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There's a fungus amongus!



One of the things I love to do with this blog is point other parents toward really great resources and events in our community. Here is one that I can’t speak more highly of: The annual Santa Cruz Fungus Fair sponsored by the Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz.

The fungus fair celebrates something about the Santa Cruz Mountains that you may have not noticed yet: it’s full of weird, wonderful, and delicious fungus! Our mountains are host to some of the deadliest fungus on earth, the Amanita Muscaria and Amanita Phalloides.

Then there are all the wonderfully tasty mushrooms: The boletes, the chanterelles.

And the weird and beautiful: One time I decided to see if I could bring mushroom-growing materials into my son’s classroom. I found a man who was running a successful mushroom company who agreed to give me some spawn for the kids to grow in the classroom. When I was at his mushroom-growing facility, I asked him how he got into mushrooms.

“Oh, you know,” he said. “First I was into the fun ones, magic mushrooms. And then I got interested in the other kinds.”

More mushrooms I have seen

More mushrooms I have seen

Mushrooms have all sorts of properties: hallucinogenic, healing, dyeing, nutritive.

Mushroom dyes make gorgeous colors. They’re not bright or fancy, but they are deep and mysterious. There is always a vendor of mushroom dyed cloth at the Fungus Fair. I’ve never wanted to spend as much money as she (rightfully) demands, but one year they let the kids dip pieces of silk into a mushroom bath. My son still has the piece he dipped, brown and warm and mysterious.

Some highlights of the Fungus Fair:

My kids remember first the food: candy cap mushroom ice cream, mushroom chowder, mushroom lasagne. The biggest room they occupy at Louden Nelson is taken over with a huge mushroom habitat: Mushroomers from all over bring in samples of mushrooms growing where they grow best: logs with gorgeous fungi sprouting out of them. The forest floor which gives us both chanterelles and amanitas. All the mushrooms are labeled with their common name, their Latin name, and most importantly, with their level of edibility: a knife and fork for “yum, yum, good!” and  a skull and crossbones for “don’t even think about it.”

There’s a kids room with crafts and learning. Microscopes with slices of fungus. There are rooms where you can buy stuff: mushroom posters, mushroom growing kits, mushroom-themed art, actual mushrooms to eat.

Weird fungus everywhere...

Weird fungus everywhere...

One of the things that is great to do with kids is to get one of the mushroom-growing kits. (Do this last — they’re heavy!) You buy an ordinary box of dirt, add water, keep it out of sunlight, and voila! you get beautiful, edible mushrooms.

Mushrooms have a completely different life cycle than plants. The actual organism is the mycelium, which lives underground. When the mycelium feels threatened, like when a downpour of rain comes down, the mycelium sprouts its fruiting body (mushrooms or fungus) which give off spores, which are like the seeds of the mushroom organism.

If you like to do activities with your kids or if you homeschool, mushrooms are a great subject to study in Santa Cruz County in the wintertime. You can download this mushroom workbook from the American Mushroom Institute.

I made this diagram to show kids in my son’s kindergarten class how mushrooms are different from plants:

The other great thing you can do with kids is just go out into the forest and look. Any redwood forest has a great variety of fungus at this time of year. We live next to Nisene Marks and the stuff we find is fabulous. All the photos in this blog were taken by me somewhere in our county.

If you are knowledgeable about mushrooms, and ONLY if you are knowledgeable about mushrooms, going mushrooming is fabulous for kids. Our earth offers us a bounty of amazing food, and to get amazing mushrooms, all you have to do is look. My brother decided a few years back to educate himself, and since then, we have been the beneficiaries of many a fine mushroom feast at my parents’ house, such as this bunch of chanterelles at Thanksgiving:

Just on my parents’ property near Corralitos, we have found probably thousands of dollars worth of mushrooms over the years. But we never sold an ounce of them!

Mushrooms are fun, delicious, beautiful, fascinating, and very local. Happy mushroom season!

Posted in Education, Parenting.

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