Story by Zida Borcich
Standing in line to buy tickets for the Mycological Society of San Francisco Fungus Fair in South San Francisco last month, the ticket seller looked up and informed us that, “Sorry, we don’t take plastic, only cash or Venmo.” Ooops! We quickly rifled through our wallets for cash, including small change, only to find we were two dollars short of the entry fee. At that exact moment, a voice at my right shoulder said, “Is that Zida Borcich?” I turned and jumped into a big, jiggy hug with Esther Liner, a fellow Mendocino Coaster whom I happen to love, who has written for this magazine, whose mom is my friend—a hundred connections—and both of us far away from home at…a wild mushroom festival. After much exclaiming and finding out she was there representing Forage Mendocino (which I’d never heard of but that I later learned has a Facebook group with over eleven thousand members), I asked if she could spot us a couple of bucks, which she generously shelled out then and there. I promised her I would not pay her back and, jollily, we went to join the crammed-to-the-walls crowd inside the Mission High School cafeteria where hundreds of fungus-centric displays, demonstrations, and events were in loud swing. In case you weren’t paying attention, fungi are trending!
Above: Billy Sprague with a wild mushroom bonanza. Photo by his wife, Valentine Falcon.
Of course, if you have been paying attention, you already know that fungi have been “trending” for over one billion (with a B) -plus years and show no signs of becoming passe. We can bandy numbers like that around as if we know what they mean, but there’s really no way our finite human brains can visualize such a timeline, yet microscopic antediluvian fossils, discovered in 2019 in the Canadian Arctic, verify that the very beginnings of life on earth included fungus-like organisms. Not only that, but fungi have made it through several cataclysmic mass extinction events, and scientists postulate that animals (including humans)—finite brains and all—are genetically closer to fungi than they (we) are to plants. To wit: a study published on genome.gov established that: “…animals share a common single-celled ancestor with fungi.” Scientific research goes further, concluding that humans could not have evolved, or even survived, without fungi. [“A Billion-Year-Old Fungus May Hold Clues to Life’s Arrival on Land” –NYTimes.com]
The truth is, the elemental importance of fungi, time-honored traditions around mushrooms, and a profound connection to our vast forests have pulled a local cohort of scientific and amateur enthusiasts to study, forage, identify, cultivate, and cook mushrooms. These activities have further expanded into working with a range of fungal organisms for medicinal, artistic, commercial, and even spiritual pursuits. These ways have been deeply honored in Mendocino County for generations, from native peoples who used mushrooms for nutrition and ceremony, to the Portuguese, Italian, Finnish, and Chinese migrants who came for the logging in the early nineteen hundreds and brought their awareness of wild mushroom foraging and cookery with them, to today’s ever-growing population of knowledgeable hobby and commercial hunter-gatherers.
This place, in fact, is ground-zero for untamed mushrooms’ infinite manifestations. Mendocino’s fungal abundance has long attracted mycologists, mushroom photographers, and other experts, and has inspired numerous books about mushrooms, most notably the exhaustive mushroom “Bible” written by Gualala’s David Arora, Mushrooms Demystified and its sequel, All that the Rain Promises and More. An online search for “mushrooms of Mendocino County” reveals pages and pages of books, articles, and websites extolling the coast’s mushroom-y virtues. VisitMendocino.com declares the fifty thousand acres that comprise Jackson State Demonstration Forest (JSDF) to be the county’s biggest attraction for mushroom hunters. Foraging in JSDF is allowed with a twenty-dollar permit bought through CalFire. The Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens’ website lists one hundred sixty-three varieties of mushrooms that have been found by volunteer observers on its forty-seven acres fronting the Pacific Ocean. (No picking is allowed on MCBG grounds, however.) And our area has long been recognized by mushroom clubs and societies that have traveled here from the Bay Area, Sacramento, Santa Cruz, and beyond for years. Members come in for meetings, mushroom-themed dinners and potlucks, workshops, like-minded socializing, and guided forays into our local, marvelously varied habitats.
