British Columbia

How an amateur scientist became one of B.C.'s top wild mushroom experts

A life-long passion for learning about wild mushrooms has established Vancouver’s Paul Kroeger as one of the leading experts in the province.

Paul Kroeger has contributed to books on mushrooms and is a valuable resource for B.C. poison control

Paul Kroeger stands beside a tree in Vancouver that is hosting a mushroom commonly known as 'turkey tail.' (Chad Pawson/CBC News)

The first thing you notice when spending time with Paul Kroeger is that very little escapes his eye. 

From garbage on the street, to a child's footprints embedded in concrete, or plants and animals in and around his neighbourhood, the 65-year-old Vancouver man notices it all.

"Something a lot of people are lacking is the power of observation," he said. "It's a great thing to be able to go anywhere and observe and interpret what you see and notice things."

A lifetime of curiosity has led Kroeger, a self-described citizen scientist, to become one of the leading authorities on wild mushrooms in B.C., a place where there are at least 3,000 species.

Kroeger looks at a mushroom growing from a tree in Vancouver in December. (Chad Pawson/CBC News)

He's helped write numerous books on mushrooms and helps the province's poison control centre identify mushrooms that people have ingested. All this is from his unique ability to recognize mushrooms where they grow.

"I had enough of a personal interest in it and a drive and a liking for being alone in the woods," he said. "I put in a lot of field work and saw a heck of a lot of mushrooms, so I began to recognize mushrooms so that there weren't that many other people that were at a similar ability."

'We go to Paul'

"Fungiphiles" like Kroeger are about as plentiful as the species themselves. Scientists have determined that fungi are more closely related to animals than plants. They can be hard to find, look weird, serve as delicious and nutrient-rich food, and also play a critical role in ecosystem health.

"The diversity is mind-boggling," said Shannon Berch, a retired research scientist with the B.C. Ministry of Environment who has worked on several studies with Kroeger.

Berch says Kroeger's life-long passion means he has developed a deep knowledge of fungi, making him a special citizen scientist. 

"When professional mycologists have questions about the diversity of mushrooms here, we go to Paul and we ask because he just has that encyclopedic knowledge," she said.

Kroeger points to a mushroom growing on a wooden structure in Vancouver. The mushroom, which he discovered in 1984, is called deconica horizontalis. (Chad Pawson/CBC News)

Kroeger got hooked on searching for mushrooms and learning as much as he could about them when he moved to Vancouver in the early 1970s from Penticton with his parents and three siblings.

He grew up traipsing around the woods trying to identify plants and animals for fun, but in Vancouver, he was impressed with the size and abundance of mushrooms that he began coming across.

"When I came to the coast I was just blown away by how many mushrooms there were," he said.

Kroeger bought mushroom field guides published by the Royal B.C. Museum and spent hours searching for the species out in the wild.

In 1979, the Mycological Society of Vancouver was formed and he became a prominent member, organizing excursions and research projects among like-minded enthusiasts.

'People just love to search'

"One thing that's really appealing about mushrooms is a search function," he said. "People just love to search and that's why kids love Easter egg hunting, hide and seek. I think we have an innate urge to seek."

Despite lacking any formal post-secondary education, Kroeger is a regular in UBC's botany department, where he does lab research. He says he has made a living, "although not a terribly rich one," by working on research projects and acting as a consultant.

"I sort of fell into being useful because I just happened to have the skill and the background to be able to recognize the mushrooms," he said.

In recent years his name has been in the news most often accompanying stories about the rise in B.C. of the most poisonous mushroom in the world, the so-called death cap mushroom. It's an invasive species that looks ordinary, but can be fatal if ingested. One person in B.C. has died from the mushroom in the past five years. 

B.C.'s poison control centre has used Kroeger as a consultant for decades to help identify samples sent in by people who are worried they, their children or pets have ingested something dangerous.

Kroeger cautions people against eating wild mushrooms, but is pleased that a new generation of mushroom seekers is eager to learn and is curious about finding them in the wild.

"It's a good thing to think of it as a great excuse to get outdoors and into really nice habitats," he said.

"[To] really appreciate the natural world you have to have some inkling of its complexity and there's no better way to get that than to try and learn all the neighbouring organisms that are around you."