The Drought Is Killing Oregon's Wild Mushrooms
All photos taken by the author


This story is over 5 years old.


The Drought Is Killing Oregon's Wild Mushrooms

As Oregon suffers though the drought plaguing the West Coast too, the state's prized wild mushrooms have begun to disappear. Looks like its domesticated criminis for dinner again.

Four years ago, the Oregon coastline messed me up for life.

No matter where I looked, there were mushrooms everywhere: candy corn-hued Laetiporus sulphureus (a.k.a. chicken of the woods) bright enough to burn an afterimage onto my photoreceptors; young lacquered reishi mushrooms reminiscent of 70s Naugahyde twisting out from stumps; thumb-sized chanterelles perfuming the air with the smell of apricot; and bouquets of spore-laden Pleurocybella porrigens (angel's wings) fruiting from the ends of fallen logs so young that it felt predatory to even to look at them.


This is not to mention the countless small armies of LBMs, or "little brown mushrooms" as they're colloquially referred to, that were growing in such abundance I eventually ignored them completely. I was in the Pacific Northwest vision of a mycological Miyazaki movie come to life.

But now I can't find shit in Oregon, thanks to the drought.

I'll be the first to admit my interest in mushrooms—specifically, fungi, slime molds, and lichen—strikes friends and strangers alike as a bit odd, especially considering that I live in the drought-stricken, Mediterranean climate of Los Angeles. I'm the "mushroom guy," if only because there's not many sorta-kinda young mycologically minded Angelenos willing to put down everything after a rainstorm to go galavanting in the mud with the hope of communing with fungi. But, as they say, "you don't find love—love finds you."


I should explain this seemingly inexplicable interest in fungi isn't necessarily tied to their edibility or psychotropic effects. I experience as much joy nosing up to a newly coagulated and inedible phlegm ball of slime mold as plucking a virginal puffball ready for breading and frying (tastes like tofu!). Instead, the hunt for mushrooms is driven by the same emotion that fuels the culture of kicks, cars, and Magic: The Gathering enthusiasts: the thrill of the rare find.

Surprisingly, mushroom foraging brings with it a slew of unexpected dangers. Earlier this year, I discovered a rattlesnake observing me from underfoot while my wife stood on my shoulders to reach a softball-sized specimen of Hericium erinaceus (lion's mane mushroom) growing from the crook of a coastal oak. We gently exited stage left unscathed, our courage fortified, knowing we'd be enjoying a mushroom that tastes uncannily like lobster that same evening. I've lost count of the times I've come back from foraging covered in the itchy-oozing lesions that last for weeks, produced when skin meets urushiol-laden poison oak—a painful toll paid by even the most careful of foragers.


Also, the threat of diarrhea is always real—as is the possibility of death, when instinct rather than knowledge is followed. As the saying goes, there are only two types of mushroom hunters: old or bold, but never old and bold.

During one of my more memorable forays, I found myself stared down by a band of stone-faced Russians of muscular build worthy of a Liam Neeson film, each toting plastic grocery bags filled with an assortment of unrecognizable mushrooms gathered in a meadow popular among LARPers and mule deer.

By nature of where and how mushrooms grow, foragers tend to be an untrusting and secretive lot who will obfuscate directions and pick areas clean when they know others are intruding on their perceived turf. In this instance, I was able to turn their frowns upside down by offering some prized chanterelles from my own bag, and they soon began sharing recipes of umami-rich mushroom soups from the motherland.

Still, I never told them where I found my mushrooms.

This curious obsession has taken me to all corners of wilderness where even a suspicion of fungi exist. The local Santa Monica Mountains hide caches of Cantharellus californicus, a.k.a. the California golden chanterelle (the same choice-tasting mushroom I gave the Russians) which only grows underneath live oak trees in a symbiotic, mycorrhizal partnership; no oaks, no golden chanterelles.


In years of plentiful early autumn rain, this giant cousin of the common chanterelle practically glows crayon-yellow bright as it pushes forth from the soil. The variety is especially agreeable when sautéed in butter and served with scrambled eggs or in soup.


Once, while on assignment in Italy for the posh furniture fair Salone Internazionale del Mobile di Milano, I escaped away for a muddied afternoon dalliance to ferret out mushrooms growing at the base of trees within the perimeter of Parco Sempione in the heart of the city.

In Kyoto, I shared the joys of Mario Bro-ing with tiny puffball mushrooms, showing friends and the head gardener of a 400-year-old Buddhist temple the pleasures of the micro-plumes of spores, which jettison at the suggestion of touch.

Even in arid areas like Hemet, California, where you're likelier to find more tweakers than fungi, there are hardy varieties of desert mushrooms patiently slumbering underground, awakening with shaggy bedhead when heavy spring rains trigger the fruiting process. (The mushroom is the reproductive "fruit" of the organism; the rest of it lives underground or inside decaying or organic matter.)

But it all pales in comparison to the opportunities normally found in Oregon, where some coastal regions see up to 200 inches of rainfall annually and where the single largest organism in the world—a fungus, of course—resides silently beneath the forest like a creature of Lovecraftian imagining. The region is renowned for its bounty of mushrooms: edible, inedible, and medicinal fungi growing in every corner of the state.


Mushroom foraging is interwoven into Pacific Northwest culture, where whole industries revolve around collecting edible and medicinal varieties for domestic sale and international export. More desirable fungi like the black truffle fetch upwards of $300 a pound at market, and violence can erupt among competing interests.

That's why it's a little frightening to find so few mushrooms growing even in areas where coastal moisture should supplement reduced rainfall and mushrooms should be flourishing. Their absence is as big of an indicator that something is amiss, and with climate change undeniably occurring, supplies will diminish even as demand continues to grow. And the irony is that this winter's predicted monster El Niño might flip conditions upside down, creating ideal mushroom conditions in Southern California while leaving areas from Central California through Oregon and up to Canada high and dry.

As we remarked on the T-shirt weather gracing a recent visit to Portland, our Lyft driver added, "It's been very warm and dry in Oregon this whole year … Sure, it rained, but hardly any snow stuck around anywhere except on Mt. Hood, which seems to create its very own microclimate. It's really unusual."


I did eventually find some mushrooms—a small, pristine arrangement of oyster mushrooms growing silently underneath the sentinel of conifers and Douglas fir trees—while hiking into the depths of old-growth forest hugging the Rogue River near the Oregon coast. I didn't know whether they were a prize offered by the forest or a canary in the coal mine, but I spent a few moments to appreciate them for what they were: magical.