But, oddly, until 2016, the Mendocino Coast did not have its own mushroom club. Pat Ferrero, filmmaker, retired professor of film, one of the early organizers of the Mendocino Film Festival and its Program Director for its first eight years, and newly converted mushroom devotee describes the creation of the Mendocino Coast Mushroom Club (MCMC):
It should come as no surprise that Teresa Sholars’ Mushroom Identification class at Mendocino College (College of the Redwoods at the time) would be the focal point for a Mendocino club forming. Her long-time teaching assistants, Alison Gardner and Jim Gibson, are experienced foragers and professional plant specialists. I took the winter 2016 Mushroom I.D. class and learned enough to know just how much I did not know. I was dismayed there was no formal network to continue to learn about mushrooms and decided to see if I could jump-start a club. With Alison’s knowledge of local people and her help, we sent out an invitation and about a dozen people showed up at my home, where I screened the wonderful documentary Last Call about the Eastern Oregon matsutake fields. To my delight, the people who showed up were the experienced mushroom lovers—Jim Gibson, Tom Jelen, Eric Schramm, Nancy Dennison, Mario Abreu, and others who were key in the early years. We decided to have a screening of Last Call at Mendocino Coast Community Center and drew more people in. The first big public event, November 16, 2016, had Noah Siegal launching his new book Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast. With Alison as the chef, about six of us cooked up a feast. We’d initially planned to sell small bites as a fundraiser, but we had such an abundance of mushrooms that we decided to serve everything for free as a surprise sit-down meal…to about seventy-five people! We passed a hat, and the event was a great success, with twenty-eight new members joining. The club was launched! An underground network of mushroom experts and enthusiasts has always spent time in Mendocino, including author and mushroom taxonomist David Arora; photographer Taylor Lockwood; mushroom evangelist Paul Stamets; filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg; and many others. The MCMC is the “fruiting body” of this mycelial network.
Soon after, the Ford House in Mendocino gave the nascent club a space to meet for the next few years and the club reciprocated, producing mushroom dye exhibits and demonstrations with Dorothy Beebe and Nancy Dennison, who worked closely with pioneer mushroom dyer Miriam Rice and have helped continue her legacy. (More on Miriam Rice further on.) Mario Abreu, retired head gardener at the botanical gardens, curated beautiful live mushroom tableaux as well as spring wildflower demonstrations for exhibit at Ford House.
Though the club had to take to Zoom during the pandemic to keep the community together, the online forum unexpectedly increased membership during the three years of being online only. Pat Ferrero says, “This was thanks to Tom Jelen who invited speakers from all over the world to speak to the club. Jill Surdzial took over in a major leadership position, creating a Leadership Circle that advises and governs the group.” Although the club resumed in-person meetings in October of 2022, it has continued to offer a Zoom streaming session for each meeting so out-of-area members can continue to participate.
Today, the club hosts meetings, forays, speakers, potlucks, movies, and cooking demos, and has grown to seventy paid memberships (household memberships cost twenty dollars and cover everyone at a single address), a mailing list of over five hundred, and a Facebook group of just over ten thousand. Members share photos of their most beautiful/rare finds, general chit chat about their love of being in Nature and what’s currently flushing, and, of course, trade facts, opinions, arguments, and identifications of disputed specimens. For their lively in-person meetings, MCMC has introduced accomplished lecturers and experts from as far away as Russia and put on events like two exceedingly memorable mushroom-centric dinners in 2017 and 2018 when famed Bay Area mushroom chef Chad Hyatt traveled to the Caspar Community Center to cook for over a hundred swooning diners. The club has also organized two mushroom dye workshops with Alissa Allen (2019 and 2023) and put on mushroom dye demonstrations and exhibits in 2018 and 2019. And it has organized various workshops and information sessions for members and the public to learn more about the magical world of mushrooms we are living in the middle of. Like the intricate network of mycelium that underpins every forest, the coast’s mushroom community of avid fungiphiles has expanded and continues to share knowledge with more and more devotees.
Surdzial muses, “The mushroom club is an interesting community. Eccentric, strong personalities—a lot are real loners—but they come together in the mushroom clubs and societies to open-handedly share their knowledge. A funny mix of secretive/generous infuses our membership.”
The main message is that the thrill of the hunt, communing in the fragrant, silent beauty of forests, the delights of the table, studying and developing an intuition about where to find them, and the intensive exploration of mushrooms’ mysteries and uses far supersede any worries about “toxic mushrooms.” The ultimate pleasure, says Surdzial, comes from the friendship and community that form around these pursuits. “It’s just fun.”
A BAD RAP
Despite mushrooms’ longstanding ubiquity, in the United States, wild mushrooms have earned a scary reputation. Poisoning deaths-by-mushroom amount to between only ten and sixty per year in the US, yet the mere mention of foraging for wild mushrooms at, say, a dinner party, may receive at least a raised eyebrow…or an occasional terrified scream. It’s true that there are various intensities of toxins in the wild mushroom kingdom, and some of them will cause severe, sometimes dangerous symptoms, like drug-induced psychosis and kidney damage. And, yes, a few of them will kill you. Additionally, there are “lookalikes” out there that require cooks to know their mushrooms or else find somebody who does. But the truth is that if you stick with the most common edibles like chanterelles, most boletes (with a few notable exceptions!), The Prince (Agaricus augustus), shitake, oyster, and lion’s mane, the culinary rewards are countless and the risks few.
