Nova Scotia

Passion for mushrooms mushrooming amid pandemic

COVID-19 concerns and lockdowns mean more people are exploring the woods and discovering the joy of fungi.

COVID-19 concerns, lockdowns mean more people are exploring the woods and finding fungi

Experts and enthusiasts say mushrooms, like these Jackson's Slender Caesar mushrooms, have captured the attention of Nova Scotians during the pandemic. (Submitted by Ben Kendrick)

At best, they go unnoticed by most. At worst, they spark feelings of revulsion, or even fear.

But the humble mushroom is finally getting the love it deserves.

Experts and enthusiasts say interest in mushrooms in Nova Scotia has bloomed since the pandemic began.

"They are definitely having a moment now," said Allison Walker, a mycologist and associate professor of biology at Acadia University.

The Nova Scotia Mycological Society says its Facebook group started the year with about 3,000 members, and it now has 5,200 members, almost all of whom were active in the group at some point this year. About 1,000 of the members joined the page this fall alone.

The Nova Scotia Mycological Society says it's seen significant growth in membership on its Facebook page this year. This is an example of an oyster mushroom. (Submitted by Ben Kendrick)

Due to COVID-19, the society has only had one in-person official event, but it filled up within a few days of registration opening.

"There's so much demand that I feel like we could offer these mushroom walks every day or every weekend and they would fill up," said Walker.

Concerns about COVID-19 likely account for at least part of the increase in interest in mushrooms, Walker said, as more people are looking for things to do outdoors and away from crowds.

Gavin Kernaghan, a professor of biology at Mount Saint Vincent University and president of the Nova Scotia Mycological Society, said lockdowns that forced people to stay closer to home also likely encouraged them to explore previously ignored pockets of fungi-containing forest.

"I can tell you from personal experience, I found a whole lot of little small bits of woods near my house that I had never explored before. You know, an acre here, an acre there, you know, hiding within neighbourhoods, that I never bothered with."

The pandemic, along with ideal weather this year for mushroom growth, has contributed to the boom. This is a Surprise Webcap mushroom. (Submitted by Ben Kendrick)

The wet weather this year was also extraordinarily good for mushroom growth, a factor that always causes a spike in attention because they are more plentiful and visible, Kernaghan said.

Walker believes some people are drawn to mushrooms because they're edible, while others are interested in their beauty and diversity.

"They kind of give us hope because they're kind of mysterious and they show us that there's a lot we still don't know about biology and the world and nature," said Walker. "And so they're just kind of intriguing."

While some are drawn to the fact that some mushrooms are edible, like this Chanterelle mushroom, others simply enjoy their beauty and diversity. (Submitted by Ben Kendrick)

Mushroom enthusiast Ben Kendrick got the mycology bug at the tail end of the 2018 autumn mushroom season.

"I really only got one or two walks in — just enough to kind of feel the sense of wonder and then long for it all winter. And then after winter was over, I was just raring to go."

Kendrick goes out looking for mushrooms near his home in Cumberland County a couple of times a week for a few hours at a time and shares some of his findings with his thousands of Twitter followers.

Some mushroom fanciers enjoy learning about the ecological role of fungi. This specimen is a Bear's Head Tooth Fungus. (Submitted by Ben Kendrick)

He said he likes the practical aspect of mushrooms, since some are edible, but he has also grown to appreciate them for their ecological role.

"You start to realize how many different species are dependent on each one of these trees, and then you start to see how many insects are dependent on each of these fungus," he said. "It just has all these different cascading layers of how important every species in the forest really is."

Kendrick advises newcomers to mycology not to eat specimens until they have at least one season under their belts and are able to properly identify them, in order to avoid consuming something toxic or poisonous.

Alas, the fall mushroom season is almost over in Nova Scotia, as evidenced by the appearance of winter harbinger species such as honey mushrooms and winter oyster mushrooms.

But for those who want to get in on the mushroom boom, you won't have to wait until next fall. There's a spring season, too — just in time for Mother's Day.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Frances Willick is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Please contact her with feedback, story ideas or tips at frances.willick@cbc.ca

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