The joyous mysteries of the mushroom hunt: ‘Part skill, part luck, part serendipity”

A local bounty of Boulder Creek mushrooms.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Foraging for mushrooms is part art, part science and 100% will to learn. For Jessica Tunis, a deeper dive into the next-level confidence and know-how surrounding what to pick and eat came more recently, with self-taught book research as well as trusted in-person outings.

I know I’m not supposed to complain about being cold in the winter in Santa Cruz County. All of my friends from back East are quick to point out how spoiled my California upbringing has made me. But damn, no one can argue that a creekbed in the dark wintry forest of Boulder Creek is bone chilling.

I’m here, suffering this cold discomfort, to take part in something that many of our friends and neighbors turn to in the winter months: mushroom hunting.

They grow in mysterious places.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Our collection of mycelia here in the Santa Cruz Mountains is somewhat of a claim to fame, and those in the know are proud and fervent in their searching strategies. My dear friend Jessica Tunis is meeting me here at this undisclosed location in Boulder Creek (any good forager is tight-lipped about their hunting grounds) so I can tag along on an adventure that will hopefully reveal some edible gifts.

“I like eating mushrooms, but maybe even more than that, is finding mushrooms,” she admits. “It’s kind of like being a detective...part skill, part luck, part serendipity.”

Jessica is passing along this treasure hunt itch to her daughter, Iris, who is already a successful sleuth at the mere age of 8. Minutes into the hike, Iris has mentioned her favorite places to check for oyster mushrooms on this very trail, has reminded her mom about the place they found the deer skeleton, and danced her way along a teetering fallen tree bridge to scout out a likely mushroom pocket at the creekside. She has this forest in her blood, more comfortable here than in any classroom or virtual lesson plan she might encounter.

Which brings up another key point surrounding the search for mycelium. Most people don’t just decide one day to go out and look for a mushroom to cook up for dinner. Actually, in many ways, that would be unwise. For many, the path down the mushroom rabbit hole comes in the form of mentorship, from a fellow nature lover who has acquired the expertise of seeking out edible versus toxic specimens and is willing to pass the secrets along.

Iris has a sharp mushroom eye for an 8-year-old.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

For Jessica, it was a combination of the two. As a seasoned adventurer and plant-whisperer who grew up in these very woods, the deep web of local mycelia has whispered in her ear for a long time. But a deeper dive into the next-level confidence and know-how surrounding what to pick and eat came more recently, with self-taught book research as well as trusted in-person outings.

Her two favorite sources are “Mushrooms Demystified” by David Arora and “Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast” by Christian Schwarz and Noah Siegel, pretty much “the old and new testaments” (respectively) when it comes to mushroom hunting, she says. I actually think she has both books stashed in her truck, at all times.

But back to the hunt.

We are strolling along, talking about climate and the seasonality of certain mushroom varieties. I am, of course, still bringing up the cold. But also wondering about why we might find honey mushrooms around Christmastime, and chanterelles all winter long. “Some grow by temperature, whereas other things, like amanitas or boletes or chanterelles, are more dependent on actual rainfall.

The hunt is everything.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

“So it’s not as much temperature, it’s more moisture?” I ask.

“Yeah, or like a combination of both. I think that every mushroom has its sweet spot. Just like some apples are ready earlier in the year and then they are done fruiting. Right now, we might be getting toward the end of oysters. Oftentimes I’ll find them first, down in the river bed where the cold settles, early, and then later in the year, when the cold has moved around a bit, they’ll be in the warmer places,” Jessica explains.

And then we stop, zero-ing in on a sprinkling of small, tawny-colored mushrooms that look dainty and appealing.

“What about those?” I ask, hopefully.

“They are not edible, they are what’s called a ‘Little Brown Mushroom’ or ‘LBM’,” smirks Jessica.

I prod a bit. It turns out that sometimes people mistake psilocybin mushrooms for LBMs, also known as “magic” mushrooms. Obviously, there is added risk involved when playing mushroom roulette between physical toxicity and psychedelic toxicity. For some folks, the former type is what they are actually after. But either way, you need to educate yourself thoroughly. “Put in the work if you want to find it,” says Jessica.

