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Wild mushrooms sprouting everywhere in Northwest

With the return of the rainy season, mushrooms and other fungi are sprouting everywhere in the Northwest, prompting excitement among Mushroomers and curiosity among casual outdoors observers.

"Mushrooms are coming up all over the place," said Fred Rhoades, mycological ecologist and science adviser to Northwest Mushroomers, whose popular Wild Mushroom Show is Sunday, Oct. 19.

Rhoades, a retired professor and current research associate in biology at Western Washington University, encourages hikers young and old to look more closely at mushrooms while they're trekking through the forests this fall.

"Just taking a walk in the woods becomes a much greater joy because you see that they aren't just mushrooms out there, they are all different species. It's a little like looking for Easter eggs; they're always hiding."

Mushrooms are fungi and many of them exist in a symbiotic relationship with their host species, frequently trees, Rhoades said.

"Chanterelles form these connections with the roots of tree. They help the trees get nutrients in exchange for food that the tree makes by photosynthesis," he said.

Other prized edibles are found under hemlock, Douglas fir, lowland coast pine or spruce. Boletus, for example, cozies up to silver fir in the Northwest's subalpine regions, Rhodes said. Amanita muscaria -- the classic toadstool that's often red with white spots -- is found near cottonwood.

A field guide is handy for those who want to learn more about wild mushrooms, he said. "(But) the best thing is to hang out with somebody who knows about it."

Northwest Mushroomers has regular meetings and outings for its members, with annual membership fees at $15.75 or less. Its members are always willing to share information and help identify a wild mushroom for collectors.

Longtime amateur mycologist Margaret Dilly said that what fascinates her about mushrooms is their mysterious nature.

"The mushroom is living under the ground. What we see is the fruit on the tree. It requires moisture in order for them to produce (fruit). Now we're starting to see them because we've had a couple of good rains," said Dilly, a resident of Whidbey Island and a member of Northwest Mushroomers.

"There are some that grow in the spring, some only in the fall ... and in different terrain. There's a symbiotic relationship between fungi and the forest. They are the digester of the world."

Because some edible species can have deadly lookalike cousins, Dilly advises everyone to avoid eating wild mushrooms unless they are certain of what they have collected.

"There are over 3,500 species here in the Pacific Northwest. There's lots of good edibles and a few poisonous ones. Don't eat any unless you have them identified," she said.

To learn more, Dilly advises studying a field guide such as David Arora's "All That the Rain Promises and More ..." or going on an organized field trip.

"(A mushroom) is like an apple on a tree. It has spores instead of seeds," Dilly said. "They are beautiful and they are a valuable part of our world. But don't be afraid of mushrooms and don't be afraid to handle them."