Plant pathologist Jack Rogers is always ready to step off the trail and into the cool forest to uncover its secrets. Or, even better, to collect them.
His targets, most often, are fungi, nature’s great recyclers. These organisms break down dead matter and inhabit living matter. They’re everywhere, but they aren’t always easy to see. They have secret lives beneath soil and behind bark, and many only surface to reproduce. But Rogers knows where, when, and how to look—whether it’s a certain stand of trees after a cold winter, a south-facing slope in the fall, or an area of a recent burn.
Rogers is built like a small bear and has a foghorn voice. It carries pretty far when he’s prowling the woods, and, along with a whistle, comes in handy when he gets separated from his fellow fungi hunters. His voice also holds a flavor of West Virginia, something he picked up during childhood, around the same time he acquired a taste for the outdoors. When he says words like fungi, and morel, the last syllable hangs on a bit long.
His first taste of fungi came during childhood, thanks to his Lithuanian grandmother. “People from her country know fungi and love them very well,” he says. She gave him tastes of the savory mushrooms that were a staple of her diet in her native country.
His first notions of them as wildlife came from his father, a biology professor, who wrote an article about the oyster mushroom in a West Virginia magazine back in the 1930s and who often took him on outdoor adventures. He knew the woods, says Rogers. “He certainly knew more than I do about moss and ferns.”
But Rogers surpassed him with fungi. During a long career at Washington State University—44 years and counting—the professor has served as president of the Mycological Society of America and has become director of the Mycology Herbarium, a vast collection of fungi housed at WSU. He even has a fungus named after him: Poroleprieuria rogersii. The organism was discovered by two mycologists a few years ago on the decaying bark of the Heliocarpus tree in Mexico. The scientists, one American and one Mexican, decided to name it in Rogers’s honor.
In college he found true love: the morel. It’s not the most spectacular mushroom. Plain, often black or grey, its stem is hollow, and its variegated cap looks like a sponge. But the modest fungus is a highly desirable treat, sprouting up in the warm, wet spring. It’s particularly tasty sautéed in butter or olive oil or coated with cream. It’s Rogers’s favorite fungus to hunt and eat.
This is one mushroom that has been very difficult to domesticate, says Rogers. It does well in forests that have recently experienced a catastrophic event like a wildfire or flood, even logging. While there are some efforts to commercially cultivate them, the best way to get them is still to just go into the woods and look.
Rogers’s colleague, Lori Carris, remembers hunting morels with him shortly after she was hired at WSU in 1989. She and a graduate student piled into Rogers’s orange 1972 Chevy half-ton and, in spite of the sheeting rain, drove 40 miles out of Pullman to hunt. The torrent didn’t matter; Rogers was leading them on a mission.
“I remember that trip,” he says. “It was one of the best morel collecting times I ever had. We collected sacks of them.”
One of Rogers’s research interests is sac fungi, or ascomycetes, including the morel. These organisms produce spores in an ascus, or sac. He is also interested in fungi that inhabit and infect forest trees.
Seeing Rogers enjoying a successful career that has brought him national renown and taken him to places like Mexico and Hawaii to collect specimens, it comes as a shock to think that his life in Pullman almost didn’t happen. With his wife, Belle, he moved to WSU in 1963 as a new Ph.D., having rushed though the last year of his studies to take a job in the Plant Pathology and Forest Range Management departments. The winter they arrived was one of the worst on the Palouse—month after month of grey skies and flooding. “If I had the fare out, I’d have left,” growls Rogers. “The whole area was a mass of mud. It was the most depressing sight I’d ever seen.”
The classes he taught in forest pathology were packed with students, including veterans of the Korean War. And they were demanding, especially on a first-time instructor. Rogers spent the first part of that year stressed, exhausted, and depressed.
But then he ventured out to forage. “The spring was beautiful. I got out into the woods and everything was OK.” And since his job was to study and teach forest pathology, one of his prime duties was to go out and hunt. He decided to stay for a while.
