50th anniversary meeting of North American Mycological Association features forest forays, talks on mushroom ecology and more
*View some mushroom art by Russian mushroom enthusiast Alexander (Sasha) Viazmensky at this link.
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Many of the country’s top mushroom experts are converging on Colorado this week for the annual meeting of the North American Mycological Association (NAMA). And they’re still talking about the last time it was held in the same location near Winter Park — when the mushroom-gathering foray yielded a bounty of chanterelles that is still legendary in mycological circles nearly 20 years later.
“There were bags of them piled up outside the kitchen door,” recalled Cathy Cripps, one of the top experts in Rocky Mountain fungi, who was there, and is attending this week’s session to give a talk on how mushrooms fit into the larger forest ecology of the region. Cripps has been studying how native fungi that grow in association with high-elevation five-needle pines can help restore forests of whitebark and limber pines that have been devastated by a non-native fungus that causes blister rust.
The 50th anniversary foray is set for Aug. 12-15 at the YMCA of the Rockies Snow Mountain Ranch near Winter Park, and the mycologists will spend at least one session exploring the fungi of nearby Rocky Mountain National Park, which turns 95 this year. Other forays will explore the forests around the YMCA camp, habitat for a wide variety of fungi when temperatures and moisture join in a fruitful combination.
The meeting is more of a professional conference, and as such, it’s not open to the general public. But it is open to all members of NAMA, as well as members of the Colorado Mycological Society. Anyone who has more than just a passing interest in fungi can attend by joining the Colorado Mycological Society online, or signing up at the NAMA event this weekend. Individual and family memberships cost only $28. Cick here for membership information and to join online.
And there’s good reason to join and attend. According to the NAMA website, amateur mycologists are in a unique position to help contemporary mycology, which is in desperate need of mushroom specimens. Contemporary DNA studies are providing fantastic insights in mycology, and these studies depend on relatively recent, well documented collections.
Dr. Michael Kuo, will lead a foray that focuses on collection for scientific study, and a session on documentation (including specimen description and documentary photography) and preservation of specimens that can help advance human understanding of fungi and the crucial role they play in ecosystems.
Mushrooms, as we commonly know them, are the fruiting bodies of a fungal organism that exists mostly underground in the form of a mycelium, sometimes visible as skein of fibers or a cottony mass. When moisture and temperatures coincide, that mass sends up fruiting bodies, which can mature into full-grown mushrooms in just a few days and drop their spores to the ground to start a new reproductive cycle. View a YouTube video on mushroom collecting in Summit County at this link.
Mushrooms are important sources of food for some forest animals. For example, squirrels in the forests of the Pacific Northwest rely on certain types of fungi, including truffles, for part of their diet. In turn, the squirrels are a primary food source for endangered spotted owls.
Fungi are also critical to the health of many plants. In many cases, the mycelium of the fungi exist in symbiosis with the roots of trees, shrubs, flowering plants and grasses. The mycelium ensheathes the roots underground and helps them absorb nutrients like nitrogen and phoshphorus. In some cases (think of penicillin, derived from a fungus), the mycelium shields the roots from harmful pathogens of all kinds, including heavy metals in the soil.
Another key role is the breakdown of dead woody debris. Together with bacteria, fungi turn fallen trees, leaves, branches and needles back into nutrient-rich soil, capturing carbon in the process.
Fungi are also used medicinally, and there is still much to be learned in that area. One of the talks, by Denis Benjamin, will focus on medicinal mushrooms.
As well, some fungi are used to address all sorts of environmental problems in the field of mycoremediation. Several years ago, mycologist Paul Stamets discussed how fungi can help with reforestation of logged areas and logging roads, and also said he’s developed a non-toxic way to eradicate unwanted household insects with the controlled introduction of pathogenic fungus.
Vera Evenson, curator of the mycological collection at the Denver Botanic Garden and perhaps the top mushroom expert in the state, will give an overview of Colorado’s fungi.
“NAMA is an organization of local mushroom clubs all over North America. It focuses on studying mushrooms in their native habitats and is now keeping ‘’vouchers of thousands of specimens collected at the annual Forays,” Evenson said via e-mail.
“NAMA’s biggest activity all year is the annual foray, held in great habitats from Ottawa, Canada west to the Rocky Mountains, both in Canada and the U. S. Forays are held from Louisiana to Washington State, California to New Hampshire and everywhere in between.
Local mushroom clubs are made up of interested amateurs and professionals, mushroom cultivators, crafts people who use mushrooms in some way, toxicologists who are concerned about mushroom poisonings, and of course culinary enthusiasts who collect for the pot,” she said.
“Thousands of people have contributed throughout these 50 years in the annual mushroom hunt, the study and photography of those beautiful native fungi, and of course the scientific study of the specimens themselves. Scientific studies involve taxonomic relationships between fungi throughout all ecosystems from the desert to the alpine peaks over the entire planet. They do ecological studies involving fungi and their beneficial and of course their pathogenic relationships with plants too.”
Cripps will discuss the deep ecology of mushrooms in whitebark pine forests, linking fungal, feathered and furry fauna. Click here to see the full list of presenters.
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