Thursday, April 17, 2008

Orange Spring Amanita & Mushroom Season

Moisture in Southern California, is like Santa Claus--it comes just once a year--so I feel compelled to post about mushrooms once again (and possibly for the last time this year), before they become unfashionable.

(1) The earliest mushroom I found this season is pictured below, next to a standard-sized plastic spoon (used as a makeshift trowel). It popped up alongside several others of the same kind in January, in a patch of landscaped wood-shavings near an intersection that I drive by on my way to work every day. My hectic schedule, combined with the awkward location of the mushrooms, prevented me from getting to it before it had dried out, and thus made it virtually impossible for me to identify. As I wrote in my last post, mushroom identification can be hard enough as it is, even when spore prints are made.

(Here's a top view of the same mushroom pictured above):

Based on similarities in structure and habitat, I suspect that several other mushrooms I've seen during March and April were the same species. Here they are, in fresher form than the above:

Curiously, notice that the one in the background has been chomped on a bit. (If you read my last post, then you'll know why the culprit could not have been me.)

Since these mushrooms were fresh, I was able to make a spore print from them, which turned out to be the color of cocoa:

(2) This next mushroom is the first one I encountered that I feel somewhat confident in having identified. If I'm right, this is an Orange Spring Amanita, Amanita velosa. These mushrooms especially prefer the leaf litter found under live oak trees, which is exactly where I found them (Wilderness Glen Park, Mission Viejo):

Notice the elongated acorn of the live oak tree which was near this mushroom. Such strangely-shaped acorns are exotic to my Midwestern eyes! Also surrounding the mushroom are the dried, dead leaves of years past. Live oaks, although evergreen, nevertheless do drop old leaves--I imagine much as an evergreen pine still drops its needles.

The photo below clearly shows three features possessed by Orange Spring Amanitas: 1. the white spot on the cap (here somewhat soiled), 2. the ridges along the edge of the cap, and 3. a cup-shaped bulb around the base:

As willing as I am to shift around the subjects of a scene in the interest of making a photograph more glamorous (I confess that above I moved the acorn a few inches closer to the mushroom!), I swear the scene in this next photo was as is. It's a darkling beetle on an Orange Spring Amanita (Caspers Regional Park):

What a fun shot. Darkling beetles like to eat decaying vegetation. Perhaps he's attracted to the smell of the mushroom??

(3) Two mushrooms popped up from the soil around my potted lime tree here in Irvine in early April. No positive ID, but they left dark brown spores. (See below sketch and spore print.) I left one of the mushrooms to drop its spores in the soil, in the hopes that it will fruit again.

(4) Last week (mid-April) I encountered several small, whitish puffballs in the hills above Three Arch Bay (in Laguna Beach). They were by that point extremely dried up and had already released their spores, so identification would have been very hard. And alas, I did not have my camera with me!

(5) And, of course, there were the false morels (or maybe black morels), as featured in my last post.

I'll be very curious to see what, if any, other mushrooms I encounter in the weeks ahead, and when will mark the end of the season! The weather's been awfully dry of late...

Monday, April 7, 2008

Black Morels (probably)

It's time to play everyone's favorite game: "Turds? or Mushrooms?"

If you answered Turds!, that would be incorrect. These are mushrooms. "Mushrooms?! In southern California?!"... "But," you object, "I thought southern California was part of the Desert Southwest!"

Well, it is. But first of all, I don't even know if deserts are actually barren of mushrooms (let's check... Here: this guy from Tucson says there are a few).

And secondly, Orange County is on the coastal slope of southern California. We've even got the Santa Ana Mountains (Peninsular Range) to our east that helps keep in the moisture and humidity. I'm not saying it's a rainforest here--recall the wildfires?--but Orange County averages 13 inches per year [1]. That's 3 inches too high to be considered "desert". In fact, as fantastically varied as Orange County's habitats are--coastal sage scrub, riparian woodland, chaparral, montane coniferous woodland, tidepools, estuaries, urban, suburban, grassland savannah, etc.--it is one of our great local-geographical ironies that desert is the one habitat Orange County does not have. (For that, you have to step across the Orange/Riverside County line.).

So it's actually not out of the ordinary to find mushrooms growing in southern California, assuming you're looking during the moistest season of the year, which is now.

I have a special place in my heart for mushrooms. It's said that in ancient and medieval times, mushrooms were widely regarded as magical, the province of fairies and gnomes. I'm sympathetic to that. There is something almost magical about them. I'm not the first to be intrigued by their short-lived nature, the fact that they pop up literally overnight and are gone again in days without a visible trace. They are sometimes quite colorful, and sometimes odorous. Some of the very ones you encounter would spell instant death if eaten, while others are delicious, and yes, still others cause severe hallucinations. Paradoxically, evolutionary biologists (and mycologists--people who study fungi) tell us that mushrooms are probably more closely related to animals than to plants. And I feel like there are other reasons I'm really intrigued by mushrooms, but I'm finished soul-searching for now.

Mushrooms are extremely difficult to identify to species--more so than plants and animals. Not only do you have to learn the basics of mushroom anatomy (which consists of noting the gill attachment, cup shape, veil type, color, cap shape, etc.), but to be certain, you nearly always have to make a spore print. It's totally my kind of geeky fun, but even then, my attempts at identification usually fail, because I never have the passion to follow through with use of my microscope and identify the spore shape. (You just wait.) I have a sister, who's both a chef and someone interested in nature, and every few months we get to talking about it and she mentions that she's thinking of going mushroom-hunting. And given the number of innocuous-looking but deadly, or just plain poisonous-enough-to-make-you-really-sick mushrooms I always have to caution her against it.

All mushrooms are exciting to me, but morels especially so. For starters, they don't look like your typical, Beatrix Potter-style 'shroom. The inner Butthead in me wants to laugh at them. "Huh huh huh huh. Look Beavis, morels look like turds."

More seriously, morels are a delicacy, and are therefore one of the most sought after family of mushrooms in the world, after truffels. They can fetch as much as $30 per pound [2]. I've yet to eat one, but my adorable, rural-Missourian wife attests to their deliciousness, she says especially when they're battered in egg and breadcrumb. (But we ask, suspiciously, what isn't delicious when battered in egg and breadcrumb?).

Following my field guide to mushrooms, the club-shaped mushroom here is most likely a variety of Black Morel, which is edible... but I wouldn't eat it. There's too strong a possibility that this is a dark variant of a different species known commonly as the False Morel. And on that, I shall quote for you the relevant passage, from The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms: "Scientists have discovered that the Conifer False Morel develops a compound similar to the one used in the manufacture of rocket fuel. It causes acute illness and has been fatal in a few instances; it also produces tumors in laboratory animals."

You get the point.