Article for Tree Time Journal of the Mount Pisgah Arboretum.
By Molly Widmer December, 1999
In a temperate clime, every season has unique and characteristic high points of beauty; days and parts of days where the wheel of the seasons seems to stop, and one is suspended in the ideal of that season. On a day like this, the perfection of nature’s beauty is borne forcibly home into one’s mind and spirit, and one’s entire being is saturated with the sensory delights peculiar to this exact time of year. Such a day brings out the poetic and romantic elements in one’s nature- drawn from who knows what reserve- that another day would leave uninspired. The funny thing is how this experience is reserved for each season and change of season in turn. The magic of the early spring day when the warming soil can first be smelled on the air is only perfect during the time of year when all is young or still unborn. On such a day, this seems the only kind of beauty we can possibly understand or desire, and the hunger for delights autumnal seems an impossibility, a faded memory with no force of immediacy or reality.
But by late October, the heat and powerful herbaceous developments of summer have satiated our terrible need for ease and wealth and solar radiation. Our hungry skins have been bronzed, our hair is streaked with sunlight, the soles of our sandaled feet have become worthy of summer’s treks. And though it never seems possible even a few short weeks earlier, we become at first resigned to, and then accepting of, and finally willing for the cool ripeness of autumn. For those who work on and attend the Mt. Pisgah Mushroom Festival, the promise of fall holds such breathless excitement because it brings with it the onset of rains, and soon after, carpets of glistening mushrooms pushing up through a newly springy, fragrant forest floor. “Drenching rains” and cool temperatures call out the fruiting bodies of millions of tiny and great fungi in every conceivable niche.
There is the fragrant, buried treasure of truffles, burgeoning unseen among the rootlets of the great trees, and countless, tiny Mycenas rising on thin translucent stalks from twigs, fallen leaves, and rotting logs. There are armies of grass-loving species in brave troops nearly anywhere poison hasn’t been used, and hearty queues of gravel-lovers pushing up through the edges of forest roads, marching in commensal sympathy along the path of least resistance adhered to by those who avoid the deep forest. Everywhere one looks (if one really looks!) there are gorgeous, bizarre, and undreamed-of expressions of fungal diversity.
Waxy, brightly-colored cup fungi puff fertile clouds of spores at the slightest warm human breath. Warted, ringed, and bulb-based Amanitas tower in dominant splendor, their singular architecture demanding respect and admiration every single time they are encountered. Jelly-like growths amaze us with their jewel-like depths, their silken, unstructured
And the fragrances! Unique to this season is an entire universe of powerful and diverse olfactory delights. The rain-soaked soils and even the rocks give off subtle, pervasive mineral and humic scents which define the smell of cool, moist air. Against this background, the mushroom-hunter
is rewarded with a rich tapestry of fragrances specific to various fungi, one rising from nearly every fungus encountered. There is the surprising match of strong fruity and sweet scents with the corky, tough conks; and the mouth- watering almond and anise scents inviting the lucky picker to savor choice edibles. There are intense, unbelievably familiar scents which punctuate the complacency of one’s hunting rhythm: Chlorine, so sharp it nearly hurts! Watermelon, as undeniable as any teeny-bopper’s bubble gum! Vanilla, strong enough to be used as a sachet! Anise! Almond! Garlic! Seafood! And, once experienced, no-one ever forgets the arresting cinnamon odor which emanates from the legendary matsutake even before their handsome, thick-fleshed caps have pushed clear of the sandy soil! Mushroom-lovers usually begin dreaming humid, fragrant dreams fairly long in advance of the rainy season. This year, however, the sodden spring and tepid early summer belayed our willingness to relinquish late summer’s heat and comforts.
Revolting somewhat against the inexorable turn of the seasons, many of us felt that early fall rains would be unfair somehow, that our solar banks were not yet full, and that we deserved the full measure of our azure and burning days. The deal was kept: rains did not come, the days continued perfect, long, baking, static. Long into late September, long into October.
Finally, one by one, those of us planning the species display at the Mt. Pisgah Mushroom Festival surprised ourselves as the long Indian summer dragged on, by admitting to a desire for rain. This year, founding members of the newly-formed Cascade Mycological Society (CMS) took responsibility for the display as the single most important goal in our first year of organization. When the rains did not come, and still did not come, we started joking, at first fantastically, and later with an increasing sense of uncomfortable “what if-ness” about the possibility that the rains would not come in time to sponsor a rich and wonderful display for the Mushroom Festival. Many of us remembered the same worries leading up to last year’s Festival, and we knew, based on the last-minute success of the display in 1998 (second-greatest diversity in the history of the show) that this year’s show would probably turn out all right. But as October ticked along, reports came in from devoted hunters in three states, scouring the
mountains and the coast, crawling on hands and knees along creek banks, searching out any topographic feature where moisture and cool air might sink and settle. And the reports were negative. Not just “no choice edibles,” or “no charismatic macrofungi,” but “no fungi at all.” Even little brown mushrooms. Even Mycenas. Even Inocybes. Even conks. No fungi at all.
