After four years of drought in California, mushroom hunting has all but dried up in Santa Cruz, where the hobby boasts a strong tradition. But now that El Nino-driven storms have arrived, fungi fans are heading back to the forest because when it rains, it spores.
One local enthusiast, mushroom hunter Christian Schwarz of Redwood Coast Tours, is asking for their help building the Santa Cruz Mycoflora Project, an online database of all mushroom species in the county to help advance research on fungi.
“It’s a huge, crazy, insane task that I have no chance of doing without the help of other people,” he said.
After a recent rainstorm, he led a group of people who want to learn how to identify mushrooms through the forest in Santa Cruz. When he spotted a large, black mushroom on the ground, he called his students to gather around.
“There’s these cup fungi here that if I blow on, I’m hoping they’ll spore back on us,” he told them.
A few seconds after he blew on the mushroom, a thick puff of black dust poofed out of it, releasing its tiny spores into the air.
His students cheered. One snapped a photo, and then scribbled notes on what just happened. With everything they encounter, they’re documenting their observations because Schwarz has asked them to upload their fungi findings to the Santa Cruz Mycoflora Project.
He’s only focusing on basic facts, such as where things grow and what they look like. And he’s gathering mushroom samples for their DNA. It’s all data microbiologist Tom Bruns at UC Berkeley says he desperately needs.
“Without that information, it’s hard to say what we’re missing,” he said. “Being basic research, it opens doors that we don’t even know exist until we got the data.”
He said because there are such great gaps in research, it’s difficult to know the useful potential of many species.
Fungi are an important part of the ecosystem. They help recycle the forest and other wildlands, and they impact other species in both direct and indirect ways. Fungi are also important to medicine. A lot of early antibiotics were derived from fungi, such as penicillin.
“We still get some important fungal products that are used in medicine in various ways — statins and immunosuppressants that are used in organ transplants,” Bruns said. “With the huge diversity of fungi out there, the diversity of the sorts of chemicals they contain are also mind-boggling large.”
Those chemicals and properties will have to remain untapped until scientists know more about fungi, he added.
This field doesn’t have a lot of funding, which is why citizen science plays such a huge role. Grassroots efforts similar to the Santa Cruz Mycoflora Project have been popping up all over north America, from Alberta to Chicago.
Back in the forest, Schwarz said it’s unknown how many mushroom species there are locally, but he estimates there are 2,000 or 3,000. That’s why training more people to identify mushrooms helps his efforts dramatically. During the walk, this group found four species he has never seen before despite combing the area many times before.
“As long as there are people supporting each other in a community of interested naturalists, we’re going to advance little by little over time,” he said. “That’s how citizen science works.”
So far, the Santa Cruz Mycoflora Project has about 700 fungi species cataloged, which means Schwarz still has a long way to go.
To learn how to contribute to the database, visit its website www.scmycoflora.org.