Jill Surdzial, past president of MCMC, says, “There’s ‘toxic,’ and then, there’s ‘deadly. Mushrooms are complicated. You have to be careful.” She recommends not depending solely on apps for identifying mushrooms you are about to eat. “Person-to-person verification is best. The value of the club or other groups is that they can provide expert knowledge or can guide you to reputable sources.”
Exploring lesser-known varieties is part of the fun, though, because the flavors are so diverse. Many mushrooms smell earthy or woodsy. The supreme, much coveted matsutake (in Japan they can go for up to one thousand dollars per kilogram) smells something like “Red Hots plus gym socks,” while candy caps smell and taste like maple syrup (try the candy cap ice cream at Cowlicks Ice Cream shop on Main Street, in Fort Bragg!) A sour or ammonia-like smell probably means it’s too old to bother with. Experienced hunters take a nibble to determine if, say, a Russula is mild or bitter, then spit it out. If it’s bitter: no, no. If mild, it goes in the backpack.
According to Wikipedia: “The genus Amanita contains about six hundred species of agarics, including some of the most toxic known mushrooms found worldwide, as well as some well-regarded edible species (and many species of unknown edibility). The genus is responsible for approximately 95 percent of fatalities resulting from mushroom poisoning,” with Amanita phalloides (also known by its deservedly ominous sounding common name “death cap”) accounting for about 50 percent on its own. Yet a scan of Amanitas’ pros and cons reveals many beneficial attributes (although the cons list is longer). At a recent MCMC meeting, club president Tom Jelen presented a demonstration on how to prepare Amanita muscaria for eating.
DID SOMEBODY SAY MYCELIUM?
For the uninitiated, the immense masses of branched, tubular filaments (hyphae) of fungi that lie beneath every forest floor are called mycelium. Mycelium sequesters a massive amount of carbon in the soil, which keeps climate-warming carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and is able to break down some of that stored carbon into carbohydrates, which then act as nutrients for the forest. It is the digestive tract of the forest, decomposing dead and dying organisms.
The complex web of mycelium may remind us of the way everyone and everything on earth is connected, dependent on, and influencing everything and everyone else, or the way our own bodies go from the macro to the micro—from the skin and organs down to the tiniest veins and cells. Like the lungs’ smallest endpoints of the respiratory system, the alveoli, which exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide in the bloodstream, strands of mycelium similarly connect, and transport nutrients between trees in the woods. Its “fruiting bodies” are puffballs, rhizomorphs (long strands of hyphae cemented together), sclerotia (hard, compact masses), stinkhorns, toadstools, truffles, and, of course, the endless variety of mushrooms. Mycelium may present as a microscopic patch or may develop into enormous interdependent colonies. The most notable of these is the “Humongous Fungus,” aka Armillaria ostoyae, discovered in Malheur National Forest, Oregon, in 1988. The twenty-four-hundred-year-old single specimen covers nearly nine square kilometers and is considered to be the largest living organism on Earth. (David Arora disputes this.) Between these extremes lies the mysterious, delicious, endless diversity that makes up the fungal universe.
NOTHING BETTER THAN A HOME-COOKED MEAL MADE WITH LOVE AND WILD MUSHROOMS
Wild mushrooms are prized in the kitchen. They are umami bombs that infuse any soup, stew, casserole, or sauce with an irresistible funk. (Umami is that elusive fifth flavor quality, in addition to sweet, sour, bitter, and salty, that makes food savory and satisfying.) As meat substitutes, they shine on vegetarian and vegan menus. On MCMC’s website, the “Cooking with Mushrooms” tab leads to recipes like “Candy Cap Margaritas” by Evan Mills, links to books like The Wild Mushroom Cookbook: Recipes from Mendocino, by Alison Gardner and Merry Winslow, and to other sites that offer recipes, like Chef James Sant’s “Wild Mushroom Ragout.” Look in the cookbook section of any bookstore and find dozens of titles dedicated to the humble-yet-splendid fungus. One of the newest offerings is food photographer Andrea Gentl’s Cooking with Mushrooms: A Fungi Lover’s Guide to the World’s Most Versatile, Flavorful, Health-Boosting Ingredients. “You can cook mushrooms in the way that you cook anything,” Gentl explains. “You can sear, you can grill, you can pickle, you can poach. Most people just think about a hot pan and some butter and some oil and some garlic—but there are so many other ways to eat them!” (Vogue, 10/31/23). She backs that statement up with recipes for divine main dishes and salads, butters, powders, broths, and even infused alcohols. Powdered dried mushrooms add a big umami punch to many of her creations. Lately, other types of mushrooms are enjoying mainstream popularity, like teas and lattes made with chaga fungi, which are packed with antioxidants and purported to support the immune system.
