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NatureSpeak Articles

Mushrooms everywhere but not a lot to eat

From a fungal perspective, last year and this year couldn’t be much different. Last year’s combination of early rains and warmth yielded the best bounty in decades. This year, mushroom aficionados have had to work a lot harder. Why?

Last weekend’s Fungus Among Us mushroom festival, hosted by the Whistler Naturalists, helped provide some answers.

A cross-section of Whistler society came out to enjoy talks, walks, and cooking demonstrations all centred on our local mushrooms. On Saturday morning, over 40 raincoat-clad folks tramped through the woods with our invited mushroom experts: Andy MacKinnon, Sharmin Gamiet, and Adolf and Oluna Ceska.

Later in MY Place, the experts hunkered down to identify and label the collected mushrooms. Meanwhile, everyone else was upstairs sampling mushroom-based treats with Ophra Buckman, the Queen of the Fungal Skillettm. (The experts had to satisfy themselves with a takeout pizza.)

When the dust settled downstairs, the experts identified a whopping 131 different species of mushrooms. Last year, the first time we’d done the survey, we were happy to find 82 species.

The biggest surprise was that so few species (only 31) appeared both years. Fully 82 new species were identified this year, doubling the total list for Whistler to 164 species.

Main conclusions versus last year? (1) Much more diversity but very different species. (2) Much lower total volume, especially of edible mushrooms.

Pines mushrooms ( Tricholoma magnivelare ) are the charismatic megafungus of interest to most pickers, either for culinary or commercial reasons. Pine mushroom and its relatives were so plentiful last year the experts deemed it "the year of the Tricholoma." But this year pine mushrooms were awfully scarce.

This turned out to be the year of the Cortinarius – bad news for pickers. Cortinarius mushrooms are the most abundant and diverse group in the world. Many are very beautiful, but few are edible (and some are downright deadly). This year’s count of 15 "corts" was up from last year’s 10 species. In contrast, there were only four species of Tricholomas (and far fewer of those) compared to eight last year.

It wasn’t all bad news for mushroom eaters, though. Some excellent edibles were re-found, including admirable bolete and cauliflower mushroom. And a few new ones turned up in our survey: three species of chanterelles, blewit, and a couple of handsome manzanita boletes.

Switching gears, what is the role of mushrooms in our woods beyond filling our plates or pockets? The experts turned the question on its head. They queried us with: "What if the main actors in the forest were mushrooms instead of trees?"

Many of the mushrooms we know from our woods, including Tricholoma and Cortinarius, form mutually-beneficial (symbiotic) relationships with trees. Our forest soils are acidic and lacking in nitrogen, the nutrient that trees most need to grow. That’s where mushrooms come in.

Their fine roots bond with roots from trees to provide the trees with additional moisture and nutrients (notably nitrogen). In turn, the trees produce sugars which nourish the mushrooms.

Underground fungal masses are huge; some may be the largest living organisms on earth. We only see their fruits, a.k.a., mushrooms. Without the kilometres of fungal roots in the forest, the trees would not prosper. So, is the forest driven by the mushrooms or the trees? Depends on your perspective.

Upcoming Events :

Interested in a mushroom walk? A group of beginners is organizing forest walks to try to identify at least a few of our 164+ species. For more information, call Julia at 604-966-4392.

Naturalists AGM, Nov. 17, 2005, Millennium Place. Interested in getting involved? The Naturalists need volunteers to help with events including: the mushroom festival, speakers series, nature walks, and membership.

Written by: Bob Brett


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