Through the Mushroom Portal: Why Mushrooms Are Popping in the Bay Area and Tips for Fungi Foraging

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Several mushrooms to the right of the frame peaking through green grass.
Mushrooms spring from the ground in the Berkeley hills following a series of storms that drenched the Bay in December 2012. (Joe Parks/Flickr CC via Wikimedia Commons)

In the past few weeks, the Bay Area has received a deluge of rain. In addition to replenishing groundwater and aquifers, the rain has allowed a particular species to prosper — the mushroom, our tiny little fungal friend. Mushrooms have been springing up in forests and backyards, potted plants and dark corners.

With all that's going on in the world, it might be easier to ignore the humble mushroom, but KQED Forum took the time to discuss finding and foraging mushrooms in the Bay Area.

KQED’s Alexis Madrigal spoke with Tony Alvarez, a member of the North American Mycological Association and leader of group foraging sessions called Shroomy Walkabouts, and Paul Stamets, a renowned advocate for the ingenuity and utility of fungi.

The following excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.

Alexis Madrigal: You do a lot of your work here in the Bay Area, and my assumption is that the rain has made this an absolutely banner year for mushrooms. What’s going on out there in the mushroom world?

Tony Alvarez: The rain has really set off the bloom. Honestly, like I've never seen before in other years. I don't know if it's because of the fires, the cleaning of a lot of the forest floors of debris. I'm not exactly sure what's causing it — but the blooms have been astounding.

I'm actually seeing some mushrooms that I've never seen in the Bay Area. I've only seen them up north — and I'm just seeing them in abundance.

It's been really, really beautiful to see these things at work and all playing their part in this beautiful ecosystem.

Paul Stamets, you have found and worked with thousands of mushrooms. Can you remember how you started your career? When did you decide that these were marvelous creatures and organisms?

Paul Stamets: My earliest memory was when I was about 5 years old. I was pelting my twin brother with puffballs [a mushroom] and they kind of explode with this brown cloud of spores. I remember my mother coming out saying, “Don't throw puff balls … The spores will make him blind!” That actually is not true — spores won't make you blind, but that's my earliest memory.

Children are constantly playing, and to get them in contact with nature through mushrooms — the mushroom portal, so to speak — has been a very valuable way of getting a new generation of biologists inspired about nature and protecting the ecosystem.

Tony, how did you go "through the mushroom portal"? How did you end up being someone who is now part of the North American Mycological Association?

Tony Alvarez: I've always spent time in nature. I spent a lot of time alone when I was very young, so I was left to my own devices picking up rocks, turning over rocks, finding little mushrooms and whatnot. When I was in my teen years and I was gifted some magic mushrooms — that is how I went through my portal, and the connection with the mushrooms was so strong from that moment on.

I was very passionate about it when I was young, and kind of lost touch with it. And then I took a foraging course, and it just brought me back and I was just overwhelmed with joy, overwhelmed with love for these beautiful creatures that do so much for us.

What advice do you have for young people interested in getting more involved in the field of mycology?

Paul Stamets: I would recommend that you join a mycology society. You've got four or five really good mycology societies here in the Bay Area.

There's the Mycological Society of San Francisco, the Bay Area Mycological Association up north, Sonoma County Mycological Association, the Mendocino Coast Mushroom Club, and the [Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz].

We oftentimes say it's like an adult Easter egg hunt. But children are closer to the ground. You cannot be poisoned by a mushroom by touching it. However, the caution that all of us mycologists want to give you — there are deadly poison species out there, so do not randomly go out and pick mushrooms.

I've been involved in the mycological society since I was about 15 years old, and I highly recommend that you be surrounded by others who have this knowledge. I'd be remiss not mentioning, I think the most prominent mushroom field guide is "California Mushrooms: [The Comprehensive] Identification Guide" by Dennis E. Desjardin, Michael G. Wood and Frederick A. Stevens and then "Mushrooms Demystified" by David Arora.

Are there any movements or thoughts in the mushroom community about how to best harvest mushrooms? How do we ensure that we haven't harvested 100% of the mushrooms as foraging gains popularity? 