DON’T CALL THEM SHROOMS ANYMORE
Wild mushrooms went ultra-mainstream with the popular movie, Fantastic Fungi, which featured the work of mycologist Paul Stamets, especially in terms of mushrooms’ medicinal benefits. In a piece on the CNN website, “How Psilocybin, the Psychedelic in Mushrooms, May Rewire the Brain to Ease Depression, Anxiety and More,” Stamets praises the value of mushrooms for brain health. “Let’s be adults about this. These are no longer ‘shrooms.’ These are no longer party drugs for young people…Psilocybin mushrooms are nonaddictive, life-changing substances.” He even speculates that the intelligence of our prehistoric ancestors could have evolved faster from their ingestion of mind-expanding fungi. Quien sabe? Scientists have counted twenty-three primates that consume mushrooms, some of which “open the floodgates of the brain.”
The article continues, “Small clinical trials have shown that one or two doses of psilocybin, given in a therapeutic setting, can make dramatic and long-lasting changes in people suffering from treatment-resistant major depressive disorder, which typically does not respond to traditional antidepressants.” Although psilocybin is still a Schedule 1 federally controlled substance, Oregon and a few cities in the US have begun the long overdue process of decriminalizing its use for medical purposes.
MUSHROOMS AND ART
Mention the name Miriam Rice in the presence of craftspeople who practice weaving and other fiber arts and expect a genuflection. The revered Mendocino artist is considered the mother of using mushrooms for color—for dyeing yarn and for pigments in paints. Over time, her experiments led to the development of an entire rainbow of hues, and then to founding a nonprofit organization in 1985, The International Mushroom Dye Institute (IMDI), whose purpose it is “to encourage the use of fungal pigments, to further research on their extraction and employment, to encourage research and cultivation of dye fungi, and to financially assist artists and researchers to participate in international symposia and exhibitions.” In other words, an entire world of color innovation sprang from the sprawling nearby forests and unhurried streets of Mendocino. Here is an account of the beginnings of Rice’s extraordinary pioneering work written by her friend and collaborator, Dorothy Beebee:
In the beginning –1968, as near as any of us can remember—multi-faceted artist Miriam C. Rice, whose practice included sculpture, batik, and printmaking, was teaching children about natural dyes in the children’s art classes at the Mendocino Art Center when she began experimenting with natural dyes to make inks for her own block prints. During that time, encouraged by local mushroom-hunting friends, she was invited to go on a mushroom foray, led by the late eminent mycologist, Dr. Harry Thiers, to learn about the identification of local mushroom species.
Shortly thereafter, always eager to combine the best possibilities of both worlds, Miriam took a clump of sulfur yellow Naematoloma fasciculare (sulfur tuft) mushrooms and tossed them into a dye pot with a bit of wool yarn. Fortunately (for all of us), this action resulted in a clear bright lemon-yellow dye…and voilá…“mushroom dyeing” was born!
1972 was a bumper crop year for mushrooms in California, and Miriam experimented with everything she found, attending all of the mushroom fairs and forays to identify the mushrooms she was using, while gradually building up a vast collection of labeled mushroom dyed fiber samples.
Let’s Try Mushrooms for Color
In the very early 1970s, a friend and student, Janet Hope-DeVries, introduced Miriam to Robert and Christine Thresh, the owners of a small publishing company in Santa Rosa, CA. The story of this historic introduction is told in an article by Janet Hope-DeVries in the first IMDI newsletter, the International Mushroom Dye-Gest, which appeared in 2000. The connection evolved into a little book called Let’s Try Mushrooms for Color. Published by Thresh Publications in 1974, it has indeed “mushroomed” into something above and beyond all expectations!
(Excerpted from the International Mushroom Dye Institute (IMDI) website: mushroomsforcolor.com)
The National Center for Biotechnology Information [ncbi.nlm.nih.gov] estimates the number of different mushroom species on earth at a hundred forty thousand of which perhaps 10 percent are known. Meanwhile, of those approximately fourteen thousand known species, about 50 percent possess varying degrees of edibility, more than two thousand are safe to eat, and “about seven hundred species are known to possess significant pharmacological properties.” (Paul Stamets suggests there might be 1.5 million species, six times more than plants.)
