Fungus fest unearths 200 species 

Ideal weather produces an abundance of mushrooms in whistler's forests

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JOHN FRENCH - FUNGAL FIELD Finding mushrooms wasn't difficult during Fungus Among Us this year as the forest was alive with fungus during the festival.
  • PHOTO BY JOHN FRENCH
  • FUNGAL FIELD Finding mushrooms wasn't difficult during Fungus Among Us this year as the forest was alive with fungus during the festival.

Mushroom hunters had a field day and no troubles finding fungus this weekend in Whistler. As part of the Fungus Among Us Festival mushroom lovers ventured into the forests around the community with mushroom experts to find as many varieties as the forest had to offer.

With ideal weather conditions leading up to the festival it was like shooting fish in a barrel for the more than 100 people who came from as far away as Squamish to participate in the mushroom walk hosted by the Whistler Naturalists on Saturday, Oct. 19.

Organizer Bob Brett said mushroom experts found about 200 species with 20 of the species never having been collected before at a Fungus Among Us event. He said more than 250 people came to the see the mushrooms on display at Myrtle Philip Community School Saturday afternoon.

Pine mushrooms, a delicacy in Japan and a very flavourful mushroom, were one of the draws.

"For some reason this year it seems like the pines are coming up so fast," said Brett. "Normally if you get a pine mushroom that big they are already wormy. There are fungus gnats that lay their eggs and then the larvae look like worms. Normally you go for the smallest possible pine mushroom because they get infested very early in their development, but this year we're getting these enormous mushrooms that are pretty much worm-free."

He called the pine mushrooms found over the weekend super-fresh specimens.

"I don't know what it is this year, they're just super-charged in the woods right now," Brett said of the pine mushroom situation in Whistler.

Retired university professor Bryce Kendrick opened the festival on Friday with a talk that Brett described as fairly technical. Even so, the discussion about the microscopic characteristics of how mushrooms reproduce attracted a full house.

"Bryce is a really good speaker," said Brett. "He knows how to connect with an audience. He had all these photographs from his microscope that were like art. There were all these amazing shapes of spores and sections of mushrooms. They could easily be an art installation of themselves because they're just so unbelievable."

The mushroom population around Whistler this year was way up compared to last year when the weather leading up to the event wasn't ideal and the there were far fewer mushrooms in the forests around the resort.

Kendrick was one of a handful of leaders who took the curious mushroom hunters out on walks to discover, discuss and collect fungal matter. Kendrick teamed up with fellow PhD Terry McIntosh, a plant ecologist and taxonomist, to walk through the forested hillside next to Myrtle Philip with a group made up primarily of Quest University students. Just steps from the schoolyard the group discovered its own festival of fungus.

"Look at the variety of organisms," Kendrick said just steps away from the school field.

Kendrick and the university students closely inspected a small puffball early in their walk.

"What happens at the end is there's a little hole there and then the spores inside — which are dry and powdery — if a rain drop falls on it they'll come puffing out the top," Kendrick said to the students.

Meriya Gmeiner-McPherson was fascinated by every word coming from the author of The Fifth Kingdom, a fungi reference book used by universities around the world.

"Oh, so they use rain to reproduce," said Gmeiner-McPherson. "That's what I find really interesting about mushrooms is that each one has a different way."

The group found a broad range of mushroom species; including coral fungus, boletes, hedgehogs and pine mushrooms.

Kendrick said after his trip through the forest with his group that he enjoyed being in instructor-mode after 20 years away from university classrooms. He feels events like Fungus Among Us are important.

"It's a way of getting information out to a wider audience about a group of organisms that most people don't think about very often and they certainly don't realize how important the fungi are in the biosphere," said Kendrick. "I'm always going around saying, 'No fungi — no forest.' That's a good saying because every tree in the forest has a vital relationship with some of the fungi that live in the soil there."

Kendrick described mushrooms as beautiful and worth showing to other people.

Maria Yasel of Quest exited the forest at the end of her walk with Kendrick holding a significant collection of pine mushrooms. She and two other students who unearthed the large edible mushrooms planned to cook up their bounty and eat it fresh.

Brett has plans to make the festival even better next year. He said the number of people who wanted to walk with the mushroom experts was greater than expected and a large number of people arrived after the published start time for the walks. For next year Brett hopes to have more presenters to reduce the ratio of experts to non-experts in each walking group. Four presenters had to pull out of the event at the last minute this year.

"Everyone I talked to seemed to have a good time," said Brett. "It was fun."

By John French

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