Winter always beckons us to camp at Salt Point State Park, on northern California’s wild Sonoma coast. This rugged stretch of shoreline has for centuries been home to Kashaya Pomo Indians living, hunting, fishing and foraging in the sea and hillside forests.
Inland, these woods and grasslands gradually merge with wind-tossed Bishop pines; second-growth redwoods descended from trees logged in the last couple hundred years; and Douglas fir, madrone, and tanoak. Ascending trails up to about 1,000 feet, we’re treated to views of meadow and prairie where elk once roamed. At the park’s high point is a pygmy forest of smaller cypress, pine, and redwoods – growth stunted from acidic, nutrient-poor soil and a hardpan subsurface layer. Native animals such as coyote and gray fox are usually nocturnal, while bobcats are active during the day. We’ve spotted black-tailed deer, raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, and field mice. More elusive bears, mountain lions, badgers, and porcupines also range here. I heard woodpeckers gouging out tree trunks and logs to store food and build nests; and watched highly intelligent, mischievous Steller’s jays and ravens scour campsites in search of food.
As in previous years, besides seeing the coast, our primary purpose was to gather some of the delectable mushrooms sharing these forests with redwoods, firs, and oaks. Recently we attended a brief overview presented by Sonoma County Mycological Association – a local society providing forest forays, fungus identification help, and links to resources like the beautifully illustrated Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast, and mushroomobserver.org.
- mycorrhizal: symbiotic subsoil fungi (e.g. hedgehogs, chanterelles and amanita) that increase the root capacity of plant partners such as trees and orchids – whose carbohydrates in turn feed the fungus.
- saprophytic: these tasty mushrooms like portabella, shiitake, and porcini are recyclers of dead plant material that share water and nutrients. Like mycorrhizal fungi, they also share stress signals via mycelia (for example, when trees increase tannins in response to stress); but unlike mycorrhizals they’re easier to cultivate, as are the parasitic types below.
- parasitic: these fungi, such as maitake or hen of the woods, parasitize their hosts (oaks) and, paradoxically, keep them alive. Jelly mushrooms such as witch’s butter, which parasitizes the false turkey tail, are obligate parasites – require their hosts to live.
Mushroom colonizers (spores) seek specific nutrients in media like dead logs, cones, seed pods or bark. There, they grow and go through their life cycle, then release spores back into the environment. Meanwhile, the fungi break down the host medium. All these necessary elements combine to build healthy soil ecosystems, and without them, this delicate balance can’t be sustained. The fascinating fungal kingdom’s members also include molds, yeasts, and agricultural rusts, smuts, and blights.
Some fungi exist only a few hours. Others are perennial, living for thousands of years. We learned that Otzi, the ice man, was found with conks – some of which can carry and preserve burning embers (others are used for dyeing, like the dyer’s polypore or artist’s conk, among others). Some fungi follow fires, such as morels in the Sierras (and perhaps will show up here, after 2017’s fires), as a burn changes soil chemistry for a couple of years. Prescribed burns apparently don’t affect the mycelium, which lives several inches below the soil surface.
Our Salt Point sojourn proved to be a fantastic day of foraging – our best haul ever, with several meals’ worth of chanterelles, black trumpets, and bellybutton hedgehogs. Although this winter has been extremely dry, for some reason we found even more than last year, which was extraordinarily rainy. At camp we sauteed them in oil and garlic, a perfect marriage with linguini!
The super-blue blood moon (once in a blue moon?) shone full that night. As it rose in the east over pines ringing the campground, it was so big and bright I could almost see it moving as, throughout the evening, we watched it traverse the sky, crossing the constellations Gemini and Orion. Luminous and beautiful, it flooded our camp with light, and B. turned off his headlamp. A roaring fire kept us warm, as did feelings of contentment, gratitude, and wonder as I hadn’t felt in a long, long time.
CAUTION: NEVER eat mushrooms you can’t positively identify; if in doubt, throw it out!