For over 40 years, Mount Pisgah Arboretum in Lane County has held a mushroom festival in the fall. While the last few years haven’t offered the best mushroom seasons, this fall is shaping up to be a beautiful time for foragers. Chris Melotti, president of the board of directors of the Cascade Mycological Society, shares his love of fungi with us.
Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. For over 40 years, Mount Pisgah Arboretum in Eugene has held a mushroom festival in the fall. It’s one of the largest such festivals on the West Coast with upwards of 400 different varieties on display. It’s happening again this weekend. Chris Melotti is the president of the board of directors of the Cascade Mycological Society. He joins us now to talk about this festival and fungi more proudly. Welcome to the show.
Chris Melotti: Thank you. Thanks, Dave.
Miller: Yeah, it’s great to have you on. What can people expect at this year’s festival?
Melotti: Well, if you’ve never been to the Mount Pisgah Arboretum Mushroom Festival, it’s a one-day event and it’s truly a festival. So the Cascade Mycological Society along with Lane Community College Biology Department work with the arboretum to collect fresh wild mushrooms within our area, usually within Lane County, sometimes we go a little bit north and south of Lane County. And then we have expert mycologists come to identify them and then we place them on decorative tables with identification cards which give the common name, the scientific name, the edibility, some information about the mushroom itself, say sport color and such, and a little bit about the habitat. So there’s a whole lot of educational information provided for each identified mushroom species there.
And then in addition to that large display, which you mentioned - there are several 100 species on display and it varies year to year, depending on how good of a mushroom year it is - there are lots of activities. There’s live music, a live music stage. There are vendors selling food and beverages, of course lots of mushroom-themed foods as well as traditional foods like pizza and such. And then there are vendors selling actual wild-crafted and cultivated mushroom kits, lots of art vendors that have some mushroom-themed. Most are nature-themed because it’s the arboretum. There’s a horse drawn hayride, there are fresh apple cider pressing. And if you want some of that fresh apple cider, you need to get there early in the day. It always sells out. There’s a scarecrow contest. So individuals and groups of people including classrooms of children get together and build scarecrows and then they’re on display and the attendees get to vote on who wins what prizes. There’s several different classifications or prizes for the scarecrow contest. There’s a whole separate tent venue pavilion for kids activities where they can interact with mushrooms and learn about the different forms and get some hands-on experience playing with mushrooms, coloring mushrooms and that sort of thing.
Miller: You mentioned that the number of mushrooms that are going to be on the display, hundreds of them just from around Lane County, varies year by year, depending on how good a mushroom year it is. What does this year look like?
Melotti: This year is better than the last few. Most people who are Northwest and Oregon residents know we’ve been in an extended drought period for over 10 years. So the last probably three years or so have been fairly light on the rain at the right time to produce the delicious edible mushrooms and the whole variety of fungi out there. This year, we’ve seemed to have had enough rain at the right periods of time that is shaping up to be a pretty decent mushroom season.
Miller: When did you first get interested in mushrooms?
Melotti: Well, I’d always had an inkling that they were important. My background is in wildlife biology and when I was growing up, wild mushrooms were a part of what we shared as an extended family, but we never picked them ourselves. We didn’t have that knowledge, but we had like a great uncle or something who would pick them but never show us his spots.
Miller: So even in your family, he kept that a secret?
Melotti: Oh, absolutely. In fact, for example, in Russia, mushrooming and mushrooms are a huge part of their culture, but up until just a few years ago, there was not one mycological society in the whole country of Russia, which has 12 different time zones because they didn’t want to share their knowledge. So, things are changing now there. And part of what we do as a mycological society is help educate people about mushrooms, their role in the ecology, where to go to find them, how to find them, how to identify them.
Miller: But then back to your story. So you said that mushrooms were a part of your family life in an extended way but not something that you did yourself. When did that change?
Melotti: That changed in 1995 for me. I had been an LCC student at the Lane Community College in Science and had heard about the biology of mushrooms class in those days, taught by the late great Freeman Rowe. He was the person who developed that class and also he was the originator of this Mount Pisgah Arboretum Mushroom Show. Hence the connection with LCC still to this day. So it wasn’t until after I graduated from Oregon State with my degree in Wildlife Biology that I was able to fit that class into my life and I went back as a returning student, which you get preference for applying for classes and it was so popular. I was still on the waitlist, but in the fall of 1995, I took that college class, the biology of mushrooms with Freeman Rowe, on our first field trip. I believe it was into the Cascades. That person, Freeman Rowe, identified over 100 mushroom species by sight and it blew me away and that hooked me. That really did. That one day changed my life.
Miller: What was it about that identification feat that blew you away and that changed the course of your life?
Melotti: Well, before then…a lot of people get into mushrooming because you can find wild mushrooms that you can eat.