Constant hunting for specimens is a habit with most mycologists and pathologists. Roderick Sprague, a WSU pathologist in the 1940s and 50s, often found specimens for the University’s collections on the fly. His notes reveal details like “I collected this when I had to change planes in North Dakota.”
Rogers’s office and adjoining workspace are an ecosystem unto themselves. They are packed with papers, thousands of specimens, microscopes, books—and a case of Diet Coke. There’s just enough space left for a small computer. One morning last summer Rogers was sitting at it working on a paper about a new fungus he discovered in Hawaii. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he says, showing a close-up photograph of a black patch he found on the bark of a tree. Its pores and smooth black surfaces look like lava. Rogers tells me he plans to name it for Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes.
That’s just one of his immediate projects. He’s also harboring a strange find from the Netherlands. He pulls from a small bag a four-inch-long object, brown, and thinner than a pencil, with a lighter colored cap at the end. This was growing on live hardwood in a tropical greenhouse, he says. He hadn’t seen it before, but as a favor was working on identifying it. He is culturing some of its spores to observe its growth behavior. “If you can’t germinate the spores, you can’t do anything with them,” he says.
While watching them grow in his lab is exciting, finding them in the wild is even better, says Rogers. He’s got fungus fever.
“Oh yeah, I jump up and down and holler when I find something,” he says.
It’s different than other kinds of hunting, or picking wild blackberries, or fishing, he says. “If we were surrounded by morels and you could get them any time you wanted to, it wouldn’t be a lot of fun,” he says. “The chase is the fun.”
What lies beneath
Whole worlds exist beneath the soil and behind the bark. Networks of fine filaments called mycelia digest food, breaking down organic matter. With enough food reserve, the mycelia will produce fruiting bodies, in some cases, mushrooms. Under the right conditions, they push above the soil or bark, mature, and release spores, which develop into new fungi.
“Fungi have been involved in life’s process since the very beginning,” says Rogers. If they hadn’t, nothing would decay, and we’d be surrounded with dead matter, he says. The earliest plants, and the organisms that ate them, needed some early version of fungi to break down the dead matter. Over a billion years ago the fungi followed the plants onto land, aiding them in absorbing nutrients and using them for food.
There’s some evidence that the fungi enabled plants to evolve on land, says Carris. They were present before vascular plants evolved, and may have served as a type of primitive “root” for early land plants.
Fungi evolved in various directions, resulting in an estimated 1.5 million fungal species. Some types live freely in nature and reproduce as mushrooms, like Rogers’s morel. Others are yeasts, molds, mildews, and parasites, including athlete’s foot. They usually attach themselves to their food sources, absorbing nutrients through their cell walls, and excreting enzymes to break down organisms. Some are saprophytic, which means they decompose dead organisms. O
thers are parasitic, infecting live plants and animals, and harming their hosts. Mycorrhizal fungi attach to the roots of plants, helping them pull nutrients and moisture from the soil. Finally, endophytes help protect plants from other fungi, infections, and predation.
Pathologists and mycologists like Rogers agree there is much more to learn about the biology, safety, and ecology of fungi. What makes them grow when and where they do? What benefits do they provide the plants and other creatures that surround them? What are their life cycles? How are they affected by alterations in the environment, such as logging, fires, pollution, or global climate change?
When it comes to fungi, most of us haven’t wanted to know, says Rogers.
Many peoples, including the French, Italians, Slavs, and Southeast Asians, embrace fungi and use them regularly in food and medicine. Americans, though, have had an uneasy relationship with them. For them they have been associated with mystery, the supernatural, poison, darkness, and decay.
“People in the U.S. in general have a certain fear of fungi,” says Rogers. “I think it goes back to our English heritage. We’re more sensitive and suspicious than other cultures.”
In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the giant mushroom contains magical powers, one side making Alice shrink, the other making her grow huge. Emily Dickinson referred to the mushroom as nature’s outcast face.
Fear, mostly unfounded, has pushed our palates and our curiosity away from these organisms. But that’s starting to change, especially as we sample the cuisines of other cultures and look to eat locally produced foods. Wander into Pike Place Market and check the corners of the produce stalls, and you’ll find caches of wild mushrooms.
