With a crowd of mushroom enthusiasts around her, Autumn Summers held up a bright red specimen about the size of her head that was gingerly speckled with white spots.
It was an amenita muscaria, a mushroom that's easily identified, but not generally recommended for a meal.
“This is one that's potentially hallucinogenic and won't make you feel really good,” Summers said. “Santa Claus may have come from this mushroom. I mean, why is he red and white? Why are the reindeer flying?”
Summers, who leads outings for LandPaths, was demonstrating how a hunter can find distinguishing characteristics on a mushroom and determine, at least to some degree, whether it's safe to eat.
Under the mushroom's cap, are there gills, pores or teeth? Does the stalk seem chalky or milky when it breaks? Does the mushroom stain a little bit blue when its flesh is cut?
Those were just a few simple tips offered to narrow down the tricky game of mushroom identification, which can be so elusive that even veterans like Summers, who's been hunting for 20 years, can be stumped.
For the trickiest specimens, Summers recommended making “spore prints,” an impression of the mushroom cap's underside, made by pressing the spore surface on a white paper and leaving it covered overnight. She passed around a sample spore print that looked like a delicate lithograph.
Summers led a group of about two dozen nature lovers on a trek through the hills of Riddell Preserve on Friday, a 400-acre woodland rich with oak and madrone trees, and a perfect habitat for fungi. The event was a fundraiser for LandPaths, a nonprofit organization whose aim is to foster a love of the land in Sonoma County.
As the group drifted off a dirt road and foraged over the wooded slopes, experienced mushroom hunters shared their tips about finding fungi amongst the fallen leaves.