By mid-November, the first soaking rains fall in California and the temperature begins to drop. Members of the Mycological Society of San Francisco (MSSF) watch the weather forecast closely, hoping for a downpour so that mushrooms will blanket the forest floor during their annual trip to Mendocino Woodlands Camp.
These mushroom hunters are scientists, hikers, chefs, and artists, brought together by a love for fungi. They are all there to enjoy the woodlands, to eat prized mushrooms, and to nerd out over beautiful, unusual, and delicious fungi. Every year, new people join the MSSF, and I was one of those new people last year.
Mendocino Woodlands Camp was built in the 1930’s and is a National Historic Landmark (photo: Julie Himes)
In 2013, a mycophile friend of mine suggested I paint a series of watercolor mushrooms for the MSSF’s annual Fungus Fair. To prepare, I started going on forays with him to learn about fungi and painted some of my favorite species. I set up a booth at the fair in San Francisco that December to see if I could sell a few prints and cards of my paintings. I received a warm welcome from Curt Haney, the president of the club, and he asked if I would paint a poster design for the next year’s fair. In exchange, I would get a free ticket to mushroom camp. Mushroom camp? You mean, drive six hours up the coast to camp in the woods with a bunch of mushroomy strangers? I said yes, and also asked my mycophile friends if they wanted to come along. The experience was incredible. It felt like we had walked into a mushroom wonderland! We left camp that winter with a car full of chanterelles, candy caps, and boletes, and our calendars marked for next year’s camp.
Excited for my second trip to mushroom camp, I leave my office in Monterey this past November and drive up the coast through San Jose and San Francisco. The drive is a spectacular gradient from busy bustling city to peaceful quiet forest. I arrive just in time to eat the night’s meal; lasagna with king trumpet and maitake mushrooms, and chocolate brownie with candy cap creme (mushroom enthusiasts know how to cook!). I meet up with my friends and we haul gear up to the cabin. Our cabin is rustic with a sense of history. Built in the 1930’s, the cabin is made of redwood from the surrounding land and a has a sturdy stone fireplace. We sleep on cots around the fire, four in our cabin. The following morning, we gather for breakfast (biscuits with porcini gravy of course) and split up into smaller groups to hike and forage the surrounding area.
Tiny mushrooms and cup fungi nestled in the leaf litter (photo: Julie Himes)
Mendocino is known for its mushroom diversity. During a good year, hundreds of species can be found in Mendocino Woodlands State Park. Last November, the MSSF campers found over 300 species in a single day. This year is not a “good” year. With the ongoing drought, we haven’t seen enough rain to bring out the mushrooms. While last year was filled with diversity and lots of edible mushrooms, this year is characterized by a many very tiny species.
We take the mushrooms we find to the display tables for identification (photos: Julie Himes)
We hike most of the day, collecting anything new we find, always keeping our eyes open for a tasty chanterelle or prized porcini. After the forays, the campers gather at the Dance Hall to turn our haul over to the experts who identify each mushroom and display them on labeled paper plates. Seeing all of the species side by side is striking. There is so much diversity of form, color, and size. That night is spent eating wild mushrooms around the campfire, chatting about our best mushroom hunting days, and attending a talk by mushroom expert, Gary Lincoff. As we collapse in bed, the rain begins to pour outside, and we all dream about the mushrooms that have been waiting underground for the rain.
Chanterelles are among the edibles found in Mendocino. (photo: Julie Himes)
This Sunday, December 6th, the MSSF will host its 67th Fungus Fair at the San Francisco County Fair Building in beautiful Golden Gate Park. My fellow mushroom hunters will spend all day tomorrow foraging in the Bay Area to bring examples of our local diversity to the display tables. I too will be there with my watercolor paintings and to share in the excitement for this winter’s mushroom season.