One Saturday last summer, morels were selling for $30 a pound. Light, firm, a little like a dry sponge, they smelled of earth and forest.
Fungi, like morels, can help a fire-damaged landscape recover. They can also digest pollutants, breaking down such toxins as pesticides, paints, diesel, and tar. They turn tainted soil into fertile material to host future life. In his book, Mycelium Running, mycologist Paul Stamets argues that fungi can rescue habitats, enhance forest health, and make toxins inert. He also points to mushrooms that can be used as antibiotics and agents for treating cancer.
Yet only about 70,000 of 1.5 million species of fungi have been described. And of those, we still have limited information about what makes them grow when and where they do.
Now, with global climate change a major focus for research, fungi are still being overlooked. Most investigations have focused on ecosystem activities in the spring and summer. Events that take place in autumn, including decomposition and decay, are only now being examined, say Rogers and Carris.
But fungi are changing their behavior in response to global warming along with the rest of nature. In a recent article published in Science magazine, scientists in England observed that mushrooms and fungi, across species, are maturing and fruiting earlier and for a longer season. Decomposition, in England’s forests, at least, is taking place more rapidly. Scientists are just now trying to figure out what all this means, says Carris.
As trees and other plants are stressed by changes in climate, they will be more susceptible to fungi and diseases, says Rogers. He expects fungi to be on the rise. In any case, when looking at issues of the environment, it’s high time the fungi were considered, he says.
Deep in the woods, there also exists a hidden human world.
Ten percent of the world’s wild edible fungi are produced in the Pacific Northwest, and thousands of people from northern California up through British Columbia are out hunting for them.
While Rogers was making his first explorations into Washington’s forests in the 1960s, the state was starting to realize the value of its forest products. In 1967, the legislature enacted a law regulating the harvesting, transplant, and sale of forest goods like mushrooms.
In the 1980s and 1990s, commercial fungus hunting expanded on public lands throughout the Northwest. At the time, landowners and the general public had no real sense of the value of mushrooms and medicinal plants, crucial parts of the forest’s understory ecosystem, says Jim Freed, special forest products specialist for WSU Extension. Freed works with commercial foragers as well as landowners whose properties are popular sites for gathering mushrooms and other forest products like moss, sword ferns, salal—a plant used in floral arrangements—and conks–shelflike fungi that grow on the trunks of trees. He urges foragers to harvest gently and leave behind some of the mushroom and plant life, so that more might grow back. “People need to know when to pick, how to pick, and how not to pick too much,” he says.
Morels, for example, should be cut at the stem rather than plucked from the ground. That leaves the base behind, protects the habitat, and provides potential future mushrooms.
When Freed started work for WSU in 1977, he realized he had to convince the public and government that there was a lot more to a forest than the trees. It took a large fire in 1979 to open everybody’s eyes, he said. The blaze near Bend, Oregon, left behind ideal growing conditions for morels and the highly desirable matsutake mushrooms. More than 2,000 people came to camp and hunt mushrooms, says Freed. Land managers, shocked at the turnout, were overwhelmed. They kept asking Freed, “Where did these mushrooms come from?” He had to explain that they were there all along, just hidden beneath the soil.
The Pacific Northwest is one of the most diverse and productive regions of the country when it comes to fungi, particularly medicinal and edible fungi like truffles and mushrooms. In an average year, wild edible fungi in the Pacific Northwest support a $50 million industry.
Most hunters are out looking for three types of mushrooms: the matsutake, the chanterelle, and the morel. The matsutake, a chewy mushroom that grows in pine stands, commands the highest price, being less abundant and highly desirable, especially in the Japanese market. Morels are more abundant than the matsutake, but are still highly valuable. Chanterelles are a favorite in European cuisines.