Melotti: And that’s usually how people approach mushrooming, learning about fungi and all. And that one day where I saw somebody with a vast knowledge of not just the edible species out there, but the whole gamut of fungi and forest environment and how they interacted and how important they were to the ecology and how it tied back to my career in wildlife, it really pulled all things together for me.
Miller: One of your board members, Lee Yamada, told the Daily Emerald - the student newspaper at UofO - last year, that he tries to keep the “fun in fungus.” How do you do that? How do you make this fun and lure other people to join you?
Melotti: Well, mushrooming is inherently something you learn from other people. You can learn from books, but it’s hard to identify a three-dimensional species or mushroom when all you have is a flat picture. And if you’re going to eat it, you’re risking the potential that you’ve made a wrong identification, possibly giving your upset stomach or toxic poisoning and maybe losing your liver or your life. So there’s a real necessity for people who want to enjoy this hobby to do it safely and that’s where we come in. And part of the fun aspect of it is learning about the diversity and how it’s all connected and then how to find the mushrooms, where to find them, what to do with them after you find them if you’re going to eat them. We even produced a cookbook to help people in that category. If you’re going to eat mushrooms, there are different recipes for different types.
Miller: It strikes me that unlike, say, looking for some reclusive animal that has a really specific habitat or is going to shy away from humans, one of the benefits of mushrooming is that some of them appear to be everywhere. A couple of weeks ago, after some rain, I saw them spreading on grassy patches and dirt patches and near logs seemingly everywhere I looked. How much are you always on the lookout for mushrooms?
Melottli: All the time, and when I use the term mushrooms, I really mean fungi. So that includes the typical things we think of as a cap and stem mushroom. But also, as you mentioned, some of the wood rotters look completely different. There are shelving mushrooms, there are resupinatus or fungi that just lay on top of the substrate so they’ll just be kind of almost like a mold on a log or something.
There are fungi literally everywhere. The more mycologists and scientists look, the more we find fungi as intricate partners and nearly all living beings, particularly in forest environments. And here in the Northwest, that’s where a real big focus is on mushrooms. Sure they occur in lawns and such and there are types of mushrooms that you can cultivate. Those are the sap probes, the ones that actually like eat cellulose, the ones that are growing on wood and those are the ones you find year round in the supermarkets, the button mushrooms, the Portobellos, the oysters, the shitake, the enoki, those are all sap probes. But some of the most important fungi to the forest ecosystems are the ones that are Mycorrhizal. Have you ever heard of that term?
Miller: I have and I love it, but I always like re-explanations. I mean, the thing I love about it is the idea that there are vast–not invisible but barely visible to us–networks
underground. That’s as far as my awareness goes. What more do we need to know?
Melotti: Well, I’ll do it quickly because we’re running out of time here. But mycorrhizal, the Latin word root, myco means fungi. Rhiza means root. So literally, this describes a relationship where the fungi makes an intimate connection with the roots of trees and shrubs and sometimes herbs. So our state mushroom declared in 1999, the Golden Chanterelle, can only be found in a forest setting. It’s not a mushroom that can be cultivated, it cannot be commercially grown in greenhouses or anything like that. It only grows in a forest situation. Other mushrooms like the porcini, which is found throughout the northern hemisphere and revered in lots of countries, is also found here in Oregon and it’s also a mycorrhizal species so grows in association with forest trees.
So there’s a huge bunch of wild crafted fungi that show up in commercial markets that are commercially harvested by wild crafters. And that’s the only way that we can find them either by going out in that forest system and because they’re mycorrhizal, they cannot be produced commercially.
Miller: Are mushroom hunters like birders where many people have a life list?
Melotti: I would call that late stage mycology.
Miller: Are you in it?
Melotti: Yes. My wife and I have been doing it even before we were a couple and she’s now moved on to much tinier and isoteric things like slime molds.
Miller: But you’re focused on the bigger ones.
Melotti: Yeah. The bigger, we call the macro fungi, are what attract people to the hobby of mushrooming. And it’s what is going to be on display on Sunday at the Mount Pisgah Arboretum Mushroom Festival. We will have some minute things, but the majority of
them will be big identifiable mushrooms that you typically see in the forest environment.
Miller: So Oregonians will have to wait for the slime mold festival that comes at some point in the future. [Laughter]
Melotti: Well, you can check the Oregon Field Guide. They did a show on slime molds and I believe last year it’s still up there. It’s a really good introduction to this.
Miller: It is always better when guests do the OPB plugs and I don’t even have to.Chris Melotti, it was a pleasure having you on. Have fun this weekend.
Melotti: We will come and see each other at the Mount Pisgah Arboretum Mushroom Festival.
Miller: That’s Chris Melotti, president of the board of directors of the Cascade Mycological Society. The festival is this Sunday. It’s the last Sunday in October every year.
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