Shannon Adams grew up in South Africa, where she and her family would pick Termitomyces, a variety of edible mushroom that fruits from termite mounds. Upon moving to Seattle in 1999 for work-related reasons, she was already looking for a local organization to join when she began noticing a different wealth of fungi sprouting up around her new neighborhood. “I saw so many mushrooms—it became intriguing,” Adams recalls. “I just wanted to know what they were!”
She joined the Puget Sound Mycological Society (PSMS) that same season. Founded in 1964, the society has grown into one of the largest of its kind in North America, with more than 1,000 dues-paying members like Adams devoted to collecting and understanding mushrooms.
Neither plant nor animal, mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of underground organisms called fungi, which reproduce by spreading their spores aboveground. Widely-varied species grow naturally around the world, and many are prized as culinary specialties or holistic remedies in different cultures.
Yet when most Americans think of mushrooms, they typically imagine two species: one, the commercially-grown Portobello mushrooms found at most grocery stores; or two, the poisonous fly agaric “toadstools” found in the wild, distinguished by their white-dotted red caps.
Though these are only two species among thousands in an entire kingdom of organisms, Mycophobia, or the fear of mushrooms, leads many to conclude all fungi found in the wild must be as toxic as the dreaded toadstool. In fact, among the thousands of species that grow wild in North America, only five or six are known to be deadly poisonous.
“I’ve had friends tell me the first mushrooms I gave them, they threw away instead of eating!” reveals Adams, now the press secretary for PSMS. “People think you’re really risking your life, but once you’ve learned to differentiate, there are some very safe mushrooms.”
In Russia and other parts of Continental Europe, children and grandparents forage together in family patches. Here, the practice of hunting mushrooms, or mushrooming, is still considered a risky fringe hobby. Many automatically associate it with drug culture, for reasons obvious to anyone who’s ever ingested a dose of psilocybin. “If you’re a professional person talking about mushrooms,” acknowledges Adams, “everyone assumes you’re after getting high. It’s got cred with those subcultures, but stigma from mainstream folks.”
Though some may resent being lumped in with ‘stoners,’ most members of the mycological society and other mushroom enthusiasts—of which there are at least 64,000 in the Pacific Northwest, going by membership in the regional mushroom identification Facebook group—tend to embrace the perceived eccentricity of their hobby. “I have a mushroom broach and posters up at my work, so everyone thinks of me as the crazy mushroom lady,” laughs Adams. “It doesn’t have the same mainstream following as, say, birds or orchids do.”
Yet many mushroom enthusiasts come to the hobby from other naturalist interests. Adams, for example, used to be big into birdwatching before discovering her current passion in the fungi-rich Pacific Northwest. A taxonomist by trade, it was natural she should become interested in this kingdom of ephemeral underground organisms, of which there is still so much to understand—not to mention, so many species to name.
“If you see a bird out here,” Adams explains, “you can open the bird guide, and you will find that bird. But with mushrooms, only a small percentage of species are even named, because these things have never been looked at closely enough.”
Our understanding of fungi is always improving, however, thanks to increased access to genetic sequencing technology, as well as mycological research projects like those funded annually by PSMS. And since mycology remains such an underdeveloped field, there’s real potential for amateurs to make an impact by naming new species or discovering new applications for old ones.
Such “citizen scientists” represent just one subculture of mushroom enthusiasts within the diverse membership ranks of PSMS. There are also taxonomists like Adams, as well as professionals in mycology and other scientific fields, who comprise a small but crucial core for the club. Then there are mushroom painters, photographers, herbalists and even textile artists, who use fungi to make all-natural fabric dyes.
But by far the society’s largest subculture is that of pothunters, or people who are primarily interested in finding mushrooms just to eat them. And this segment of the population has only continued to grow as foodie culture places ever-greater emphasis on eating locally-grown produce. “With that, we’ve seen an increase in people coming to the club and realizing there are some edibles they can try,” Adams says. “And that gets them hooked! Trying a chanterelle becomes like their gateway drug.”
But no matter the area of interest that brought them there, all members of PSMS can bond over their shared passion at weekly identification sessions, monthly meetings or outdoor forays in fall and spring, when members meet in the woods outside Seattle for a weekend of camping and collaborative mushrooming.
At one such recent outing, Adams noticed a number of new faces and spoke to a few to see what had piqued their interest in the group. It didn’t take long for her to notice a pattern. “They’d all moved here from different places,” she reflects, “and that was my story, too. I was just looking for an organization with some reason to get out in the woods, and some reason to connect with people doing something interesting.”