Posted by: James Wapotich | February 2, 2013

Trail Quest: Mushroom Hunting with Robert Cummings

One of the unique aspects of Santa Barbara County is that we’re located at the intersection of two bioregions. North of Point Conception the climate starts to become cooler and wetter, and to the south and east progressively more arid. This intersection brings with it a diversity of plants and animals. And that diversity combined with the amount of easy access to the outdoors we have makes Santa Barbara a great place to learn about natural history. Not only are we blessed with this great classroom for learning, we are also fortunate to have so many great teachers and experts available to us.

One such teacher is Dr. Robert Cummings who is considered by many to be the foremost authority on mycology in Santa Barbara County. Dr. Cummings recently led a well attended mushroom walk on the trails at Arroyo Hondo Preserve, hosted by the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County. The timing of the event was fortuitous, as the recent rains provided a wealth of fungi to be found.

false chanterelle Jack-o'=lantern Dr. Robert Bob Cummings Santa Barbara hike trail Arroyo Hondo

Dr. Cummings is seen holding a specimen of Jack-o’-Lantern or false chanterelle

Originally from Rosemead, California, Dr. Cummings moved to Santa Barbara to attend UC Santa Barbara, where he completed his bachelors, masters and received his PhD in Cell Biology. In 1975 after graduating from UCSB he immediately landed a position at Santa Barbara City College teaching botany, where he taught classes until just last year. Now retired, he still teaches an online botany class through Santa Barbara City College.

Dr. Cummings’ interest in plants started at an early age, and carried him through college where he took a variety of classes on plants. One of which was on fungi.

Waxy caps Arroyo Hondo Preserve Dr. Robert Bob Cummings Mushrooms Santa Barbara hike trail

Waxy Caps are seen along the trail at Arroyo Hondo Preserve

“It was funny how it all started. I saw in the college catalog there was this course in mycology, and I thought to myself what kind of person would study fungi? The teacher’s name was Ian Ross, and I said, I want to see what this guy looks like. So I waited outside in the hallway to see him come out of his office, and he looked kind of normal. And so I took the class and actually ended up being his first graduate student”, Dr. Cummings told the News-Press. From that point on his interest in mycology just continued to deepen.

In our area, the best time to look for mushrooms is a week or two after the rains, although that’s not always a guarantee that one will find new growth. Further north, where the rain is more plentiful one can generally find mushrooms anytime between the fall and spring. However because of our drier climate, not only are there fewer species overall, but sometimes it takes more than one rain to bring out the mushrooms. Dr. Cummings suggests that this may be because the mycelia that produce the mushrooms may not be activated. That is, the mycelium may become dormant during the drier times of the year, and require more than just the first rains to reactivate them.

Dr. Robert Bob Cummings Mushrooms Arroyo Hondo Santa Barbara hike trail

Dr. Cummings describes a fungus found on the hike through Arroyo Hondo Preserve

Among the more popular mushrooms that people gather are chanterelles. However as Dr. Cummings pointed out during the workshop for every edible mushroom there is typically a similar looking mushroom that is either not edible or toxic. In the case of chanterelles one such mushroom is the Jack-o’-Lantern or false chanterelle. Visually the two are very similar.

“If you’re just looking at pictures in a book to identify something, it can be very dangerous, rather than looking at what we call diagnostic characteristics. For instance chanterelles have a mycorrhizal relationship with oaks, and so they’re found on the ground, near the roots of the oak, whereas the Jack-o’-Lantern grows right on stumps and wood. It also has deep gills rather than shallow ridges, the smell is different, and many things that for a biologist or an experienced person looking at the diagnostic characteristics make the difference very clear.” Dr. Cummings explained.

On his trips to gather mushrooms Dr. Cummings carries with him a large basket for collecting, that includes wax paper bags, instead of plastic bags, to keep the fungi from losing their form, and a garden tool one might use for pulling weeds, in order to be able to extract the mushroom in its entirety, undamaged so that he can examine all aspects and characteristics of the fungi for identification.

Turkey Tails mushrooms Dr. Robert Cummings Santa Barbara hike trail Arroyo Hondo

Turkey Tails growing on fallen oak

And while the prospect of gathering wild edibles can be compelling Dr. Cummings cautions anyone collecting fungi to take the time to know what they’re doing. “There’s no substitute for expertise. You can’t rely on anybody else, you have to be the expert. You have to learn what those guideline characteristic are for the species, and you have to key it out in the book [David Arora’s Mushrooms Demystified]. A first step in learning the mushrooms is to ask more experienced hunters what it might be.”

Dr. Cummings also adds that “If you do decide to eat it, it’s your responsibility. And what I recommend is never each too much because even if it is edible, you may still have an individual sensitivity reaction. And never pressure anyone else to eat it, because sooner or later they are likely to question your ability to identify mushrooms; they’ll start thinking about mushroom poisoning and that will cause them to get sick.”

When someone does end up in the hospital it is usually Dr. Cummings who is contacted to identify the mushroom that was ingested.

When asked to make a quick estimate, Dr. Cummings guessed that there may be approximately 200 species of mushrooms to be found in our area. Of those there are roughly a dozen species of mushrooms that are deadly toxic, another 60 that will definitely make you sick, and many more that are listed as “edibility: unknown”. At the other end of the spectrum there are probably about 40 species that are listed as edible, however it is a truism in botany that even though something is listed as edible doesn’t mean that it necessarily tastes good or that you’d want to eat it. And so of those only about a dozen could be described as desirable.

Dr. Robert Bob Cummings mushrooms Santa Barbara trail hike Arroyo Hondo

The “harvest” is laid out for further discussion

For those interested in wild edibles Dr. Cummings recommends building a repertoire over several years. Start with something that is easy to learn how to identify like chanterelles, learn all of the diagnostic characteristics to make sure that you can correctly identify it. Then for example learn blewits, learn how to key them out in the field guide, and understand all the diagnostic characteristics. He suggests working with other more experienced, knowledgeable, people to make sure you recognize and understand the guideline characteristics for a particular species. And when you’re confident that can correctly identify that one, then look at learning another one such as oyster mushrooms, and so on, gradually building up your own repertoire of mushrooms that you can safely identify.

Some helpful field guides on fungi are David Arora’s Mushrooms Demystified, 2nd edition, which is a comprehensive 900 plus page book that most mycologists and serious collectors carry with them. Mr. Arora has also written a shorter book that focuses on the more common species and is essentially an introduction to topic, called “All the Rain Promises and More”

Amanita magniverrucata

Amanita magniverrucata growing along the trail at Arroyo Hondo Preserve

There are also number of groups focused on mycology, the closet to us is Los Angeles Mycological Society. The group hosts an annual mushroom fair in February that gathers experts and enthusiasts. Their website, also lists a number of other online resources that are available.

Arroyo Hondo Preserve is open to visitors on the first and third weekend of the month. Reservations are required. The preserve also offers docent lead hikes. Click here for more information.

This article originally appeared in section A of the February 2nd, 2013 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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