In Russia, it is a national pastime.
But in Orange County, mushroom hunting is a connoisseur's pursuit, appreciated only by a select few.
About 35 mushroom fans gathered at O'Neill Regional Park in Trabuco Canyon Saturday morning for a day of searching for, talking about and comparing notes on their favorite fungi.
"It's a nice way to get outdoors and out of the city," said Ruth Lebow, a resident of West Los Angeles and a biological sciences instructor for UCLA Extension.
Most of Lebow's mushroom-hunting companions agreed as they spent the unseasonably warm day following group leader and scientist Walt Wright in a search for the elusive fungus and for any other interesting plants they could find in an area of the park normally restricted from public use.
Special permission to enter the area was secured from park personnel by Wright, one of the organizers of the "Fungus Foray," which was sponsored by the Orange County chapter of the California Native Plant Society and the Los Angeles Mycological Society. Members of other groups such as the Southern California Botanists and Sea and Sage also participated.
According to Wright, the comparatively high amounts of rainfall so far this year combined with recent record-breaking high temperatures provided ideal conditions for growth of the parasitic plants, which feed off decomposing leaves, stems and other organic materials, usually in moist and dark places.
But although the conditions in recent weeks were just right for mushrooms, the collectors were disappointed by a lack of specimens.
"This particular area seems to be very deficient," said Paul Harding, a former botany and zoology professor and plant pathologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "I don't know why. Perhaps the soil is too sandy."
But the group, mostly nature lovers and amateur naturalists, did not seem to mind the dearth of mushrooms, being content to enjoy the weather and listen as Wright, who taught courses on grasses and grasslands at the University of California at Riverside for 16 years, pointed out a variety of interesting and rare flora and fauna.
'Like Going to School'
"We come to learn," said Shirley Williams, a hospital worker who added that she and her companion, Geri Gutierrez, have been on several such nature hikes. "It's nice just to get out."
"I'm just an amateur," said Freida Kinoshita, an engineer, "but my husband and I are learning so much it's like going to school again."
Many of the nature lovers were still without the object of their search by the end of the day, but they still felt the outing worthwhile, they said.
"The idea is not only to get mushrooms, but to get some fresh air," one empty-handed but content mushroom hunter said.