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B.C. conditions are magic for mushrooms in bumper season for fungi, tasty and toxic

VANCOUVER — Mushrooms large and small, tasty and toxic, are popping up across British Columbia this year in what experts say is a bumper season for fungi. B.C.
Mushrooms large and small, tasty and toxic, are popping up across British Columbia this year in what experts say is a bumper crop of fungi. Fly agaric mushrooms stand in a forest of the Taunus region near Frankfurt, Germany, on a foggy Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Michael Probst

VANCOUVER — Mushrooms large and small, tasty and toxic, are popping up across British Columbia this year in what experts say is a bumper season for fungi.

B.C. forest ecologist and mycologist Andy MacKinnon said he's been out picking edible fungi this year with fellow mushroom expert Paul Kroeger on Cortes Island, one of B.C.'s Discovery Islands between Vancouver Island and the mainland. 

“Every time you go out on a foray, it’s like the treasure hunt. That’s part of the fun of it. You don’t know what you are going to find,” said MacKinnon, who is a co-author of "Mushrooms of British Columbia," a handbook published by the Royal B.C. Museum.

MacKinnon said that last year was a very bad year for mushrooms, with an "extraordinary" drought during the summer that carried on into the autumn.

Southern Vancouver Island, where MacKinnon lives, didn't see any rain for 90 days last summer, he said. 

This year's drought was still bad, he said, but then the rains returned in the fall. 

Mary Berbee, a professor at the University of British Columbia Department of Botany, said last year the exceptional drought stressed fungi. 

This September's rains led to a more usual flush of mushrooms, she said. 

"This year hasn't been better than average for mushroom diversity, but it has been much better than last year," she said. 

The evidence of a better year is clear on Vancouver Island, MacKinnon said, where king boletes, also known as porcini mushrooms, are "popping up everywhere." 

He said few have seen nearly as many of the "deliciously edible" porcinis as they have this year. 

"So, the mushroom that people like to forage for, that was extraordinarily abundant this year,” said MacKinnon.

Naturalist and mycologist Kem Luther said he had observed the same thing, and people are flocking into the woods to fill their baskets with porcini.

“These mushrooms have just been coming up everywhere on the west side of Vancouver Island,” said Luther, who co-authored of "Mushrooms of British Columbia" with MacKinnon

The last two years have been “awfully rough” for mushroom hunters, but this year there are many mushroom species available, added Luther. Exactly why wasn't clear, he said, and differences can be "very regional."

While mushrooms grow wild year-round, Luther said it's more common to see them in the fall with rain arriving and trees moving sugar into their roots, giving the fungi an infusion of food.

But there's also a bonanza of poisonous mushrooms to be careful of. 

Richmond resident Peter Wang said he recently came across a “striking-looking” mushroom next to his home.

Wang said the two mushrooms had fire truck-red caps speckled by white dots, one of them larger than his hand. 

He took to social media to share his discovery and was warned that the fairy-tale-like "Super Mario mushrooms" are poisonous fly agarics.

MacKinnon said fly agaric mushrooms are abundant all over Vancouver Island and B.C.'s south coast this fall.

They can sometimes be “nearly the size of a dinner plate," he said. 

Berbee said fly agarics are not deadly, however they are poisonous, and people will suffer from hallucinations, stomach upsets and diarrhea after eating them. 

Deadly death cap mushrooms are also common in southern B.C. this time of year. Those mushrooms are responsible for almost half of the poisoning deaths around the world, said Luther. 

On the question of how to differentiate the good from the bad, Berbee said there is no shortcut.

“So, you really have to get to know all different kinds in order to figure out whether one is safe to eat or not. It's a good idea to start out by learning to recognize the very poisonous mushrooms,” said Berbee. 

There are over 3,400 known mushroom species in B.C. and people will encounter different kinds of mushrooms depending on where they live, said Luther. 

He's been foraging since he was little, but said his love for mushrooms intensified after moving to B.C. from Ontario about 20 years ago. 

“They weren’t as impressive as the ones in B.C. I guess, but when I came out here, I got really interested in it,” said Luther.

People are interested in mushrooms for all sorts of reasons: some want to eat them, others enjoy taking photos, while others use them as dyes for cloth, Luther said. 

MacKinnon said the mushroom mania is apparent. 

“But yes, certainly at all of the mushroom festivals, the mushroom courses, the mushroom shows, we've been seeing record numbers of people. So, there are a lot of people very interested in mushrooms right now." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 4, 2023. 

Nono Shen, The Canadian Press