Heavy rains promise a bountiful mushroom fair this year
Along trails and tiny tributaries in the forest of Pogonip, birds chirp enthusiastically from the trees, telling each other unintelligible stories, possibly about the past storm. Sunlight pierces through the emerald canopy and shines on the still-wet grass, causing the blades to sparkle as if they’re encrusted with thousands of tiny jewels.
It’s mushrooms, though, that are the real darling of winter in Santa Cruz County right now—white ones, pink ones, rust colored ones, mushrooms that look like flying saucers and ones that look like flapjacks. And the recent rains have brought out fungi in plentiful supply.
Just one year ago, the Santa Cruz Fungus Fair had its most dismal display in recent memory. But the fungal displays at this year’s fair, which kicks off Jan. 9, should be the best in quite a while.
It’s rainy times like these that often turn casual hikers into mushroom experts—provided they do their homework. Christian Schwarz, minister of science with the Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz, remembers the winter he first discovered the world of mycology, or the study of fungi. He soon found it impossible to look away.
“I thought mushrooms were disgusting for most of my life, and then we had one rainy year—a lot like this one—in San Diego in 2004. There were mushrooms everywhere, and I got totally hooked on them after my brother got a field guide to mushrooms and we went out together looking for them. I got completely fascinated,” says Schwarz, who is co-authoring a 600-page field guide called “Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast.”
Schwarz is on a panel of speakers who will present at the 2015 Fungus Fair, which takes place Jan. 9 through 11 at the Louden Nelson Community Center in Santa Cruz. The fair, presented by the Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz, will include cooking demonstrations, displays, mushroom identification, beer and wine pairing, and a special after-hours mushroom dinner on Friday night. Attendants may learn which mushrooms are tasty and which, like the death cap, are poisonous. The theme for the 41st annual fair is “The World of Mushrooming.”
A variety of local and world-renowned mycophiles from across the globe will speak to their experiences with fungi, like Taylor Lockwood—a mushroom photographer whose work has appeared in National Geographic and the New York Times, among others—and Alan Rockefeller, who has spent the better part of a decade studying the fungi of Mexico. People will learn about mushroom collecting in Tibet and the Amazon with presenter Daniel Winkler, who grew up gathering mushrooms in the Alps.
“We’ll have talks about the fun stuff with mushrooms as well as the technical aspects,” says Phil Carpenter, local speaker at the fair and longtime Fungus Federation member.
Carpenter, who organizes the fair, has been pursuing mycology for more than 30 years, and was drawn to mushrooms from a young age for rather simple reasons. “I grew up eating them, and I find them really tasty,” says Carpenter.
Some of the more delectable local fungi, in Carpenter’s eyes, include the chanterelle, porcini, and his personal favorite, the black trumpet. (Schwarz, too, is a big fan of the black trumpet, which began fruiting early this year, but he also loves white king boletes, bear’s head mushrooms, and candy caps, which make for a great cheesecake, he says.)
Carpenter believes that many are initially drawn to the world of wild mushrooms for the edible rewards, as he was. But he’s noticed over the years that the very act of foraging can be the most alluring and addicting part of mushroom hunting. “I really love the hunter/gatherer, treasure-hunting aspect,” says Carpenter.
After the heavy rains in the past weeks, all forms of fungi, both common and rare, are popping up around Santa Cruz County—a blessing for mushroom hunters gathering specimens for the fair’s display area, a recreated woodsy habitat in Louden Nelson. (Or … could it be a curse?) “It’s kind of a sweet and sour sort of thing because, for us, if we have 350 species, we’re very pleased with it, but J.Q. Public might find that a little overwhelming,” says Carpenter.
Mushroomers have stumbled across some surprising finds this year.
Schwarz has been seeing many species of Cortinarius, commonly known as webcaps. This is the most diverse genus of mushrooms in the world, and these mushrooms come in vibrant colors, including brilliant lime green.
Carpenter, who pays close attention to his property in Aptos, has been seeing mushrooms there that he’s never seen in 25 years. “I saw a chestnut bolete, which is common on the East Coast but is not so common here. In fact, it’s only been seen on my property, except for this year when it was found on campus,” he says.
On his property, Carpenter also came across a foreign form of hygrophorus, which is usually found in England. Carpenter has no explanation for the mysterious find at this point.
An indexing survey called the Santa Cruz Mycoflora Project is currently trying to determine how many mushrooms can be found in the county. Schwarz estimates the number is about 2,000.
With the bounty of mushrooms springing up from the saturated soil, Carpenter expects this year’s fair to be a remarkable one, but, above all, he hopes that everyone who attends has fun, and learns something new about the wide world of fungi.
“I hope they have fun with the food aspect,” he says, “and with the beauty and the diversity.”
The Santa Cruz Fungus Fair is from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 9 and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 10 and Sunday Jan. 11. Friday admission is $5. Saturday and Sunday admission is $10. Admission for students and seniors is $5. Kids under 12 are free. PHOTO: Candy cap mushrooms, with their sweet flavor, taste similar to maple syrup. Many mushroom hunters like them in cookies, but mycologist Christian Schwarz says they make for a great cheesecake. CHRISTIAN SCHWARZ