Monday, March 27, 2017

The Fungus among Us

Editor’s note: Inspired and dampened by the Bay Area’s unusually wet winter and early spring, we’re reprinting a column originally published in 2009. Horticulturist Robin North is no longer with Fairyland; her replacement for the last six years has been Jackie Salas.

By C.J. Hirschfield

After the most recent rainstorm, two separate groups of people—one from Asia, the other from Eastern Europe—recently knocked on our door at Fairyland and asked if they could pick the mushrooms they’d spied inside our gates.

After conferring with Robin North, our horticulturist, I decided to politely decline. There are tons of types of mushrooms, and even Robin can’t be 100 percent sure of the safety of all of the varieties that call Fairyland home. At least once every year, there is a story about a Bay Area family rushed to the hospital after someone misidentified a local fungus.

Ironically, the cutest, most “Fairyland-like” mushroom that grows in our park is probably the most poisonous: the Amanita. This deceptively lovely mushroom, which is red with white spots, is responsible for approximately 95 percent of deaths from mushroom poisoning. And darned if the huge mushroom in the middle of our park, on which our “bubble elf” sits, isn’t Amanita-like in its coloring.

Fairyland's bubble elf, "Oswald," atop what appears to be an Amanita mushroom.

Robin describes some of the other types of mushrooms that live in Fairyland: ones that look like, but probably aren’t, delicious chanterelles; ones that look like “bloody meat”; yellow spongy sorts; ones with inky caps. Mushrooms will typically show up in the same spot each year, and many arrive in the wood chips we regularly distribute around the park.

The purpose of the mushroom is to reproduce, Robin says: “At first they’re pretty, firm and sexy, but after a couple of days they get sweaty and worn-looking.” Shortly thereafter, they turn into black slime.

The deadly Amanita mushroom can sometimes be found at Fairyland.

Identifying mushrooms involves studying them thoroughly—their size, color, odor, form of growth (single or clustered), habitat (wood, grass) and seasonal appearance. The coolest way to help I.D. a mushroom is by its spore print color: Take a mushroom, place it on a piece of paper, and wait a while for it to drop thousands of microscopic spores (the equivalent of seeds). The resulting spore color is a key identifier.

It’s fitting that a place called Fairyland would be home to so many mushrooms. Fairy rings – naturally occurring rings or arcs of mushrooms typically found in forested areas – are prominently featured in European folklore. These rings, or fairy circles, are believed to be gateways into elfin or fairy kingdoms or places where elves and fairies dance.

Mushrooms growing at Fairyland. (Is that a dancing elf?)

Randal Metz, Fairyland’s resident historian, recalls a “real” fairy circle that appeared in 1982 near our Magic Web ride. It was approximately three feet in diameter, and has never reappeared.

And who can forget Alice’s famous meeting with the blue caterpillar? Sitting on a mushroom, he tells her that the mushroom is the key to navigating through her strange Wonderland journey. Taking his advice, she nibbles her way through the entire book, with extraordinary results.

In Oregon, a giant fungus of the honey mushroom species spans 2,200 acres, which would make it the largest living organism if defined by area.

After talking with Robin, and doing a little research online, I’m now completely convinced that ALL mushrooms are magic. Especially in risotto.

C.J. Hirschfield has served for 14 years as executive director of Children's Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation's first storybook theme park.

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