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The 50th Anniversary Fungus Fair brings mushroom mania to Santa Cruz

For 50 years, fungiphiles have gathered at the Santa Cruz Fungus Fair to marvel at mushrooms. Last weekend, the three-day event returned in full force after three years of smaller, outdoor events during the pandemic.

Thousands of people packed into the London Nelson Community Center for the 50th anniversary fair. Some, like Phil Carpenter, have been coming to the fair for decades.

“I've been at the fair every year since 1979,” he said.

Carpenter is the chief science officer for the Santa Cruz Fungus Federation — the group that organizes the fair. He’s sitting at a table of experts who are helping visitors identify mushrooms they’ve found. Despite being an expert — one person even described him as a legend — he still learns something new every year. He points to a few different samples on the table.

“This is a mushroom I've never seen. This is a mushroom I've never seen. We don't know what this guy is. We know what genus it's in, but putting a species name on it is nigh unto impossible.”

Carpenter says there are around 230 species of mushrooms around the display hall, and that’s just a small percentage of the thousands of species around the central coast.

A few seats down the table, Noah Siegel, the author of the field guide "Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast," is also marveling at the variety.

“Someone just brought in this brilliant red, Hygrocybe coccinea, which is a scarlet waxy cap,” he said. “It's this mushroom that glows bright red colors in really dark redwood forests.”

Volunteers bring live trees to the mushroom displays each year.
Erin Malsbury
Volunteers bring live trees to the mushroom displays each year.

Tables line the gymnasium-sized room, covered in baskets full of different types of mushrooms, each meticulously labeled. In the center of the room is a large display that the organizers call the island. It looks like a patch of forest brought inside.

“It’s the perfect setting. You feel like you're in the woods,” said Carpenter.

The island even includes small live trees. Les Seltzer, a co-chair of the fair, has been bringing the trees in from his yard for at least ten years.

Seltzer says one of the special parts of the fair is the record-keeping.

“We have a register of the mushrooms we bring here for the last 35 years. So we know what's going on, because this is a scientific endeavor,” he said.

But for most visitors, it’s pure fun. Several of them walk around the displays eating candy-cap mushroom ice cream, which smells and tastes a lot like maple syrup.

Visitor Travis Furlanic walks around with a UV flashlight, pointing out species that glow.

“I love the glowing tricholomas,” he said. “They glow really bright.”

Travis Furlanic shines a UV light over a glowing tricholoma mushroom.
Erin Malsbury
Travis Furlanic shines a UV light over a glowing tricholoma mushroom.

Down the hall from the mushroom display room, vendors sell mushroom-dyed clothing, mushroom-shaped jars, and dried mushrooms. A kid’s room has fungal-focused crafts and games, and in another room speakers give talks about foraging, medicinal mushrooms, cooking techniques and psychedelics.

Just down the hall, cooks rush around a kitchen, preparing a five-course mushroom feast for an after-hours fundraiser dinner. Camille Padilla, a mushroom aficionado and member of the fungus federation, helped set up the fair and described the first course of the meal.

“I know we start off with caviar and morels, which is not a bad way to start a dinner,” she said.

Visitors could see around 230 species of mushrooms at the 2024 Santa Cruz Fungus Fair.
Erin Malsbury
Visitors could see around 230 species of mushrooms at the 2024 Santa Cruz Fungus Fair.

Like most of the visitors, Padilla is excited to learn new things and meet other mushroom lovers.

“The community around this is just amazing,” she said. “It's a beautiful thing. And it's something special about Santa Cruz.”

To accommodate Santa Cruz’s ever-growing appetite for fungus-focused events, the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History has a host of programs coming up for Fungus February. The museum’s community education manager Marisa Gomez says they’re excited to continue their collaboration with the Santa Cruz Fungus Federation.

The first Santa Cruz Fungus Fair happened at the natural history museum in 1974, but the fair soon outgrew the museum space and moved to larger locations. During the pandemic, the museum once again hosted small, one-day outdoor festivals.

“This year, they were finally feeling ready to bring back the fair, but they needed a little support. And so we came up with a partnership that is really just coming full circle,” said Gomez. “It's really exciting that it's happening for the 50th anniversary of the first fair.”

If you missed the fair but still have mushroom mania, the Santa Cruz Fungus Federation is already planning for 2025’s fair. In the meantime, they host guided forest forays and educational events throughout the year. And this year should be a good one, because as the club’s tagline puts it: when it rains, it spores.

Erin joined KAZU as a digital journalist and photographer in 2023.