Right up to two weeks before the show, it was unclear what kind of display could be made. Mushroom shows were being put off and canceled in nearby areas, and forays were turning up very little at all. The Mt. Pisgah Mushroom Festival has never been canceled, and the vow was made that it would not be canceled now.
Finally, the drought began to break, but only by thin, brief showers which were evaporated into the hot air, or absorbed into the treetops. One locale would have sprinkles, and another would receive nothing. Even where precipitation did penetrate the canopy, moisture beaded up on waxy, hydrophobic duff, or the desiccated soils were barely dampened, and swallowed up the precious moisture without yielding fungi in return. The threshold was not being met, and the window (defined by the lag-time required for mushroom development) was closing fast. Finally, in the very last days before the show, well-loved sites in the Cascades and the coast began to yield. An army of devoted, experienced, and alert collectors ramified out into the countryside, seeking any and all expressions of fungal fruition. No Mycena was too small. No resupinate polypore too obscure, no “little brown job” too intimidating. Everything was collected. Everything was attempted. It has been mentioned hat the new group Cascade Mycological Society (CMS) took on the planning of this now famous event It may have been a brand-new Society, but this was not an all-new crew by any means: At the head of this mycelium of mycophiles were the intensely productive personalities who have organized and developed the show every year since they dreamed it up: Marcia Peeters and Freeman Rowe. They have been joined in recent years by organizational powerhouses Peg Boulay and Bruce Newhouse, who have enhanced documentation and enumeration of the show’s amazing abundance (Peg is CMS’ first President, as well). The fleet of volunteer collectors also included people in the community who have been helping bring in the bounty for years, every year. In the tradition, the Lane Community College Mushroom class devoted hours of student volunteer time to help with set-up, this year under new instructor Eric B. Peterson, ably following in the famous footsteps of Freeman Rowe and Ankie Camatcho before him. Scores of people spent uncounted hours in long-term and last-minute organizational work, and the day before the show, the massive push was made: the tables and nametags and displays and decorations were set up, and myriad mushrooms were carefully identified and set out by members of Cascade Mycological Society and friends.
As in past years, expert mycologists and taxonomists were enlisted to identify specimens coming in on the day of the show. Help came from many groups and individuals, including Dan Luoma, Joyce Eberhart, Andrea Humpert, and Nancy Weber from OSU; Jamie Platt and Ankie Camatcho from Berkeley, formerly of OSU; and many individuals from the new Cascade Mycological Society, notably Festival organizer and walking encyclopedias Marcia Peeters and Freeman Rowe (CMS’ newly honored Member for Life!).
It was through the efforts of these experts that the Festival boasted in incredible 53 species new to the already impressive cumulative tally. Against what seemed like impossible odds, the last mushroom display for the millennium yielded a total of 280 species, and came in third most diverse in the Festival’s twenty year history! A rich symbiosis was further encouraged between researchers, students, amateurs, and agency personnel to bring mycology in our area to new heights. Specimens were accessioned into the OSU Herbarium, and there were several new and surprising identifications credited to the show by sharp-eyed and diligent taxonomists. These efforts were supported by a newly expanded area behind the scenes where those braving the more difficult groups could work quietly at banks of microscopes. Both the Siuslaw and Willamette National Forests were present to provide personal use picking permits, and there were beautiful and informative posters and displays on a variety of subjects. Dave Pilz presented his research on commercial mushroom harvest, Terry Gatchell demonstrated pasteurization and inoculation of mushroom spawn into straw. The North American Truffling Society of Corvallis sent us Charles leFevre and Dan Wheeler, identifying underground fungi and answering questions about these fragrant but cryptic fruits. There were even innoculated mushroom-growing blocks for sale, and examples of shiitake, oyster, and Hericium cultivation.
A very popular tradition was enjoyed when Freeman Rowe awarded the honors and prizes for the top three finds of the show: Bruce Newhouse’s Best of Show Laetiporus sulphureus (a gorgeous, brilliant orange shelf fungi prized as a choice edible), Danna Lytjen’s first place Ganoderma applanatum (a huge and perfectly preserved “Artist’s conk” of exquisite proportions), and Dan Wheeler’s second place Boletus edulis (a truly massive example of this most sought-after and handsome species).
The Mushroom Festival was enhanced this year by a fascinating array of display tables. Drawing large crowds were tables on cultural uses of fungi, lichen identification and ecology, edible and poisonous species, and new this year, the “adult discovery table,” a place where folks could peruse a selection of books, use a microscope, touch and smell fresh specimens. This table holds much potential for a changing kaleidoscope of first-hand mushroom experiences in future years. Speaking of potential, there is always a sign-up table for festival goers who wish to help with the mushroom display next year. If you missed this table and would like to become involved, you can call Marcia Peeters at 343-3575. Cascade Mycological Society also had a table — if you missed it, and would like information about how you can be involved, you can call Molly Widmer (746-7548 or 683-6797).
Our first general meeting is being held December 9, 1999, at Lane Community College, and there are many plans for this quickly- growing organization in the new millennium.