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Wild for mushrooms

After rain, mushrooms. Now is the season to explore one of the most mysterious and all too transient organisms that occur in dry gardens.

The shame is, as we begin seeing these fleeting, weird fungi, we do it with scant resources. Mushroom experts tend to crop up in places with more than 15 inches of rain a year, so you won’t find a dedicated fungi guide for Southern California.

We do, however, have local mycologist Florence Nishida Hendler, resident expert at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, who says she is working on a local guide. In the meantime, she fields queries from the public, most recently from me as I arrived bearing something that could have been poisonous -- or delicious. “You’re lucky!,” she cried as she brushed rotting acacia leaves from the stem of my sample. “It’s edible!”

Alas, after spending an hour with her, I knew what my instincts already told me. I may be lucky, but I’m not skilled enough yet to start picking and eating mushrooms on my own, even in my own backyard. My shaggy parasol has a common poisonous doppelganger, the false parasol. The ability to “key” mushrooms, or systematically identify them, is something that requires much more than a picture book or a tour around the Internet. To this end, Hendler will be giving a two-day workshop in March sponsored by the Los Angeles/Santa Monica Mountain Chapter of the California Native Plant Society (lasmmcnps.org).

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Hendler will ask participants to forget everything they thought they knew and to draw specimens slowly. Hendler believes that only by scrutinizing a mushroom, then retracing its characteristics line by line, will her students really look at it. Past experience has taught her that when relying on photos, less than half of any given group may learn to spot the telltale green in the gills that separate the poisonous false parasol from its edible counterpart.

Reasons for gardeners to understand their mushrooms go beyond the fun of foraging. We may not realize it, but of the three main classes of mushrooms, most if not all are crucial to healthy garden ecology.

Many, such as my parasols, are saprophytic, meaning they help turn leaves and dead wood into humus as part of the soil cycle.

Others are mycorrhizal, meaning their place in the soil is crucial to keeping water and minerals available to companion plants.

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A third type of mushroom is parasitic. Most of these, Hendler says, are simply saprophytic mushrooms taking advantage of a plant that is not quite dead. So when you see the shelf mushrooms digesting the bases of sick carob, eucalyptus and camphor trees, it’s probably not the mushrooms that killed the tree.

The best known and most loathed parasitic fungus in Southern California has to be Armillaria mellea, or oak root fungus. People go to incredible lengths to move soil and fumigate once it’s spotted. But the spores will survive. In fact, they may be present in lots of places where they do not become a problem.

The factor that limits it, Hendler says, is water. That’s true of all fungi. Where you have oak root fungus in a garden, often you’ll have lawn sprinklers.

To my mind, little could be more magical than a foray into the world of mushrooms with Hendler. For those of us who can’t afford the $165 price of the two-day course with L.A.'s leading mycologist, and for those who can’t wait for her guidebook, Hendler recommends looking for the following 10 mushrooms (some of which are poisonous) that are common as rains wash through our normally dry region. For more details and pictures, simply Google the names:

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* Amanita ocreata or death angel, destroying angel or Western North American destroying angel

* Agaricus xanthodermus or yellow-staining mushroom

* Boletus species

* Coprinus comatus or shaggy ink cap, lawyer’s wig or shaggy mane

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* Ganoderma species

* Laetiporus gilbertsonii or sulfur shelf mushroom

* Macrolepiota rhacodes or shaggy parasol

* Psathyrella species

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* Suillis granulatus

* Trametes versicolor or turkey tail

For more on mushrooms, consider the Los Angeles Mycological Society’s annual Wild Mushroom Fair, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Feb. 14 at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Arcadia. Information: (323) 292-1900, lamushrooms.org.

Green’s column on sustainable gardening appears here weekly. For past columns, click on the category “Dry Garden.” Green also blogs on water issues at www.chance ofrain.com.

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