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WSU/Pend Oreille Extension introduced the Sense of Place series in 1999, with a focus on local landscape and natural history of Pend Oreille County, Washington. A partnership with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians Natural Resources Department has allowed us to expand this program through EPA funding to include more classes, a newsletter and this website.

This Land of Mushrooms

by Drew Parker

You’re in a pioneer area.” Alexander H. Smith, probably the foremost mycologist this country has produced, spoke these words to me after I told him I lived near Metaline Falls, Washington. My brief encounter with Dr. Smith occurred in 1981. In the years since I’ve thought of his words often and have observed their veracity numerous times. His home base was at the University of Michigan, but he had collected fungi in the west for decades and the Priest Lake area in Idaho was his favorite hunting ground. Dr. Smith was known to venture into Pend Oreille County on several of these collecting forays which is attested to by the names he gave a couple of the new species he found here, Psathyrella uskensis and Rhizopogon cusickiensis. What he meant by “pioneer area” was that this mycologically rich county was practically unexplored.

Why is this so? Why did Dr. Smith believe that the forests around Priest Lake, and by proximity Pend Oreille County, host some of the greatest mycological diversity of any region in North America? Complex conditions over time produce a complex flora. We have many of the basic conditions that cause fungi to flourish such as a temperate climate with typically abundant precipitation, and a variety of elevations and slope orientations that combine to create microhabitats that encourage speciation. Even the north/south orientation of our mountain ranges are thought to contribute to the diversity of the fungal flora by allowing species to escape southward during periods of glacial expansion and gradually return as the glaciers recede. This gave species a great amount of time for populations to diversify.

However, what really sets this region apart is the composition of our great forests and their associated shrubs. We happen to have in our forests an exceptional number of tree species. All of them, with the possible exception of western red cedar, are engaged with a vast variety of fungi in a mutually beneficial relationship of nutrient exchange called mycorrhizae. There are ten principal conifer species in Pend Oreille county plus one or two minor, mostly high elevation species, and four significant deciduous species plus assorted shrubs that also cavort with fungi. To complicate the situation further, these tree species generally occur in mixed stands. The result is a very complex habitat with an extremely rich fungal component.

Evidence of this richness is reflected in some of the fungi I’ve encountered here. One such instance came in March of 1996 when during this pre-Morel season I came across some curious little bright orange cup fungi on stalks that were strikingly unfamiliar. They had the appearance of a tiny bouquet of flowers. With a bit of sleuthing I was able to identify them as Microstoma protracta, a rare mushroom, unrecorded in the Pacific Northwest, but reported from a variety of other locations around the globe. They are saprophytic and found during cold periods when most fungi are dormant either in early spring or at high elevations. Their name means “little extended mouth”, and is particularly descriptive of this delicate fungus.

Another surprising find occurred in November of 2001 when my spouse returned from a morning walk with an unfamiliar mushroom in hand she had found on an old charred Larch stump. It was brownish, pink spored, with a distinct violet cast to the cap and stem. Knowing they were in the genus “Leptonia” but unsuccessfully keying them to species, I dried and sent them to a mycologist who knew the genus well. It was identified as Leptonia tjallingiorum, a species found only three other times to date.

Finds like Microstoma protracta and Leptonia tjallingiorum are uncommon, but I have experienced these along with countless lesser discoveries over the years. However one doesn’t have to be a mushroom fanatic with a large library of mycology books to enjoy the pleasures and surprises of getting to know fungi. The excitement of discovery is there for the beginner as well. This possibility of discovery has always intrigued me and continues to fuel my fascination with the pursuit of mushrooms. So whether you simply enjoy a few edibles such as the Morel, the Chanterelle, or the Shaggy Mane, or delve deeply into the mysteries of our local fungi, this unique place in northeastern Washington can deliver many rewards.

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