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Mushroom foragers want the wet coast back

This year, mushroom hunters aren’t finding nearly the quantity or diversity of fungi they have come to expect

By David Kitai , in City , on November 20, 2017

Robin Kort squats in a clearing, scanning the ground for little mushroom caps breaking through the pine needles.

“This year is the worst I’ve seen,” said Kort.

Inedible polypore mushrooms can still be found

The Vancouver chef and forager is used to seeing forests full of toadstools. But, this year, mushroom hunters like Kort aren’t finding nearly the quantity or diversity of fungi they have come to expect.

Foragers blame the dry summer and autumn for this poor year. Prized, edible B.C. mushrooms are especially hard to find in these conditions. Without heavy rains in September there hasn’t been enough water for mushrooms like chanterelles or porcini to grow or “fruit.” Prices for those foraged fungi have skyrocketed. A growing number of mycologists and mushroom hunters are starting to argue over whether climate change is to blame, and  wonder if more bad seasons are to come.

A hard year for the mushroom business

This year’s weather has been a test for Vancouver mushroom sellers. “We watch the weather in September,” says Jeremy Budd of Vancouver Wild Foods “this year we knew we were in for a poor crop.” He, and other Vancouver area wild mushroom sellers, are coping by buying mushrooms from northern Vancouver Island, Haida Gwaii, and Alaska where the season hasn’t been as bad.

Even with mushrooms coming in from further afield, local prices have shot up. Stephanie Carruthers, a forager selling at Vancouver farmers markets, says that the few porcini she sees are selling at $60 per pound, up from around $35 last year. Chanterelles are sitting between $25 and $35 per pound, up from lows of $12 in good years.

Robin Kort holds a single chanterelle

In one of those good years, Carruthers could depend on foraging for much of her income. This year she is relying on her other business, a dog walking company, to make ends meet. “I wish I could pay for my life by foraging,” she says “but in years like this that seems less likely.”

Mushrooms aren’t just for local foodies. Ecotourists travel far and wide to find mushrooms in B.C. Camille Flanjak makes her living leading mushroom trips around the province. The poor season has made her work difficult, even in reliable spots. “Alice Lake almost always boasts an incredible diversity,” she says “but this year, it was so very limited, with some species not even making an appearance.”

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Some fungi aren’t having any fun

Out in the woods, an expert describes the various types of mushrooms and explains why some species are better able to cope with this season’s dry conditions.

Inspecting the woods like a detective, Mendel Skulski spots a dead birch tree, patterned by honey mushroom spores. He posits the honey mushrooms, an aggressive parasitic species, caused the death. A former president of the Vancouver Mycological Society, he says that parasitic mushrooms, and the “recyclers” eating dead trees, aren’t having such a bad year. Aggressive species of mushroom are able survive dry conditions by attacking trees for their stored moisture.

Mendel Skulski leads mushroom walks in Lynn Canyon Park

The fungi suffering most, according to Skulski, are species that live in symbiosis with trees, like chanterelles and porcini. In dry weather, the trees take more water from these partner fungi, leaving them too dry to fruit.

Although some of their favourite varieties are in short supply this year, members of Vancouver’s mycological society are making some unexpected discoveries.

Some species that have never fruited around Vancouver before are popping up this year, Skulski said.

Most of these species have been living underground in B.C. for a long time, says Oluna Ceska, a Victoria mycologist. They’re only appearing now because of the drier conditions that resemble weather further South along the Pacific coast.

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Is climate change to blame? There’s room for debate

There is no consensus at the Mycological society over whether climate change will result in hotter, drier summers and more bad mushroom years to come.

Society board members Willoughby Arevalo and Paul Kroeger place all the blame on climate change and expect more bad crops in future.

But at a recent society meeting, guest speaker Roo Vandergrift, a research professor at the University of Oregon Eugene, hesitated to jump to conclusions. “Climate change is certainly affecting fungi,” he says, “we just don’t exactly know how.

False chanterelles can still be found, just don’t eat them

Ceska, who has been chronicling mushroom fruiting on southern Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland since 2004, says we still don’t know enough. 

Though she hasn’t come to any conclusions about climate change, she has noted a steady decline in mushroom crops since 2013.

Skulski thinks the next year’s harvest will be the tell all.

“I’m worried,” says Skulski “that this may be the new normal.”

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