They come in all shapes and sizes, dotting the landscape like large marshmallows. Some look like white hats nestled in grass, others like fried eggs, sunny side up.
In recent weeks, mushrooms have sprouted all over the county, below doorsteps and on front lawns, thanks to recent rains that have created paradise conditions for the fungi.
At Ronald W. Caspers Regional Park, thousands of mushrooms have burst onto the scene.
"This is the first year that I've seen that many," groundskeeper Bob Wilberg said.
After the heavy storms about two weeks ago, park ranger Michael Brajdic and other park workers noticed the explosion of mushrooms, especially near oak trees, meadows and shaded areas.
"The only other time I remember there were this many mushrooms in the park was in 1982. . . . The park was just flooded with mushrooms," said Charles (Chick) Hendel, a mushroom hobbyist and retired geologist who is a volunteer at the 7,600-acre park.
Although the mushrooms in the park might seem harmless, their monikers are a dead giveaway to their danger. Among them are satan's bolete and death angels--the most poisonous mushroom in North America.
While Caspers Park might have a greater variety of mushrooms--about 200 different species, some poisonous and some not--the mushrooms that magically appear on front lawns and in city parks can be lethal.
The woodlands of Caspers Park are also home to two rare mushrooms in Southern California, one being the Chestnut bolete, which Hendel has found twice in 12 years. The other is a related mushroom called Gyrodon lividus , which Hendel found once last year.
Experts are warning mushroom lovers to educate themselves before they collect a mushroom from the front lawn or head out on a mushroom hunt. Parents also should make sure that children don't eat mushrooms that grow around the house.
Hendel, who has studied mushroom as a hobby for about 30 years, said people should know the characteristics of both the edible mushrooms and the poisonous ones.
He said California has more than its share of poisonous mushrooms.
There are an estimated 8,000 different kinds of mushrooms, and of those, 1,400 are found in Southern California, said plant pathologist John Menge, a professor at UC Riverside.
Only about 30 different types of species are likely to appear on front lawns, with the most common in Southern California being Chlorophyllum molybdites , sometimes known as green gill. This lawn mushroom can up to 12 inches in width and has green gills underneath the cap. Although it can be poisonous, causing an upset stomach, it is not lethal like the death angel.
The primary species of death angel, Amanita phalloides is found mainly along the coast north of Los Angeles, in areas such as Ventura or Santa Barbara counties. But a relative also known as death angel, Amanita ocreata, thrives in Orange County, including Caspers Park.
Amanita ocreata , also known as destroying angel, ranges in color from greenish-yellow to white, and has a round cup-like volva under the earth.
"The danger of (death angel) is that it tastes good while you eat it, but the poison breaks down in your system and attacks your liver. So eight hours after you've digested it, you start feeling sick, but at that point, it is too late for doctors to do anything," said Menge, who will soon publish a book on Southern California fungi.
Another troublesome mushroom in Southern California is the Agaricus xanthodermus , which causes upset stomach when eaten, said Menge. It looks strikingly similar to store-bought mushrooms, but when the base of the stem is scratched, it turns yellow.
Homeowners also should be on the lookout for dry rot, a wood decay fungus that can destroy a house in six weeks if unnoticed, Menge said. It is a white, cottony substance that climbs walls and eats away at the wood.
"I've gotten three calls so far, and received seven calls last year about dry rot," Menge said. He said that if you discover dry rot, the best thing to do is to replace the wood.
But Menge said mushrooms are not always enemies and play a major role in the ecosystem. Some decompose leaves, wood and other organic materials.
Others mushrooms take sugars from tree roots and give the tree nutrients such as phosphorus, zinc, copper and potassium.
Menge said the most important thing to remember is to not eat a mushroom unless you have positively identified it.
"I think it is a scary thing that people go and collect mushrooms for food," he said. "You should scientifically know how to identify them, and as a professional expert in mushrooms, I recommend that you never eat a mushroom unless you are 100% sure of what it is."
Experts said to call the local poison control center if someone has eaten what they think might be a poisonous mushroom.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
January's rains have brought February's fungi to Ronald W. Caspers Regional Park. Many of thepark's 200 species of mushrooms are poisonous and park rangers caution against picking or eating them. Some of the poisonous varieties at the park and the consequences if eaten: *
Death angel or destroying angel (Amanita ocreata) * Location: Under oak trees * Description: Pure white, abundant and deadly * Consequences: Violent vomiting, abdominal pain, extreme thirst, twitching, delirium and coma. Death occurs when liver and/or kidneys fail, within 36 hours to eight days. *
Jack-o'-lantern (Omphalotus olivascens) * Location: On trees and stumps * Description: Orange flesh can glow in the dark * Consequences: Not fatal, but causes digestive tract upset and nervous system poisoning. *
Yellow stainer (Agaricus xanthodermus) * Location: Widespread, in damp, shady areas * Description: White; turns yellow if scratched. Contains phenol, which has an antiseptic smell. * Consequences: Not fatal, but causes gastrointestinal distress, like food poisoning. *
Bleachy (Entoloma ferruginans) * Location: Under oak trees, leaves * Description: Shades of gray, brown or tan, with smooth cap. Smells like chlorine when flesh is crushed. * Consequences: Food poisoning-like symptoms, digestive tract upset. Source: John Menge, UC Riverside department of plant pathology; Researched by CAROLINE LEMKE / Los Angeles Times