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Friends of Fungus : Mushroom Fans Sprout Up at Mycological Society Fair at Arboretum to Taste the Fruits of Their Labor

Times Staff Writer

This is the time for Greg Wright’s almost daily treasure hunts, when he goes off to secret places, heart leaping, caught up in the magic of the fungus kingdom.

On good days Wright brings home dozens of varieties of wild mushrooms. Even the not-so-good days are rife with anticipation for the Claremont mycologist who has been collecting and cataloguing mushrooms for almost 20 years and is widely known for his expertise.

His bad days were the 22 times he got sick from eating poison varieties. The worst were the couple of times he nibbled deadly ones and almost died.

But for Wright, every day of foraging holds the prospect of finding a rare or undiscovered mushroom species.

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“Sometimes I think of them as celebrities--like famous stars that you’ve only seen pictures of,” Wright said as he tried to convey the mystique that lures him into the wild, and sometimes into risking his life. “And when you finally meet, when you actually see the real thing that you’ve read so much about, it’s a very startling experience. Especially when they’re spectacular.”

Celebrity Status of Sorts

Wright, 39, had a kind of celebrity status at the recent mushroom fair sponsored by the Los Angeles Mycological Society at the Los Angeles State and County Arboretum in Arcadia. People who said they considered him a top authority clustered around, asking him to identify species, to describe mushroom habitats and to speak at meetings.

One fan was Antonio Gardella, who traveled from Santa Barbara to ask Wright to speak at a wine-and-mushroom seminar of the Southern California Culinary Guild on April 7 in Santa Barbara.

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Describing himself as “fascinated with the entire mushroom experience,” Gardella said, “I’m enchanted with the magic of the hunt--the adventure, going out into nature, not knowing what you’re going to find. Even if I don’t find anything I go home happy and inspired. It catches you at the core.” Even a bad case of poison oak that he got when finding a bonanza of his beloved chanterelles did not deter Gardella.

“That’s the worst thing that ever happened to me while I was hunting, and it was awful,” he said. “The chanterelles were wonderful.”

Mohamad Ismael, a society member from Los Angeles, said he once was severely stung when he ran into a beehive, got lost and thought he would not survive in a sudden snowstorm, and nearly died of dehydration and exhaustion on another mushroom excursion.

“I’ve led the most beautiful and charmed life” since discovering the magic of mushrooms, he nevertheless said. “It’s a passion for me, and I decided to make it a profession.”

Ismael, who calls himself “absolutely hooked,” collects and sells mushrooms to restaurants and markets.

The men claim mushrooms hold some kind of interest for many and a fascination for some. They sprout up overnight in lawns, often in “fairy rings” around trees; they abound in myths, in fairy tales and in art. There is mystery--what Wright says is widespread ignorance--about their poisonous and hallucinogenic propensities.

“There are a lot of mystical and magical associations,” he said.

While mushrooms grow all over the world, only a few varieties are cultivated for commercial consumption. This is changing in Southern California as Asians introduce new varieties.

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Wright, who has spent the last 15 years writing a book about mushrooms that he hopes will be published in about two years, said there are 25,000 known species worldwide. About 1,300 have been catalogued in Southern California. He estimates that there are about 200 more in the area that have not yet been catalogued, and said he has discovered many unidentified varieties himself.

Wright, who has no full-time job, said he has traveled all over the country for mushrooms, sometimes finding enough to sell to restaurants and markets. Although he has never made a living from either his harvests or his speaking or writing, Wright, who has a degree in botany from Pomona College, said he supported himself for several summers when he led mushroom hunts near Aspen, Colo.

Experts at the fair said only 20% of all mushrooms are poisonous. They refer to everything in the fungus kingdom--a kingdom that is separate from vegetable and animal kingdoms--as a mushroom. Toadstool, commonly believed to identify poisonous varieties, is not a scientific term. Fungi are the “fruit” of invisible underground networks that reproduce through mushrooms’ spores, and many forms never grow to the surface. Truffles are fungi that grow deeper than most.

The 100 varieties of mushrooms displayed at the fair included chanterelles and morels, considered the local favorites by mushroom lovers. Some other varieties looked like large sponges, and the smallest were a fraction of an inch long. They came in all colors, and most, according to Mycological Society labels, were edible but not necessarily good eating.

Edward Marggraf, who founded the Mycological Society in 1973, said some of his first collections “tasted like rejects from a medicine cabinet.”

Wright said: “The challenge for the hunter is to get those that taste good enough to eat.”

And then saute them in butter--considered by Wright and Gardella to be the best way to cook almost all varieties.

December through March is the season for most Southern California mushrooms, but inadequate rain has made this a bad year, members of the society said.

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Chanterelles, which are especially scarce, were served at a potluck dinner the night before the Arboretum event. While relishing them, some members remembered a couple of similar feasts that ended with gastrointestinal upsets in the early 1970s, when the society was young and members less knowledgeable.

“Mycological Society members have a much better safety record than non-members,” insisted Wright, despite his 22 poisonings.

Most of his illnesses were intentional, he said, a necessary step to identify a species. The most common poison in mushrooms is muscarine, which causes gastrointestinal upsets and for which there are no known chemical tests. The deadly substances in a few species are protein-like compounds called amatoxins, and Wright said these can be identified by chemical tests and don’t require tasting to establish their toxicity.

His scientific experimentation has led to intestinal upsets, to one “mild attack” on his nervous system, and one hospital emergency where he was treated with an emetic, which induces vomiting, and a cathartic, a medicine that helps cleanse the bowels.

Also in the name of science, Wright said he experimented with psilocybe, a mushroom that is used as a hallucinogen in Mexico. The result, he said, was that “colors and sound were more vivid, rational thinking slowed down and things seemed to vibrate. It lasted four and a half hours, after eating three potent mushrooms.”

Wright admits he goes to extremes that are not common among mushroom society members, most of whom just enjoy the hunt and/or the eating. He has recorded all of his collections on 3,500 file cards. His book, with co-author John Menge, a plant pathologist at UC Riverside, will describe mushrooms in Southern California.

The 200 members of the Los Angeles Mycological Society are all ages and have widely varying backgrounds. They live all over the Los Angeles area and many, like Wright, live in the East San Gabriel Valley. While eager to share their mushrooms and knowledge at their potluck dinners, seminars, fairs and at monthly meetings at Cal State Los Angeles, they don’t share their “secret places.”

They laugh at their secretiveness, yet willingly travel in bunches on forays to prepare for events such as the fair at the Arboretum. Wright spent entire days on forays both before and after the fair, as did several groups of members who scoured known mushroom habitats from Palomar Mountain to the Santa Monica Mountains.

They cut the mushrooms’ stems, being careful to leave some still growing, and they cover their tracks to help protect the habitat. Most hunters say they do not trespass on private property.

Chanterelles, which seem to be everyone’s favorite, often grow under oak trees, and often near poison oak.


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