Historically, hot-water-soluble fractions (decoctions and essences) from medicinal mushrooms have been used as medicine in Korea, China, Japan, and eastern Russia for hundreds of years. The biotechnology center asserts that mushroom metabolites “could be efficient in possible treatments of diseases like allergic asthma, food allergy, atopic dermatitis, inflammation, autoimmune joint inflammation such as rheumatoid arthritis, atherosclerosis, hyperglycemia, thrombosis, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection, listeriosis, tuberculosis, septic shock, and cancer.”
In the movie Fantastic Fungi, Paul Stamets lauds lion’s mane for its ability to support the development of new neurological pathways. Studies have indicated that lion’s mane stimulates nerves to regrow (neurogenesis) and may be effective in protecting against dementia, reducing anxiety, and repairing nerve damage and neuropathy. This mushroom contains Hericenones and erinacines, two compounds that stimulate a protein known as nerve growth factor, which is essential for brain health and neuron conductivity.
Eating mushrooms can: 1. Boost the immune system with certain antioxidants; 2. Lower blood pressure because of high potassium levels, of which Americans’ diets are deficient; 3. Support weight loss: In one study, people who substituted 20 percent of their meat consumption with mushrooms showed improved weight loss results; 4. Supply vitamin D2, a type of vitamin D that keeps bones strong and muscles working properly; 5. Protect brain health—In one study, participants sixty and older who ate more than two cups of mushrooms per week had a much lower risk of developing mild cognitive impairment; 6. Maintain heart health—Mushrooms can help prevent plaque buildup in your blood vessels; 7. Improve gut health—Mushrooms contain substances that balance the gut microbiome (fungi, bacteria and viruses) and fuel the growth of good bacteria. [extracted from: health.clevelandclinic.org]
EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED TO EVERYTHING
Even though this story far exceeds the length of most magazine articles, there’s very much more to the story of mycelium, fungi, and mushrooms than can be fitted into this space. There are so many more people who have been drawn to, or contributed to, the study and enjoyment of this vast, fascinating world than could be listed here. So many marvelous stories of personal discovery and the thrill of the hunt, the evolution of the strong Mushroom Club community, the invention of new recipes, the application of new remedies. The vast subject could fill another thousand books and star in many more movies, and probably will. Mycelium’s sustaining, busy, ever-multiplying presence, without which the forest, the air, us, the planet as we know it, could literally not continue to exist, for me, is the important point. In the way that mycelium underpins the woods, the connection of everything to everything else in all its wondrous manifestations underpins humanity, and we humans certainly have shown we can support each other, and we can get along together. At other times, it’s sadly obvious that our “mycelial” connections are badly broken, and where does that leave us?
The trees can’t do without the underground web of life, food, and communication provided by mycelium. Our bodies and souls can’t do without connection…to our families, our friends and communities, the environment. Take it bigger: the countries and cultures of the world cannot exist without connection to each other, either. That’s why it’s so hard to understand so many of humanity’s failings—and I may be wading into excessively deep waters here—For instance: how can war exist? Why does it seem that mankind is incapable of allowing natural great peace to prevail—which logically should be easy. If everyone, especially voters and world leaders whom voters put into power, could remember that “connection” is everything, perhaps warring and struggle, poverty and hatred would not ever be considered the default “solutions.”
As author-activist and longtime Caspar thought leader Jim Tarbell writes in the current issue of Justice Rising Magazine, “We have to move toward an identity that we are all citizens of the earth, while creating a spiritual sense that we are one with nature and with each other. We also need to nurture an economy of cooperation, social, and economic equity, while creating a partnership culture rather than a culture of domination. Achieving those visions will be the sunrise of civilization.”
We cannot see the forest for the trees! Standing in the awareness of our inevitable, infinite connections, like mycelium working away for their own and the common good, kindness and diplomacy, not violence, would provide solutions. Policies and laws would be based on understanding how intricately we are involved with one another and the world. We can’t do without each other, and mutual annihilation is not the way to go. It should be so clear. How is it not?
The metaphor applies even down to the simplest accidental meeting with my friend Esther, in line far away from home at the South San Francisco fungus fair, where she saved the day with two dollars. We are connected in serendipitous, joyful relationship. We are, indeed, all connected.
Much, much more mushroom information is available at:
Find Jim Tarbell’s incisive articles about achieving and living in Peace in the Vol. 7 #3 issue of
Justice Rising Magazine: