Crazy for Conifers

conifersWhen beginner mushroom hunters ask me how to find fungi, I have two answers. First, join a mycological society and go on a foray; there’s no substitute for spending time in the field with a seasoned pro. The second answer might be more surprising: learn your trees.

Experienced mushroom hunters in southwestern Oregon and northern California know the many culinary treats that hide among roots of Notholithocarpusboletivores of the Rockies are skilled at locating high meadows dotted with Picea; and don’t even get me started on the need—the absolute necessity—to know the habits of Abies grandis if you plan to look for edible fungi on the east slope of the Cascades in springtime.

Knowing your trees is a huge part of the mushroom puzzle. This is because many species of fungi have symbiotic relationships (aka mycorrhizal associations) with trees and shrubs. The fungi and trees exchange water and nutrients, and in some cases the bond is so strong that the fungus will form a protective and permanent sheath around the tree’s root tips, a sort of shotgun wedding.

For those of us hunting mushrooms in the western U.S.—in the Pacific Northwest in particular—the trees to know are overwhelmingly conifers. I have a whole library of books about the life histories and identification of trees in my region, and a new one has just found a prominent place among them. Michael Edward Kauffmann’s Conifers of the Pacific Slope: A Field Guide to the Conifers of California, Oregon, and Washington is an important addition, and a broader companion to his earlier work, Conifer Country, which focuses on the rich conifer biodiversity of the Klamath Mountain region.

Of the world’s 600 or so species of conifer, more than half populate the Pacific Rim, and 65 species can be found along the Pacific Slope of North America. Northwestern California is the epicenter of conifer diversity on the continent. A hike into the Russian Wilderness’s “miracle mile” in the Klamath Mountains will reward the conifer enthusiast with potentially 17 (maybe 18) species, one of the richest assemblages on the planet.

Kauffmann has been mentored by some of the best. He dedicates his new book to John O. Sawyer, one of the pioneering botanists of California, who died in 2012. Stephen Arno, whose Northwest Trees has been considered a must-have for tree fanciers since its publication more than 35 years ago, calls Kauffmann’s guide “comprehensive” yet “user-friendly.” The book is divided into sections for each of the three families represented: Cupressaceae (cypresses, junipers, cedars, and redwoods); Pinaceae (firs, Douglas-firs, spruces, pines, larches, and hemlocks); and Taxaceae (yews). Most species descriptions are accompanied by multiple photos depicting bark pattern, cones, and foliage, along with range maps. Text includes discussion of habitat and other observations and remarks.

Tree geeks will need this book because Kauffmann is generous with information about locating some of the more hard-to-find species. Never seen Picea breweriana, the Brewer spruce? Try driving the Bigfoot Highway near Happy Camp, California. Or the beautiful subalpine larch, Larix lyallii? Hike into Washington’s Pasayten Wilderness and check north-facing slopes above 6,000 feet.

It pays to be arbor-aware. Mushroom hunters and foragers in general benefit from recognizing a landscape’s tree composition, whether looking for fungi, wild greens, berries, nuts, or roots. Besides, trees are some of nature’s most beautiful creations, and recognizing their many forms and life histories makes us all the richer.

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