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Mushroom Hunting on the Mendocino Coast
If you consume, know your 'shroom
The thrill of the hunt is risky, but has rewards

Paul McHugh, San Francisco Chronicle Outdoors Writer

Maybe too much fuss is made about adrenaline. In Northern California, one can engage in a risk sport without elevating your pulse or breaking a sweat. It's called mushroom hunting.

Admittedly, it lacks the drama of diving in shark-infested waters or strapping on a parachute to jump out of a plane. Still, nothing rivets your attention quite like eyeballing a fungus of dubious lineage, especially if you contemplate nibbling it.

On Friday, I hooked up with a small crew gathering mushroom samples for last weekend's Fungus Fair at the Oakland Museum of California. Years ago, when I lived in Mendocino County, I occasionally foraged for chanterelle, oyster and morel mushrooms -- three of the most recognizable and toothsome varieties. But the experts I was meeting were supposedly able to split some very important hairs, i.e., separating odd but edible mushrooms from their near, "look-alike," toxic cousins.

It's all very well to bet the ranch at a gaming table. But you don't want to buy the farm at a kitchen table. If I must surrender my liver, I'd prefer to do it after a lifetime of carefully metered abuse, not due to one shining moment of fungal befuddlement.

At Huddart County Park near Woodside, where he had scored a special (and necessary) specimen collection permit, Wade Leschyn drove down from Belmont in a pick-up truck with his lively, young twin boys bouncing on the seat by his side.

Leschyn, 51, had long gray hair, a battered hat with a fancy band and an olive-drab jacket. He resembled an extra from a Tolkien movie. Later, when I went to the Fungus Fair, I found this to be a popular look for many expert "mushroomers." His collecting companions were Nancy and Ray Balberan, 59 and 61, of San Francisco, and Steve Warner, of Los Altos, 50. All belong to the Mycological Society of San Francisco, one of the nation's oldest and largest clubs for fungus fans. The society founded the long-running fair.

Throughout human history, mushrooms have been used as food, as medicine, for dyes and other products. Discoveries of such uses have been made by interested individuals like these.

"Mushrooms seem hidden, until you decide to look for them," Leschyn said. "Then, you start seeing them all over the place."

Every mushroom ("toadstools" don't exist as a separate category) is the visible, fruiting body of a fungus whose main mass, of threads or filaments called mycelia, really is concealed -- within places like forest soil or rotting logs. There are three main types: saprophytes, which live on dead matter; parasitic, which feed on living organisms and can damage or kill them; and mycorrhizal, which live by symbiosis, in benign association with other biologic entities. These last are a very important ingredient of a healthy forest.

When mushrooms erupt into view, they appear in a bewildering variety of shapes (stalks and caps, corals, puffballs, jellies, etc.), features (their spores emerge from vents that look like gills, pores, sponges, tendrils, etc.) and colors (a rainbow can seem impoverished, by comparison).

After less than 50 feet of ambling along a park trail, Leschyn had proven his point many times. We found "LBM's" (anonymous, little brown mushrooms) that at first glance looked like wet clumps of fallen leaves, then we saw real fallen leaves being pushed upward by white "eggs" of other emerging mushrooms. Most spectacularly, we discovered the large umbrella of a mature mushroom. It had a golden-beige cap frothed with a dollop of "whipped cream" (the remnants of a veil or membrane that was the egg's shell), and its stalk wore a cup or "volva" that was the lower part of that veil.

Leschyn and companions reverently scraped off leaves and duff with long knives, until all its features stood revealed. They keyed these aspects to their field manuals -- a mushroomer consults an authoritative text more frequently than a parson crafting a sermon -- and pronounced it an Amanita calyptroderma, also known as coccora, coccoli or cocconi. It won these Italian- sounding nicknames by resembling the Caesar's Amanita of Italy.

And yes, Italians and others consider it a culinary treat. But there's bad news. It also resembles Amanita phalloides, the dreaded Death Caps that get blamed for 95 percent of mushroom-related deaths, worldwide. When these two Amanitas are in egg stage, or growing late in the season, or altered in appearance by rain or sun, they can prove quite hard to distinguish. Death Caps killed Sam Sebastiani, age 32, from the Sonoma wine-making family in 1997; they've damaged livers and killed other Bay Area residents both before and since then.

Our crew havested the coccora to display beside A. phalloides at the fair -- providing an educational comparison which is one of the important functions of this event. The fair has now ended, but an informational display is up at the Oakland Airport until Jan. 10.

"There's a few good rules for beginning mushroomers," Leschyn said. "One is, just don't eat any Amanitas, not until you've developed a lot of experience telling them apart. Don't eat any white-gilled mushrooms. After you've been learning for a while, if you feel any doubts, taste a tiny slice, then wait and see if you develop some sort of reaction.

"But no one should ever eat a whole mushroom before making a positive ID."

That's where excitement really can build. Our group found a colorful Bolete with a red stem that one member thought might be a Bitter Bolete (Boletus rubripes) -- an edible variety with a distinctive taste. Leschyn cut out small wedges, and he and I gave them a try. It tasted pleasantly musty, even delicious, but not at all bitter. A few minutes later, both of us felt the tips of our tongues start to tingle, one telltale sign of potential toxicity. That tipped our specimen's identification over to one of the poisonous, red-pored Boletes.

Such a technique might seem wantonly bold. Actually, it's cautious. Whacking up large amounts of marginally identified mushrooms into a frying pan, then having them for both lunch and dinner -- with an encore the next day -- that's bold. And supremely dangerous.

If mushroom gathering is a risk sport, it's one with rewards that accrue to those who are disciplined, wary and methodical. You might never dare to eat a wild mushroom. But traveling with a field manual to learn more about these ancient, colorful, marvelously complex life forms makes an entertaining mental exercise that enriches any walk in the winter woods.

Mushroom lore

Clubs: The Mycological Society of San Francisco (MSSF) is based at the Randall Museum in San Francisco. Membership is $20-$25/year. (866) 807-7148, or www.mssf.org.

There's also: Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz, (831) 684-2275, fungusfed.org; The Bay Area Mycological Society in San Leandro, (510) 430-9353, bayareamushrooms.org; the Davis Mycological Society, davismushroom.org; and the Sonoma County Mycological Association (SOMA), (707) 837-8028, somamushrooms.org

Books: There are plenty of field manuals. A portable one is, "All That the Rain Promises, and More," by David Arora, $17.95 from Ten Speed Press. Arora also wrote, "Mushrooms Demystified -- A Comprehensive Guide to the Fleshy Fungi," for $39.95 from Ten Speed. "North American Mushrooms -- a Field Guide to Edible and Inedible Fungi," by Orson and Hope Miller, is $25.95 from Falcon Books. Web sites: www.mykoweb.com; www.mushworld.com; www.mushroomexpert.com

A cautionary tale

To induce proper caution, a mushroom hunter should consider the effects of Death Cap (A. phalloides) poisoning. First, there are no warning signals from taste; the Death Cap is reputed to be rather palatable and flavorful.

But within 6-24 hours after eating 3-4 ounces of it, a typical poisoning victim will succumb to a long bout of dizziness, severe cramping, vomiting and diarrhea that's been compared to the worst symptoms of cholera.

This may be followed by a day or two of relief. Meanwhile, toxins are halting reproduction of cells in the liver and kidneys, often leading to complete organ failure and an agonizing death. First responders can attempt to induce vomiting with Ipecac to get mushrooms out of the stomach, or introduce an activated charcoal slurry into the gut to absorb toxins. And subsequent measures, including liver or kidney transplants, may be attempted. But obviously, the best measure is not to initiate such an ordeal in the first place.


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