Santa Cruz Mountains, California
February-March 2024

With the heavy rains falling into March this year, the winter’s mushroom crop continued to emerge. December through February is usually the big season for mushrooms in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I have had an affinity for mushrooms since childhood when my naturalist grandfather introduced me to the world of fungi, including teaching his grandchildren how to make spore prints to help in identification. However, I don’t recall seeing many mushrooms in our suburban neighborhood in Pennsylvania except for occasional fairy rings or shelf fungus. I do remember once finding a large phallic stinkhorn which blew my mind because of its otherworldly and smelly strangeness.

Over the years I’ve appreciated mushrooms both as food and for their unique lives and beauty; they are the alluring fruit of the underworld.

In grade school, we learned that there were two kingdoms of living organisms: plant or animal. Fungi were clearly plants then. Even as I was learning that, there was debate among scientists about whether fungi belonged in their own kingdom. It happened in 1969 but I didn’t know about it until much later. Now there are 5-7 kingdoms, depending on who’s system you use. Kingdoms of animals, plants, and fungi with the remaining 2-4 kingdoms made up of varied microscopic life. Sometimes fungi are even broken down into more than one kingdom.

Taxonomy, the science of placing living things into categories of similar attributes tries to bring order to a wild and dynamic world. But reality isn’t always so amenable to classifications, just think of the preposterous platypus, the sole living member of it’s family. At the same time, these categories help us communally identify individuals and understand the deep relationships between different species. I wish I knew them better.

I also remember when mushrooms were said to have no nutritional value. Now, according to UCLA, they have seven major health benefits. Those of us who love mushrooms, and recognize their notable uniqueness, always knew they had special gifts for us. These include: 1) decrease the risk of cancer, 2) lower sodium intake, 3) promote lower cholesterol, 4) protect brain health, 5) are a source of vitamin D, 6) stimulate a healthier gut, and, 7) support a healthier immune system. Wow! That list makes me want to run out and ingest some mushrooms right now!

Speaking of ingesting mushrooms, I have to mention, one of the other well-known and exceptional gifts of fungi are their transformational psychedelic powers. You have to be living under a rock to not know about the recent resurgence and legitimizing of the use of psilocybin mushrooms. And it’s important to know that LSD was first synthesized from a mold.

The world of mushrooms and fungi has become more present in the popular imagination with discoveries about how the mycelia network works connecting trees, fungi and plants together into the “Wood Wide Web.” Mycelia, the white strands of living fungi underground are the actual organism. Mushrooms function as their fruiting body, spreading spores for reproduction. Fungi even made it into Star Trek lore with “Spore Drive” a miraculous way to travel instantaneously to anywhere in the Universe via a mycelia network from an unseen dimension throughout space. A ridiculous claim but fun anyway!

So what makes fungi deserving of their own kingdom? In brief: 1) they don’t have chlorophyll and don’t make food from sunlight (plants do), 2) they are heterotrophs, getting nutrients from digesting material from their surroundings, (we do too, plants don’t) 3) MY FAVORITE! They have some characteristics which make them more closely related to animals than plants. I knew it, we’re related! Of course, all life is related from that first tiny simple microorganism that appeared in ancient waters. “Mitakuye Oyasin.”

Below are photographs taken during my retreat in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California from mid-February to mid-March. I have identified some but others are still a mystery. If you have an identification or correction, please let me know.

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