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There’s a Fungus Among Us!

Yesterday I took my kids to the Santa Cruz Fungus Fair. This is an annual excursion for us and apparently thousands of other people. It’s in the Louden Nelson Center and is very, very crowded. Despite that, it’s a great experience for kids and parents alike.
The life cycle of fungus is fascinating. Kids learn all about the plant life cycle in school, but teachers sometimes seem hesitant to teach about fungus. It’s true, there are some very poisonous mushrooms out there and kids should NEVER touch a wild mushroom if not with a knowledgeable adult.
But fungus is a part of nature that kids always seem interested in learning about. The main “plant” is the mycelium, which is under the ground. The mushrooms we see at the surface are actually sort of like “flowers.” They come out when the mycelium senses rain. The mushrooms (which are called “fruiting bodies”) pop up and distribute spores into the air. These spores can start new mycelia. It’s very cool.
The fungus fair has one large room completely filled with all our local mushrooms. Hordes of mushroom collectors go out the week before the fair and get specimins. So if you ever wondered which of the mushrooms is the deadly amanita that hits the news occasionally (it apparently resembles an Asian wild mushroom that is edible), you can see it there. You can see the classic toadstool with red tops with white polka dots. You can see tiny, cute mushrooms and enormous, bulbous things that resemble brains. You can see delicious chanterelles (luckily one of the more distinctive local fungi) and boletes. You can get information about which mushrooms are used in medicine and which are used in dyes.
The vendors can be almost as educational. One woman sells gorgeous silks printed with mushroom dyes, and displays the fungus that she uses for the different colors. Others sell mushroom art and books. Our favorites not only sell fresh and dried wild mushrooms, but also mushroom growing kits.
We buy one of these every year because it’s just fascinating to see them grow. The kit is composed of a good growing medium (you can use anything from clean straw to cardboard or wood) inoculated with mushroom “spawn” — the mycelium. Usually you bring the kit home, douse it with water, and watch it grow. You can sometimes get several crops, and I heard one of the vendors recommend that at the end you break up the used kit and stick it in a likely place in your garden to see if you can get more next year.
The other offering at the fair that our kids love is the art room. They always have a table where kids can fashion a clay mushroom. This year they had a cute project where kids could paint a plain white paper plate (the kind with the ridges around the edge) glued to a tube stem.
And let’s not forget the food. This year our almost-ten-year-old looked upon the art projects with a jaded air and said, “Can I just go get some pizza?” Pizza, lasagne, soup, ice cream and cheesecake — all with mushrooms!
After our next big rain (which isn’t scheduled to happen for a long time — let’s hope the weather predictions are wrong and we get some sooner), take your kids out in the woods and look at all the wonderful variety you’ll see. As beautiful in their own way as wildflowers, our local bloom of fungus is an amazing thing to see.

Posted in Parenting.

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