Commercial foragers in the Pacific Northwest are mostly immigrants and first-generation citizens, often from Asia and Mexico, says Freed. They do serious hunting in the woods, and are incredibly efficient at finding and removing what’s valuable. They sell their finds at buying stations, often pick-up trucks parked at intersections near the hunt sites. On a bad day, they could make $70. On a good one, hundreds. On a very, very good one, $1,000.
That’s why many commercial hunters are very secretive and protective of their sites. Even hobby hunters can be territorial.
“Some people say there is a gold rush mentality,” says Freed about the people who flock to the woods to hunt. But he sees that changing, as our attitudes about mushrooms change. Freed envisions a day when families will go out foraging with an experienced guide. Children could learn about the woods, and the whole family would have a great outdoor experience. “They do this in Japan,” he says. “Besides, wouldn’t it be better to go in and pick your own?”
Lori Carris’s chanterelle spot is about 40 miles from Pullman. She happened upon it one fall day while exploring an area known for its wealth of spring mushrooms. She was cruising along a gravel road in the woods, when she saw a flash of yellow. “I stopped in a hurry, and then put my car into reverse.” There, just off the road, lay the most beautiful, buttery patch of mushrooms.
Of course, I ask her to take me there. “I can take you, but you’ll have to ride in the trunk of my car,” she cracks.
As we head out of town, she explains that she only shares this site with a small group of friends an
d a few select students. “This is where I’ve found these beautiful golden mushrooms,” she says, her voice softening. “Once I discovered one as big as a dinner plate. Oh, it was a beauty.”
She took a picture of it, she says. Then she took it home and ate it.
When Carris was in college, she never imagined a career in plant pathology. After finishing school in the Midwest, she happened into a master’s program at Washington State University. She worked with raspberries and their uptake of a fungicide. So her first work with a fungus was less about how to find it and study it, and more about how to get rid of it.
After college, she got a letter from a scientist who wanted her to work with him as a doctoral student at the University of Illinois. Then she was lured back to Pullman with the prospect of a job in the plant pathology department. Today she teaches basic fungus and plant pathology courses, and is often called upon to identify molds that show up in homes and public buildings, as well as fungi that affect crops. Her specialty is smut fungi, which affect wild and cultivated grasses, including the thousands of acres of wheat and barley that cover eastern Washington.
Carris may not have planned to go into mycology, but once she’s in the woods, it’s clear she’s cut out for it. Within seconds, she’s off into the brush, her puff of blond curls catching the glints of sunlight filtering through the trees. Aha, she says as she runs her fingers up a Corallorhiza, a coral root orchid. It doesn’t have chlorophyll, she explains. It uses a fungus to absorb nutrients collected by the trees around it. It wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the mycorrhizal fungi in the soil, she says.
When she’s mushroom hunting, she carries a red plastic grocery basket and wears a magnifying loupe and plastic whistle around her neck. She always brings along a copy of Mushrooms Demystified, because even scientists can use help identifying their finds. But mushrooms aren’t her only prey.
A half-hour into our hike, she drops to her knees in front of a pile of elk dung. She picks up a pellet and holds it to her loupe. She could bring this back to her lab, where, under the right conditions, it will sprout a variety of fungi, particularly mushrooms. It’s a great thing to show students, she says.
As for the chanterelles, the sampling she collects for teaching is woefully small. “It’s hard for me to preserve my specimens for class,” she confesses. “It’s because they’re so good. I have to eat them.”
One of her great peeves is seeing “wild mushrooms” on a menu. More often than not they’re commercially grown shiitake or oyster mushrooms, she says. “There’s nothing wild about them. Consumers need to know that.”
The chanterelle, on the other hand, just can’t be grown commercially. “There’s something that they’re getting from the tree that we can’t figure out how to replicate,” says Carris. But in the wild, they can be plentiful. They appear near a wide range of tree hosts, especially conifers, as in the woods we’re visiting. We agree to return in a month or two to hunt for them.
As we leave the forest behind, we pass a large, manicured farm with thoroughbreds and green pastures sectioned with white fences. The owners have picked a beautiful spot to settle, says Carris. “But I wonder if they even know what’s back there in the woods.”