Most people think hiking is a summertime activity. After all, that's when the flowers are in bloom and the trees have leafed out. But in Northern California, the winter rains bring to life another kind of forest creature: fungi. An entire kingdom of life, fungi are evolutionarily closer to animals than plants. They fruit mainly in the wet season, sprouting mushrooms that can be microscopic or as big as basketballs, shaped like toadstools or vases or horns, and painted all colors. If you know where to go, and what to look for, a winter hike in California's forests can be as colorful as snorkeling above a tropical coral reef. And among the countless species of fungi that fruit between November and March are some of the most prized edible mushrooms.
In the fall, when the first rains douse the Bay Area, the best places to explore for mushrooms are in forests along the coast like Point Reyes National Seashore, Salt Point State Park, and Big Basin Redwoods State Park. (Observing mushrooms is always okay, but be sure to check regulations for each park you visit before picking fungi.) The coast, moistened by summertime fog and cooler year-round temperatures, usually blossoms with mushrooms before the drier inland zones. Wait a week after heavy rainstorms and take a trail that passes through stands of pine, oak, and fir. Take your time, pause often, and tread lightly.
One of the best ways to learn how to find and identify mushrooms, or to sharpen your knowledge if you're already a mycophile, is to join one of the region's mycological societies. These mushroom clubs publish journals, run email and Facebook groups, and host periodic lectures about everything from DNA sequencing of obscure species to the cultural history of mushrooms.
Clubs also organize forays in parks and forests to collectively gather and identify mushrooms. Forays connect people who have little or no experience in identifying mushrooms with experts, and really, the only safe way to learn how to identify an edible mushroom, and how to identify toxic and deadly mushrooms that might look similar, is to learn side-by-side with an expert.
The Bay Area Mycological Society, or BAMS, organizes an annual foray at Point Reyes that is free and open to anyone. This year's foray on January 2 will be followed up with a fungus fair on January 3. The Mycological Society of San Francisco organizes an annual fungus fair held at the San Francisco Fair Building where the group displays hundreds of species. SOMA, the mushroom club of Sonoma County, hosts multiple forays throughout the wet season along the North Coast.
After mushroom season begins along the coast, it moves inland, and to lower elevations as rainfall soaks drier parts of the Bay Area. By late November, it should be possible to spot Amanita muscaria growing under live oak. Commonly known as the fly agaric, Amanita muscaria is recognizable by its brilliant red cap with white spots. It's the classic fairytale mushroom. Various types of lactarius, mushrooms that bleed a milky sap when they're cut, will crowd the ground around live oaks alongside dozens of other species. As the rains intensify, chanterelles begin popping up under oaks and conifers in golden clusters. Boletes, including the Boletus edulis, or porcini, rise like columns out of the earth near pines and oaks.
Being able to identify tree species is key to finding mushrooms. Few trees foster as many mushrooms as the live oak because of the mycorrhizal relationships it has developed with various fungi. In a mycorrhizal relationship, the mycelium, which is the living body of the fungus, composed of thread-like cottony strands, intertwines with a tree's roots. The mycelium actually feeds the tree, and in turn is fed.
So many mushrooms grow in mycorrhizal relationships with trees that a good mushroom hunter is actually looking up half the time to spot groves of pines, oaks, or firs where certain mushroom species can only be found. To find mushrooms, find the right trees and go on hikes in parks where conifers are abundant. Seek out tan oaks and madrones. Avoid eucalyptus and bay laurel, which host fewer fungi species; but also don't be surprised to find giant, strange and colorful mushrooms fruiting around them. Mushrooms are mysterious like that.
Debbie Viess, one of the co-founders of BAMS, leads a yearly foray in Sycamore Grove Park in Livermore. "It's a little drier out there, the far East Bay," said Viess, "and the sycamore themselves are not good mycorrhizal trees. There are valley oak growing there, and we've found interesting stuff under them." According to Viess, the live oaks produce the biggest flushes of mushrooms, including toadstools with giant Frisbee-sized caps, and mushrooms that grow from fallen logs like pleurotus, the oyster mushroom. Hericium, another saprobic fungi that devours decaying wood, grows like chandeliers of ice crystals draping from branches. "When you get enough people on the ground, you find fungi," said Viess. "Last year, we found 48 species, even with the drought." Among these were delicious edible mushrooms like the Amanita velosa and Armillaria mellea, the honey mushroom.
But Viess, like all experienced mushroom hunters, said learning to identify mushrooms you want to eat should be done alongside experts. Never eat anything you're not 100-percent sure about. Growing alongside delicious mushrooms in Sycamore Grove Park, and across the entire Bay Area, are species like the Amanita ocreata, the destroying angel, and the Amanita phalloides, the death cap. If eaten, both will destroy a person's internal organs, especially the liver, often leading to a painful death.
Mycophobia, the fear many people have of mushrooms, is partly due to the fact that there are a few deadly species, and few people are familiar with what they look like. But mushrooms are no more dangerous than plants. As David Arora, one of California's sage mushroom experts, observed in his classic bible for mushroom hunters, Mushrooms Demystified: "[B]ring home what looks like a wild onion for dinner, and no one gives it a second thought — despite the fact it might be a Death Camas you have, especially if you didn't bother to smell it. But bring home a wild mushroom for dinner, and watch the faces of your friends crawl with various combinations of fear, anxiety, loathing, and distrust!"
Jackie Shay of the Mycological Society of San Francisco said attendance at her club's meetings is rising, a sign that increasing numbers of people are becoming interested in and knowledgeable about mushrooms, and mycophobia is on the decline. "In general, people are becoming more aware of the freedom and joys of finding their own food," said Shay. "There are more young people gaining interest in why fungi matter."Events
MSSF Annual Fungus Fair
Dec. 6, 2015 at the San Francisco Fair Building, 1199 9th Ave., San Francisco. Sponsored by the Mycological Society of San Francisco. Contact Brennan Wenck, fungusfairVC@mssf.org.11th Annual Point Reyes National Seashore Fungus Fair
Jan. 3 at the Bear Valley Visitor Center Auditorium, Bear Valley Road. Sponsored by Point Reyes National Seashore and Bay Area Mycological Society. BayAreaMushrooms.org.Sycamore Grove Mushroom Madness
Jan. 17, 2016 1–4pm at Sycamore Grove Park, 5035 Arroyo Road, Livermore. Sponsored by the Bay Area Mycological Society. BayAreaMushrooms.org