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A mushroom gatherer plucks a tiny mushroom from the forest floor of Nisene Marks State Park in Aptos on Friday. (Kevin Johnson/Sentinel)

SCOTTS VALLEY -- The intense early rains and warm winter have brought up a mushroom bouquet, just in time for the North American Mycological Association's annual foray, which runs through Sunday.

Nearly 300 international amateur and professional mycologists descend to the Santa Cruz area in search for mushrooms in local parks and reserves. They had rare permission to gather in Wilder Ranch, The Forest of Nisene Marks, Henry Cowell and Big Basin Redwoods State Parks.

Attendees come for edibles, dyables and medicinals, but for many people, the big prize is rare mushrooms. Organizers Christian Schwarz and Noah Siegel wanted to bring the annual event to California, where surprisingly little is known about local mushrooms.

"A lot of the species that are being brought in don't have names," said Siegel, an award-winning mushroom photographer and self-described "nomadic mycologist" who travels the country following regional mushroom seasons. "There's still stuff out there that we don't know," he said.

Seigel, like many, discovered his love of fungi as a youngster.

"As a child, that was what was so exciting, the prospect that I could find stuff out there, in my back backyard," Mycology graduate student, Joshua Birkebak of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville said. "I could bring something back that could stump all the experts."

On Friday, a crew of two dozen mushroom hunters arrived at The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park and scattered among the trees. They are quickly rewarded.


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Every few minutes, someone dropped to their knees, poked around in the duff and came up with an odd-shaped lump of mushroom treasure.

A troop of dozens of dime-sized, orange-creamsicle-colored golden trumpet mushrooms -- or more precisely, Xeromphalina campanella -- that had stormed a tree stump got admiring oohs and aahs.

A hundred feet away, Schwarz, who led the foray, set up a camera on a tripod to shoot a flock of ghostly moth-size Marasmeillus candidus that dotted a moss-covered oak.

In a couple of hours, they got back on the bus and reconvened at the foray's base camp at the Mission Springs Convention Center. Their finds, along with those of the other forays of the day were identified, labeled and cataloged.

The most interesting were set aside for closer inspection under the microscope.

In between forays, participants listened to talks by mushroom luminaries such as David Arora and Gary Lincoff. Julie Schreiber, a chef and longtime mushroom forager from Healdsburg, gave a cooking demonstration on making mushroom ragout or stew.

There was also a talk on recent mushroom poisonings.

It's an unfortunate occurrence, but common enough that the public health department issues warnings almost every year about taking precautions when eating wild mushrooms.

The safest option is to forage only with experienced mycologists. The Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz offers local forays throughout the year in addition to the annual Fungus Fair in January.

The rain and warm winter worked mushroom magic this year. "We have every kind of astonishing diversity. We got lucky that the foray was this year," said organizer Schwarz, a Santa Cruz resident. He added the warm weather produced a fortuitous overlap of fall, winter and spring fungi. Before the foray, "I did a lot of rain dancing," he joked.

On the first day of the foray, there were half a dozen new mushroom species identified that had never been reported in Santa Cruz County before, Schwarz said.

Siegel, who is chairman for this year's foray, hasn't had much time to get out in the field.

He said on Friday he'd probably be up until midnight studying the best and rarest of the finds under the microscope.

This year's bumper crop probably kept him up even later than usual.

On the net

To learn more about mushrooms

Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz: http://www.fungusfed.org/
North American Mycological Association: http://www.namyco.org/


At a glance

Worried you may have eaten a poisonous mushroom?
In Santa Cruz, call Dominican Hospital Emergency Room at 831-462-7710.
Outside Santa Cruz, call your local poison control center. A list is available at http://www.aapcc.org/