Environment

Where have the mushrooms gone?

It's a bad year for certain kinds of popular mushrooms on Vancouver Island. We went mushroom hunting with two local experts to find out what's happening

By Zoë Ducklow
November 2, 2021
Environment

Where have the mushrooms gone?

It's a bad year for certain kinds of popular mushrooms on Vancouver Island. We went mushroom hunting with two local experts to find out what's happening

By Zoë Ducklow
Nov 2, 2021
Kem Luther investigating the spores of a turkey tail. Photo: Zoë Ducklow / Capital Daily
Environment

Where have the mushrooms gone?

It's a bad year for certain kinds of popular mushrooms on Vancouver Island. We went mushroom hunting with two local experts to find out what's happening

By Zoë Ducklow
November 2, 2021
Get the news and events in Victoria, in your inbox every morning.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Where have the mushrooms gone?
Kem Luther investigating the spores of a turkey tail. Photo: Zoë Ducklow / Capital Daily

Sign up for The Westshore to get Westshore news in your inbox twice a week.

It’s dumping rain when I pull into the tiny parking lot at Blinkhorn Lake in Metchosin. Andy MacKinnon and Kem Luther are Gore Texed and rubber booted, pocket knives at the ready. More importantly, their impressively encyclopedic minds are running through everything they see as they scan the ground and skim up trees looking for fungi. 

MacKinnon veers off the trail, having noticed what might be a poison pie. He brings the specimen back to the group of artists he and Luther are guiding. Cell phone cameras come out of raincoats and the artists dutifully record what they see for later reference. They’re part of a group making a series of mushroom art cards as a fundraiser. MacKinnon and Luther will identify the mushrooms and write the descriptions on the cards, which will be sold as a fundraiser for a Metchosin community group. 

A few more steps and now it’s Luther off the trail. He’s found a clump of Russula fragrantissimam, which have a maraschino cherry scent, to him at least; it turns out mushrooms have the breadth of variety of scents to a mycologist as wines taste to a sommelier. 

“We’ve got coconut, and one that smells like bubblegum. Smells are some of the best parts of it. The popular pine mushroom is interesting, because half the people will smell a sweet cinnamon-like smell, and the other half smell gym socks. Unfortunately, I’m a gym sock.” 

The scent is one clue to identify some of the thousands of species in BC. Roughly 3,400 species have been documented, and Luther suspects there are several thousands more. 

“Is that one edible?” someone asks.

“Well sure, it’s edible. But it’s not very good,” he says. “It’s funny how many people ask that. Almost all mushrooms are edible, but so are most birds. You don’t hear birders asking if all the birds they spot are edible.” 

There’s an Eastern European quote, borrowed by author Terry Pratchett, that comes to mind: All mushrooms are edible; however, some are edible only once.

Support Your Community, Support Local Journalism

With paid membership, every penny goes directly to helping our newsroom continue its work and helps our team grow and expand our coverage

Become a Member

The Capital Daily Newsletter

Get the news and events in Victoria, in your inbox every morning.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

As for how poisonous mushrooms can be, there’s no question that they can be deadly, but the two guides said none in this area are so dangerous as to poison through touch. So feel free to pick, feel, and smell away. 

The most common deadly mushroom in these parts is the death cap. What’s helpful to know about the death cap is that it grows in tandem with the European hornbeam, a tree commonly used in median and commercial landscaping. As long as you’re not picking mushrooms in urban areas, there’s little chance of accidentally getting a death cap. Still: the running advice is to never eat a mushroom you don’t absolutely know you can identify.

Luther’s originally from Ontario, so BC’s immense variety of mushrooms amazed him when he moved west. A longtime naturalist, it was only natural to start learning all about the little fungi.

Once you start seeing them, it’s hard to take more than five steps in a forest without finding a fungus. Every time I turned around Luther had a new mushroom in his hands. He’d touch them, smell them, demonstrate how they snapped (chalky stems) or leaked (russulas) or how you have to look closely with a magnifying glass to see the spores (turkey tail). He’d hold them gently until he needed free hands for a new one, this time a purple-shaded Western amethyst laccaria. 

Kem holds a Western amethyst laccaria. Photo: Zoë Ducklow / Capital Daily

Dry summer; few mushrooms

As wet as it was, and as many mushrooms as we did find, there was a notable lack of mycorrhizal fungi. That’s the type that grows symbiotically with tree roots, like chanterelles and truffles. (MacKinnon had to repeat the word several times before he explained the two Greek root words, mykos means fungus and rhiza means root.) 

Every fall the trees draw sugar and nutrients down into the roots, and the mycorrhizal fungi living in the substrate get a feast. With such abundant food, the mushrooms think, this is a great time to reproduce—and up sprout mushrooms. 

This summer was hard on the trees, so they don’t have a lot of extra nutrients to share. Vancouver Island went 51 days without rain, just two days shy of a new record that no one wants. Not only was it a dry summer across the province, but also very hot. In the mid summer when the sun was at its highest and longest path, temperatures hit over 40 degrees Celsius in some places. 

Andy MacKinnon showing a leaf-born fungi that reserves chlorophyll for itself after the tree pulls it down for the winter. Photo: Zoë Ducklow / Capital Daily

That’s why chanterelles around here aren’t growing like normal. Luther said other wetter areas of the province, like the North Island, Whistler, and Bamfield were plentiful with beautiful mycorrhizal mushrooms when he visited, but the southern tip and east coast of the Island have less than normal.

I thought I found a chanterelle, but it was just a wooly pine spike. Conks are shelving trees all around, and once we noticed a patch of orange milky caps, they were positively everywhere. (The funnier the name, the better people remember it, Luther told me, like the Cowboy’s Handkerchief, a slender white mushroom known for being completely covered in slime.)

Luther and MacKinnon have just released a book, Mushrooms of British Columbia, published by the Royal BC Museum. The more local a guide is, the better it gets, Luther told me. The best option until now is the bedraggled, dog-earred, rained on copy of All That the Rain Promises and More… A Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms. The author, David Arora, is based in California and the guide—a slice of what he covered in his tome, Mushrooms Demystified—covers landscape from Alaska to Mexico on North America’s west coast.  

This new local guide promises detailed and playful descriptions of over 350 mushrooms, itself a sliver of the 3,200 distinct species in BC. It went on backorder almost immediately after the launch in September.

Sign up for The Westshore to get Westshore news in your inbox twice a week.

contact@capitaldaily.ca

Support Your Community, Support Local Journalism

With paid membership, every penny goes directly to helping our newsroom continue its work and helps our team grow and expand our coverage

Become a Member

The Capital Daily Newsletter

Get the news and events in Victoria, in your inbox every morning.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Related News

Despite promised reforms, Fairy Creek is far from over