The payoff
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

The work is vast. It is essentially learning a new language. It is “learning what to look for, the vocabulary, like how the gills meet the stalk, for example. Once you are familiarized with the keys, once you know the terminology, then the deeper you get and the more you can internalize the knowledge,” Jessica explains.

Just like with any hobby — birdwatching or cooking, for instance — you have to gain some understanding to start mastering it on a deeper level. But with mushrooms in particular, she warns, “a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

“When you are first learning, the main thing to do is identify the types of mushrooms that have poisonous lookalikes and be extra careful to key those out,” she says. There is a funny saying among hunters: “Do not eat-a the Amanita” because that particular family of fungi includes poisonous, psychedelic and edible varieties, making it risky business if you are fresh to the game.

Up ahead we see Iris, who has basically been leading the way this whole time, veer left and disappear down from the trail. From above, we watch her gracefully skip, leap, sliding her body down the steep and muddy terrain to the creek below, where she scans the environment for the telltale signs of fruiting fungi.

A basket of riches.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

And there, on a standing dead Alder tree right along the riverbed is our prize. Really young, firm and perky oyster mushrooms, delightfully pluck-able in Iris’s little hands.

“They are one of the varieties that are temperature dependent, so it’s easier to predict where they’ll be,” explains Jessica, as we scramble along after Iris with a basket to help. This reminds me about our earlier conversation, that since the cold concentrates in the river bottoms, that is the first place you’ll find saprophytic mushrooms (the kind that oysters are) because it’s cold and damp down here.

I’m wondering what mushrooms we might find in the other terrain we have in our mountains, like the higher places my house sits near Ben Lomond, or even higher than that and closer to the ocean, in Bonny Doon. Places that are now scorched and burned beyond recognition from the recent CZU Lightning Complex fires.

“There are some species, like morels, that thrive in a post-fire environment,” says Jessica. “So we’ll see this spring. We’ll see what this year is like. I’ve heard after the Martin fire there was a bunch. They don’t form long-term associations like chanterelles do,” explaining that tree roots travel for miles and mycelium travel for miles, creating this symbiotic system together, year after year in the same patterns.

Mushrooms bring light in the darkness of the winter forest.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

She predicts that in the areas where the trees were killed, but they are still standing, there may be a lot of oyster mushrooms in years to come, also chicken of the woods, turkey tails and honeys. I’ll be sure to tag along on future forays with her, especially this spring when those morels might start popping up.

Foragers that take their bounty to our local grocery stores will also be looking for those unmistakable black shoots, as they can fetch quite a price. But for Jessica, money is far from her mind. “My pleasure is the whole experience of finding them...and you can’t really put a monetary value on that.”

On our walk out of the woods, towards the side of the road where our cars are parked, Jessica tells me a story that helps me understand a bit more where this pleasure for her comes from. As a kid, her dad would take her on hikes in the woods to look for mushrooms, much like she does with Iris.

Jessica Tunis has special reason to gravitate to the forest.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

After he died, Jessica found a bunch of his old photos, all blurry and nondescript, weird angles and murky close-up shots of leaves and twigs and dark forest views. Not sure why she kept them, she still found them dear to her as they were his. And then she realized all at once. These were his own reminders to himself, documenting his favorite mushroom spots.

That blurry log was his best oyster log, that patch of forest floor his favorite chanterelle patch. And it is that language, the mushroom voices that have carried over to her even beyond his passing. Jessica reflects, it’s a “sweet moment between times.”

  • Before you try it, be well-informed
    What to eat and what not to eat are details you want to be very clear on before diving into the new hobby of mushroom foraging. Here are two books that local expert Jessica Tunis keeps handy at all times. As she wisely states: When it comes to mushrooms, “a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.”
  • Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast
    By Christian Schwarz
  • Mushrooms Demystified
    By David Arora

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