, being able to forage for ones food is in vogue and mushrooms are poster children, and why not. They’re abundant, extremely varied, the right ones are delicious, and you’re simply harvesting a fruit much like any other (but without the maintenance), so there’s no harm done. The trick of course is finding the right ones.
The edibility and lure of foraging for ones food was a common tie among many who came out. Colin, a UW freshman only months into his college experience, is already tiring of “dorm food”. While the Arboretum cannot be considered a place to go harvesting ‘shaggy parasols’ (it’s illegal to take anything out of this Seattle treasure), Colin was very pleased to rescue the handful we collected from their immanent fate in the compost pile and eager to get out into the mountains to find his own secret spot.
That’s what my wife likes about mushroom hunting – the hunting part. The idea of going home with something tasty to eat is secondary to the thrill of the hunt. Having a mission to focus on helps to quiet her ADD brain and allows for a much more enjoyable hike with a husband who is perfectly happy wandering aimlessly through the woods. This example speaks to an indirect medicinal property that mushrooms hold, but there are some mushrooms such as the Agarikon (Fomitopsis officinalis), which only grows on old growth, that are being researched by pharmaceutical companies for their anti-viral, anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, and possibly anti-cancer properties.
Of course there are others who are less interested in the potential for mushrooms to heal the body and more interested in the potential for mushrooms to heal the mind. David, who I met during the morning hunt, though “out there” by conventional standards, is a deeply spiritual man who loves everything about mushrooms, including the ability of some to alter reality. The hallucinogenic properties of mushrooms are well known and well documented in cultures around the world. In many of these cultures, only the most revered members of the society – the shamans, medicine men and mystics are allowed to meddle with these powerful substances. After all, these seemingly innocuous forest dwellers can kill you and every year even experienced mycologists die from eating mushrooms they believed to be safe.
Marian touched on the toxicology of some mushrooms during her talk, describing it as a self-defense mechanism and a way for one mushroom species to stake out turf over another. Often times, but not always, these mushrooms with toxic properties are categorized as parasites – the potentially harmful group that steals nutrients from host plants weakening and eventually killing them. Unfortunately, an example of this group, the Honey Mushroom (Armillaria mellea), was found living on some of our trees. But that’s part of why we do these bioblitzes, to better know our 230 acres and how to manage them.
Marian also talked about a group of mushrooms called symbionts. These are mutualists that actually benefit their associated host. Examples include some of the more highly sought after mushrooms such as chanterelles and truffles. This group is extremely difficult to cultivate because the symbiotic relationship between tree and mushroom takes several decades to form. Once formed, however, the mushroom benefits by obtaining some of the sugars produced by the tree, and the tree benefits because the intricate mycelial network inhabiting the root zone greatly expands the trees ability to take in water and nutrients (as well as fight off potentially harmful diseases).
I envision roots wrapped in wooly sweaters wicking in the good stuff and keeping out the bad. The really cool part is that specific mushrooms are associated with specific trees, and so once the relationship is established you can go back to the same tree year after year and expect to find the same type of mushroom. This is dependent of course on time of year, weather conditions, and assuming you’ve gotten there first! I think this is what I really like about mushrooms – they so beautifully illustrate the interconnected nature of nature. If you know the tree you’re looking at, you’ll know what mushroom to look for, and maybe even what kind of bird or other critter to expect nearby. A balanced forest ecosystem is like a well choreographed dance, each dance playing an indispensible role and strengthening the overall composition.
The third group of mushrooms that Marian talked about was the saprophytes. These are the forest recyclers that obtain their nutrients by breaking down decaying matter. By doing so, these nutrients are made available to be taken up and used again. This group was by far the best represented of what we found owing to the time of year and abundance of decaying matter (fallen leaves and mulch). Because of this, there are already murmurs among our PSMS partners to come again next year, but a little earlier in the season in hopes of finding different species. So stay tuned, and regardless of what it is about mushrooms that tickles your fancy, come join us next time and take part in this ongoing citizen science experiment to see what we can find living in this wonderland of urban nature that is the Washington Park Arboretum.