Our recent abundance of rainy weather bodes well for many plants and animals in the months to come, but one type of living organism is already benefitting: mushrooms. These are the familiar fruiting bodies produced by fungi, and there haven't been many in the Tehachapi Mountains during our recent drought years. This year is different.
One of the most common types of mushrooms found in our area is the Meadow Mushroom (Agaricus campestris). These are closely related, and taste almost identical, to the familiar button mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus) you can buy in grocery stores.
These are the ideal conditions for the appearance of Meadow Mushrooms: several rainy days followed by a warm, sunny day — no hard freezes, no drying east winds. We haven't had any warm sunny days following our storm-after-storm weather, but even so I have found several different species of mushrooms appearing, including Meadow Mushrooms.
While people tend to think of mushrooms as a type of plant, since they grow out of soil like most plants, they are actually produced by fungi and are placed in a separate kingdom from either animals or plants. Surprisingly, fungi are actually more closely related to simple animals than plants in many respects.
In addition, the familiar part of fungi that we tend to see, like mushrooms and puffballs, are not the main part of the organism itself, but merely the fruiting body — mushrooms are like apples, not the apple tree itself. Mushrooms are produced by the mycelium, pronounced my-SEE-lee-um, which consists of a mass of hair-like hyphae, pronounced HY-fuh.
This mycelium typically remains hidden under the soil, and its existence is only revealed by the occasional appearance of mushrooms when conditions are just right. Occasionally you can see white threads of hyphae when you overturn a rotting log that is being decomposed by fungi, or when gardeners turn a compost pile that has been sitting for awhile.
One day there may be no visible mushrooms, and a day or two later there may be many, some of them quite large, so how are mushrooms able to grow so fast and appear so quickly? Because of their unique structure. Most animals and plants, and even fungal mycelium, grow through cell division, which is fairly slow and takes a lot of energy.
When mushrooms first develop, on the other hand, they already have almost all of the cells they will have when mature. They grow through cell enlargement, not cell division — the cells basically just enlarge with water, so a mushroom can go from a little pinhead sized fruit to a large mushroom overnight if water is present.
I first learned how to gather Meadow Mushrooms from the late Tootie Anderson, our Cherry Lane neighbor who was an adopted grandmother to me. She would gather them when they appeared after a rain, and her nephew Ramon Burgeis would also collect them and bring her a basket full after a spring rain followed by mild weather. Tootie was descended from the pioneering Tungate family and many pioneer Tehachapi families would gather mushrooms as a treat to supplement their diet.
Meadow Mushrooms are often associated with oak woodlands and grow beneath local oak trees. In the days before cars and trucks, the world moved with horsepower and the horse manure produced was spread in fields. This used to create favorable growing conditions for Meadow Mushrooms, and in England the term "whiteout" was used to describe the sudden appearance of vast quantities of Meadow Mushrooms after a rain.
The Nüwa (Kawaiisu or Paiute) people of the Tehachapi Mountains also gathered wild mushrooms, and the Nüwa word for mushroom is hiitop, pronounced HEE-tope. They first appear as white caps pushing up from the ground, and they have pink gills, which later age to brown.
There's an old saying that "there are old mycologists and bold mycologists, but no old, bold mycologists," suggesting that adventuresome mushroom hunters may not survive their experiments with eating unknown wild mushrooms, since some are fatally poisonous. I'm not suggesting that anyone eat local wild mushrooms — you need to know what you're doing and be certain of their identification — but people have been consuming Meadow Mushrooms in the Tehachapi Mountains for centuries, and this wet year should produce many of them.
Have a good week.
Jon Hammond has written for Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.