Paul Stamets: Fantastic question. I don't have a good answer for you because I very much believe that you should leave no trace.

The adage among many of us is not to pick more than 10% of the mushrooms. And with the chanterelle, we know they come up in twins. So we cut one of them rather than pull them, because when you pull them, you can abort one of the twins.

It's a great question without a clear answer. Conservation is really important. Unfortunately, some of these mushrooms are viewed as dollar bills in the ground by commercial harvesters. That being said, subsistence foraging of mushrooms is a long held tradition in Indigenous cultures all around the world.

David Arora studied this extensively, and it's really debatable. When you pick a mushroom, and [you're] carrying it, it's like fairy dust, you leave spore trails. And so as you carry the mushroom you're extending the habitat of those mushrooms. You can make the argument that harvesting mushrooms actually [spreads] their spores, and you can make the counterargument if you harvest, there's less spores there to spread. So the jury is out on this.

What's the relationship between fire and soil — especially as fire in California has been changing so quickly?

Paul Stamets: I would defer to Dennis Desjardins, who studied this as a professor at San Francisco State University. Fires are a natural part of the ecosystem, the evolution of ecosystems where there is not natural human habitation.

You have this natural conflict between a natural system versus an "unnatural system," albeit we can make the argument that humans are native to all the environments where we live.

In fire habitats, one of the first mushrooms to come up are morels — and morels seem to be everywhere in the forest. And they're very fragrant, so they attract animals that come in because they're fragrant. And then because these other animals eat the mushrooms, then they're attracted into these ecologically devastated ecosystems. They drop pellets to drop seeds, etcetera. So these are the harbingers of ecological recovery.

I think the morels are the first appearance of an edible food for wild animals. Thus, they bring the wild animals that bring in seeds, and lead to ecological recovery.

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What are your thoughts on green burials and the ability to break down all matter? Have you thought about green burials for yourself whenever that time comes?

Paul Stamets: Yeah, I want to be entombed in mycelium. We have to embrace decomposition. We're all going to get there. So the phrase I use a lot is: Let it rot. We have this sort of view of nature, making it all clean and the yards spick and span. But it's that neighbor who has a chaotic environment that has all these debris, fields and brushes and all these highly fractalized environments that give these habitats all these organisms.

The concept here is — we all decompose into soil, and this speaks to Indigenous knowledge and the belief that the soil is a living organism.

Last thing, kind of a funny one. [KQED listener] Pete tweets, "Did the 'Star Trek: Discovery' writers, the show, name the mycelial network navigator after you, Paul Stamets?" Editor's note: "Star Trek: Discovery" is the newest iteration of the show "Star Trek," which premiered in 2017 and has a science officer named Commander Paul Stamets, played by Anthony Rapp, who helps starships travel along interdimensional pathways made of fungus.

Paul Stamets: Yes. Yes, they did. The writers of "Star Trek" literally called me up saying, We're in the dungeon. We saw your TED talk. We're stuck. Do you have any ideas? And I said, Turn on your tape recorders, and they take me for about two hours and I talk about the mycelium.

This universal structure we see in nature neurons, the computer, internet, mycelium, dark matter — this is a continuum of the fact that networks reward themselves. And I told them I always wanted to become the first astro-mycologist. And they said, "Astro-mycologist! Oh, my gosh, we can use that." And so they consulted with me as recently as last week, and I'm really honored. Anthony Rapp portrays me. And, I gave them the spores for this idea, but they germinated in these writers' minds. Of course, they get 99.9% percent of the credit for this. But yeah, I'm greatly honored. I've been a "Star Trek" fan since I was a kid. So it's ... I'm greatly surprised and honored that they named the character after me.

How can people make sure that they do this respectfully, just as we close up the show? [Avoiding] negative impacts on our parklands and wildlands by foragers who go off trail?

Tony Alvarez: I would say this is partly stewardship. When we go out, there's a bag for mushrooms, and there's a bag for garbage. When we're stewarding the land, as we're finding these goodies, all of us should do our part to clean up.

We should make sure that we leave minimal to no traces that we were ever there, and love the earth like it loves us.

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Listen to the full episode of KQED Forum here.

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