Fungi Fanatics

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Santa Cruz locals, UCSC students and visitors came to the Louden Nelson Community Center this past weekend to participate in the 42nd annual Fungus Fair. Photo by Ali Enright
Santa Cruz locals, UCSC students and visitors came to the Louden Nelson Community Center this past weekend to participate in the 42nd annual Fungus Fair. Photo by Ali Enright

The forest was brought indoors this weekend, with hundreds of varieties of fungi re-creating a woodland scene, complete with trees and forest floor on display at the annual Santa Cruz Fungus Fair.

“They’re really, really weird,” said Christian Schwarz, UC Santa Cruz alumnus and member of the Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz (FFSC) who acts as a scientific advisor to the fair. “I’ll never exhaust the resource of weird, bizarre mushrooms to explore. They’re really colorful — they can be really tiny or really huge — they can do all sorts of interesting things ecologically, and there’s still a lot we don’t know about them.”

Officially started in 1984 by UCSC alumnus David Arora, the FFSC’s annual Fungus Fair grows in size each year, now attracting thousands of visitors from all over the state of California for a three-day celebration of all things fungus-related.

Mike Scott, a Santa Cruz resident and attendee of previous fairs, noted the change in size and diversity of the event in recent years. When Scott started attending in the ‘80s, it was held at the Natural Museum of History in Seabright, but was moved to its current location after soaring turn-outs.

Now in its 42nd year and hosted at the Louden Community Centre, the fair offers a staggering array of activities and specimens. From the delicious candy cap ice cream (a personal favorite of Scott’s), made of a sweet, maple syrup-smelling and-tasting mushroom, to clothes made using mycopigments, dyes extracted from mushrooms, this year’s fair offered the widest and most informative fungi display in the history of Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz County is home to over 400 varieties of fungus and is one of the best locations in North America for fungus foraging, Schwarz said. Yet lack of prior preparation can prove deadly — Santa Cruz is home to amanita phalloides, commonly known as the Death Cap mushroom, which Schwarz said “causes more deaths than any other mushroom in the world.”

However, Schwarz, author of “Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast,” clarifies the common misconception that many mushrooms are deadly.

“It’s only very few species that are actually deadly, and it’s relatively few that are even toxic,” Schwarz said. “Taking a drive in a car is probably more dangerous than learning to pick mushrooms and eating them if you know what you’re doing.”

Just as many people join the Fungus Federation for culinary interests as they do scientific ones. There are wine and mushroom pairing courses which have been put on by the Fungus Federation for many years, which is how Jeff Emery, a winemaker and member of the Fungus Federation for over 40 years, got involved.

Emery looks at the world of fungi through a culinary lens and is keen to warn those with no experience of the potential dangers of mushroom foraging.

“There’s no substitute for knowledge,” Emery said. “The analogy I give is if tangerines killed you and oranges didn’t, I would only hang apples. You have to know your taxonomy, and possibly go with an expert.”

While adults explored exhibits devoted to the medicinal benefits of fungi and saw a range of toxic or even deadly mushroom species, mushroom-themed face painting and a treasure hunt entertained kids. But the beauty of mushrooms goes beyond what the human eye can see.

“We had a lot of people with UV lights this year,” Schwarz said, “and a lot of mushrooms have really interesting fluorescence. They look boring, but you put them under the UV light and they look yellow or blue with really interesting patterns.”

Schwarz worked with The North American Mycoflora Project to create a comprehensive library of mycoflora, both photographic and genetic, of all the mushrooms in Santa Cruz County.

“It’s really the first project that’s comprehensive of its kind in North America,” Schwarz said, “and Santa Cruz is leading the way in doing it.”

Schwarz is enthusiastic about the project, hosted at SCmycoflora.org, and highlights its success despite the lack of official academic support.

“A lot of student interns are involved, a lot of community members are involved but not very many academics are involved,” Schwarz said. “It’s a sort of crowd sourcing, or using citizen science to learn more about mushrooms, even if you don’t have an academic background.”

This year’s Fungus Fair was, in the eyes of organizers and attendees, a resounding success. After the recent rain, many edible varieties of mushroom are just coming to fruit — a perfect time for new fungi enthusiasts to get involved. Even with the obvious dangers, Schwarz said that “if you’re careful, then it’s not dangerous — it’s easy and it’s fun!”