Earlier this year, I sprained my ankle. Recovery took more than two months, and is still progressing. Because I wasn’t able to climb, hike, or do much more than walk, I had a lot of time on my hands. I took the opportunity to explore some activities and places that I normally wouldn’t visit. One weekend, on a whim, I visited the 24th Annual Los Angeles Wild Mushroom Fair at the LA County Arboretum.
In the days before the festival, groups of mushroom hunters around LA collected thousands of mushroom specimens. I saw everything from the familiar morels and chanterelles to tall spindly desert mushrooms and what looked like orange cups of jelly. The people-watching was just as interesting. Many of the mushroom hunters were a bit nerdy and quirky–in a good way!
Mushrooms are fascinating organisms. What we consider a mushroom is only the fruiting body of a much larger organism made up of microscopic rootlike cells that form an underground network of weblike “mycelium”. Thus, it’s impossible to see the full structure of what we think of as a “mushroom” with the naked eye. Some mushrooms, like morels, live in the root systems of trees in a kind of symbiotic relationship. In fact, the morels that sprout in the forest after a fire actually represent the mushroom’s effort to fruit in order to disperse spores that will colonize other, intact trees in the forest.
Did you know that mushrooms don’t have very many calories? This makes sense if you think of calories measuring units of solar energy that have been captured through photosynthesis. Fungi, which lack chlorophyll, obtain energy through decomposition of dead matter, and through associating with the roots of living plants.
Did you know that without mushrooms to break down dead matter, life as we know it couldn’t exist? Unfortunately, sometimes poisonous mushrooms like the “Death Cap” are a little too overzealous … if you eat one, it can kill you by breaking down your liver from within.
If you aren’t impressed by mushrooms yet, you should check out Paul Stamets TED lecture on 6 ways we can use mushrooms to save the world. It’s an amazing talk (think gigantic prehistoric mushrooms, the original “Internet” and terraforming new worlds)!
If this post sparked your interest in learning more about mushrooms in the Los Angeles area, the L.A. Mycological Society sponsors lectures and mushrooming trips.