Mushrooms Take Center Stage

19 01 2012

Mushrooms are the main attraction all weekend long at the Santa Cruz Fungus Fair (photo: E. Loury)

Erin Loury

by Erin Loury

After four years of living near Santa Cruz, last weekend I finally ventured to the annual Fungus Fair for the first time.  With elements of nature, science, and hippie culture, it’s an event that sounded just so… Santa Cruz.

My expectations were tempered after hearing Meghan’s first radio story for KUSP, which shadowed volunteers searching for mushrooms to display.  The weather has been so unusually dry this winter that fresh fungi seemed to be in short supply.  In fact, I overheard a fair organizer say that this was the first year they had to send mushroom collectors out of the area, in search of wetter conditions farther north.

So while I was expecting maybe a few tables with mushrooms on display, I was startled to enter the Louden Nelson community center to behold – trees.  They had recreated a little piece of forest with artfully arranged fungi springing out of the logs and redwood duff.  And the tables were loaded with mushrooms galore.

The fair is an opportunity for a little indoor mushroom foraging. (photo: E. Loury)

The diversity of local mushrooms stunned me, especially their shapes and colors.  I enjoyed hearing mycologists, such as Chritstian Shwarz, leader of the UCSC Mushroom Enthusiast club, speak about their study subjects with the same level of enthusiasm I’m used to hearing from my former marine scientist labmates when they talk about the ocean.

My main draw to the fair was a talk about sudden oak death by David Rust, co-founder of the Bay Area Mycological Society.  This quarter I’ll be learning the ins and outs of the disease as part of my feature story for Science Notes, and I was intrigued by how the disease affects not just the mighty oaks, but all the species connected to them.  Many mushrooms grow on oak trunks and roots, and some are species-specific.

A small sampling of the diversity on display (photo: E. Loury)

Rust’s talk was a great primer in the history and basics of the disease. I learned that the pathogen – a fungal-like organism related to potato blight – hitchhiked into California on ornamental nursery plants from Europe.  While the disease only causes cosmetic damage on the leaves of camellias and rhododendrons, it took a lethal turn once it spread to some of California’s native trees. Rust explained how the California bay laurel serves as a host for the disease’s multi-stage life cycle, and that the tanoak, while not a true oak species, is most susceptible to the disease.

Rust urged mushroom hunters to use caution when collecting – the pathogen can be spread by clinging to the wet mud on a hiker’s boots.  The audience uttered some groans of disappointment and dismay as Rust flashed photos of half a dozen fungal species associated only with tanoak trees – species they are in danger of losing if tanoaks disappear.

A cauliflower mushroom - my personal favorite! (photo: E. Loury)

I left the talk with my head buzzing with avenues of inquiry to explore for my story, and visited the rooms of vendors selling everything from mushrooms you could grow yourself, to beautiful fungal-inspired artwork.  I couldn’t help but buy a pair of mushroom-printed socks.  I rounded off my visit by sampling the mushroom quiche, and bringing my camera to the identification table to ask about a photo I had taken of a fungus among the redwoods on the UC Santa Cruz Campus. Most likely a conch, I was told, a hard and woody mushroom that grows on the sides of trees.

Next week Christian Schwarz has agreed to take me tramping around the UC Santa Cruz campus to check in on some of the oak trees and their mushroom tenants.  I look forward to sharing what I find!

A charismatic mega-fungus (photo: E. Loury)