In the multipurpose room at Bonny Doon Elementary School—a gymnasium-meets-theater-meets-conference-room complete with basketball hoops, a piano, gymnastics mats and a stage built into the wall—local mushroom expert Henry Young is knee-deep in his talk, “Mushrooms 101.” The Rural Bonny Doon Association recruited him to teach them how to identify the mushrooms they’ve seen popping up in extra abundance around their properties lately thanks to the heavy rains. Forty-five of the Association’s members have shown up and are listening intently.
Young is a stout man with a belly that, wrapped in a green foliage-print shirt and tucked into a pair of blue jeans, protrudes a few inches over his waist. Add a tidy sculpted mustache and a pair of glasses to his cone-shaped head, and you’ve got it: Really, if a mushroom were to take human form, it would be Henry Young.
On the screen, he shows a diagram of the parts of a typical mushroom, reminiscent of a high school sex-ed class: “Annulus” and “volva” are both parts of a mushroom, it turns out.
Next, a collection of heartwarmingly simple mushroom collecting equipment appears on the screen. A trowel. Paper and pencil to record your findings.
“I use a wicker basket. Commercial collectors—and there are commercial collectors—use a plastic bucket. I like a wicker basket. They make them in different sizes depending on whether you’re going for a lot of mushrooms or a little. I tend to go for a lot these days,” he says.
Young moves on to a number of slides showing the different types of mushrooms people could expect to find. There are thousands of different kinds alive in the woods of Bonny Doon alone, he says. As a point of reference, David Arora’s book, Mushrooms Demystified, an authority Young refers to as “the Bible,” only lists 5-10 percent of the mushrooms in Santa Cruz County.
The death cap is the one to look out for around here, he cautions. It’s got a cream-colored cap with a sac around the base of the stem. Ingesting 3-4 ounces can kill a person. A man in the audience says that a death cap killed his dog a few years ago.
Other mushrooms are toxic, but won’t kill you. “That’s what we call the ‘lose your lunch bunch,’” says Young. Some are psychotropic, and some are a mixture of the two. “So you could get reasonably high without getting sick, or you could get reasonably sick without getting high. I’ve known some people that have experimented with those. I’m not inclined to do so.”
On non-toxic mushrooms versus edible mushrooms: “Non-toxic means you could eat it and it’s not gonna make you sick, but you could also eat wet cardboard.”
The last slide is a quick promotion for the Fungus Federation, of which Young is a 30-year member: “We put the fun in fungus!”
Spot the Species
Young reaches into a box and pulls out a grey mushroom. Bonny Dooners were invited to bring in any curious species to the meeting this month so that Young could identify the mushrooms for them. And they didn’t disappoint—two cardboard boxes filled with mushrooms rest at Young’s feet.
His face reads easy recognition. “The Lavender Mushroom. It’s faded out on the cap, but the gills are still lavender. This mushroom, when it’s fresh, is lavender, lavender, lavender—cap, gills, stem.” He rattles off the scientific name without pause, then passes the mushroom around the room.
Young picks up a large mushroom with a red cap. He pulls off a tiny piece and chews it rapidly on the tip of his tongue, like a bunny, then spits it out. “This is genus Russula. It’s very peppery. Funny thing is, there’s another mushroom exactly the same as this, except it has a cream-colored cap. One’s a redhead, one’s a blonde, that’s what I like to say.”
Something that looks like a huge loaf of bread protrudes over the top of one of the boxes. Young reaches for it and grins, revealing a huge mushroom the size of a dinner plate to the audience. “OH YEAH. This one’s goin’ and not in a good direction,” he says, breaking off a piece of the decaying cap. Genus Leccinum. “I’ve found ones easily twice this size.”