Holding an oversized, fleshy mushroom in one hand, an excited Steven Cochrane says, “Let’s key this out!” Cochrane is an amateur mycologist, and he’s holding an item irresistible to mushroom enthusiasts: an unidentified fungus.
He’s completely in his element. It’s Monday night, and while others are at home watching college football players vie in the BCS National Championship Game, Cochrane just finished a talk on mushroom taxonomy at the Montclair Presbyterian Church to a roomful of about 100 rapt nature enthusiasts. Many of them have flocked to Cochrane after the talk for more information. Welcome to mushroom heaven.
“It’s the challenge of identification,” Cochrane says, almost breathlessly, when asked where his mushroom passion comes from, “which some people find dry, and dreadfully boring, but others find very interesting.” Cochrane, an Oakland resident and biologist who surveys plants for a biology and wetlands consulting firm in Berkeley, presumably falls in the latter category.
Cochrane’s enthusiasm for local mushroom species seems fitting, as his talk is part of the ongoing Close to Home program, which is sponsored by the Oakland Museum of California and a handful of nature organizations. A series of talks and outings now in this eighth year, Close to Home has welcomed East Bay residents into the natural world of oysters, turkey vultures, and beavers this year alone. Organizer Cindy Springs said that Cochrane’s talk brought out the most people of any so far this year. Residents of the East Bay will start noticing mushrooms now, as the majority of fungi tend to sprout starting in winter and last as long as conditions stay cool and moist.
In the East Bay, Oakland is home to the only open space where mushroom collecting for any purpose is allowed. Don’t go looking to harvest fungus in an East Bay Regional Parks District open space, and keep your mushroom-grubbing paws off the East Bay Municipal Utility District’s land. But in the sprawling hillside of Oakland’s Joaquin Miller Park, Cochrane legally found two clutches of the unidentified mushroom, as well as about 20 other varieties last Saturday. And it wasn’t even a particularly good run for mushroom season, he says.
[Update: January 12. Oakland North and Mr. Cochrane were mistaken about mushroom collecting in Joaquin Miller Park. According to City of Oakland naturalist Stephanie Benavidez, mushroom collecting is prohibited in the park. “On several occasions families have… collected Amanita, the deadly one, and have either died or or had their liver transplanted,” Benavidez said in a voice mail. Oakland North regrets the error. See more about the Amanita family of mushrooms below.]
According to a MykoWeb.com, a project of the San Francisco Mycological society, between 3,000 and 4,000 species of mushrooms grow in California, and as many as 1,500 of them are commonly found. On the West Coast, mushrooms like their weather “cold and wet,” according to Debbie Viess of the Bay Area Mycological Society. This winter, with rains coinciding with cold nights, could prove to be great for mushroom hunters.
Mushroom hunters find lots of reasons to enjoy the fungi. MykoWeb.com lists about 70 edible varieties in California alone, but they can also be used to dye cloth and other textiles like baskets. And some, like Cochrane, love the scientific mystery of a life form that was just designated as its own kingdom—neither plant nor animal—in the mid-20th Century.
Cochrane’s talk is titled “The Secret Lives of Mushrooms,” and he reveals this secret by describing the mycelium, or the underground tendrils that form the “plant” of a fungus. “Mycelium creeps along in the duff, on the ground, on the bark,” Cochrane says. From the mycelium sprouts the mushroom, so in order to harvest a fungus without disturbing the “plant,” Cochrane advises slicing it off at the stalk.
Cochrane is especially delighted to talk about the relationship between mycelium and trees, which he describes as a talk in and of itself. Saying that “research is in its infancy,” Cochrane explains that plants—especially trees—and fungus may be exchanging nutrients through the mycelium.
Much of the thrill of mushrooms comes from their culinary uses. Cochrane starts his talk by discussing Agaricus bisporus, otherwise known as the grocery store mushroom. In its smaller form this fungus is known as a crimini; if it’s allowed to keep growing, it’s a Portobello.
Many mycology enthusiasts enjoy eating wild mushrooms that they identify themselves. It’s a pastime that Cochrane himself partakes in, but he is sure to offer caution. He urges mushroom hunters not to eat any fungi from the Amanita family, which includes the “death cap” mushroom, also known as the “destroying angel.” If the name isn’t enough to deter you, Cochrane would like you to consider that the hemotoxins inside many amanitas; the lethal poison in a death cap binds to the blood and attacks the liver.
Danger lurks in other families of mushrooms: the tasty Chanterelle is mimicked by the False Chanterelle, which has poisoned some people.
But delicacies await in the wild. The morel, a walnut-shaped mushroom that is covered with a brown web of flesh and only fruits about a year after the ground burns in a wildfire, and is treasured by Bay Area foodies. In the Boletus family, you will find the Boletus edulus, or the “King Bolete,” which many consider a treat. “You have to be quick in your mushroom hunting,” when it comes to this king, says Cochrane, because flies will lay eggs in them if you wait too long after they fruit to harvest them. “Of course then you get a little extra protein,” he adds.
Don’t let the perils of eating mushrooms scare you away from simply enjoying the hunt for them, Cochrane says. “There’s a good reason to fear mushrooms,” Cochrane says, “But we don’t have to eat them to enjoy them. I’m just really out for the fun of it.”
After all but a few of his spectators have left for the night, Cochrane is still focused on his unidentified mushroom. With David Aurora’s Mushrooms Demystified in one hand and the long, stalky fungus in the other, Cochrane “keys out” the identity of his mushroom using the book’s criteria. It’s a Clitocybe (cly-TOSS-uh-bee), which Aurora’s book indicates is a truly disappointing mushroom. Inedible and with a decidedly unhandsome appearance, it’s a mushroom that Aurora practically advises the reader to leave where it lies. But Cochrane’s enthusiasm is unhindered as he praises Aurora’s sense of humor about mushrooms.
Some people may not believe it’s possible to have a sense of humor about mushrooms, let alone find them fascinating. Cochrane doesn’t see their point of view. “You’re solving a mystery,” he says.
Visit these websites to learn more about mushrooms in the Bay Area and about mushroom-related events: