Before Jamie Yarborough started studying mushrooms, he thought they were just something you bought at the store or ordered on a pizza.
But the spore was planted during hikes with his parents into the mushroom-rich forests around his home in Crescent City. He went on to college, studying with Harry Thiers at San Francisco State University and Ronald Petersen at the University of Tennessee, and earning both master’s and doctorate degrees in those fields.
He and mycologist Dennis Desjardin, a professor at San Francisco University and co-author of the field guide “California Mushrooms,” will host a free Wild Rivers Mushroom Festival at the Chetco Grange Community Center in Harbor from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 4.
Workshops will be held to address proper identification, growing, harvesting and uses of the species that grow in rainy forests of Northern California and Oregon. A raffle and silent auction will be held, and vendors and beer will be available.
At 2:30 p.m., Desjardin will host a new, free talk, “Understanding Mushrooms,” at the Chetco Activity Center in Brookings. He will be joined with co-authors Mike Wood and Fred Stevens, and Brian Perry, a mycologist from California State University-East Bay.
Kathleen Dickson, the organizer of the Wild Rivers Mushroom Festival in Brookings and president of the Wild Rivers Mushroom Club, is excited to attract such eminent names in the fungi world to Brookings.
“It turns out Dr. Desjardin is from Crescent City, and one of our club members knows him through a jazz band he’s in,” she said. “I’m pretty sure this is the first time this many experts in the field of mushrooms have come to Brookings.”
Desjardin knows Yarborough from high school band and gymnastics; the two went their separate ways after high school.
As Desjardin studied at San Francisco State, he heard of Yarborough’s career throughout the years.
Desjardin was trained by renowned mycologists Alexander Smith, Rolf Singer, Meinhard Moser and Egon Horak, and is now a professor of biology at SFSU, where he teaches biology, botany, mycology and evolution. He has published more than 140 scientific papers on the taxonomy and evolution of mushroom-forming fungi, in which he has described 260 new species and seven new genera. His research projects are ongoing in Hawaii, Micronesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brazil and the African islands of Sao Tome and Principe.
He is also the leading authority on the origin and evolution of bioluminescent fungi.
Fungi include yeasts and molds responsible for much more — bread, beer, medicines, yogurt, sauerkraut, soy sauce, kombucha, all cheese — than the mushroom. Fungi have been used by the Japanese, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Asian, South American and Native Americans cultures for centuries to aid in health and treat wounds and disease — a topic of one of his workshops.
Mushrooms are used in bioremediation — the cleansing of soil that has been contaminated, even with radiation, Yarborough said.
He, like most other mushroom aficionados, loves to eat them.
“You either like them or you don’t,” he said. “And just as someone can distinguish one wine from another, one cheese from another, chicken from fish or beef, it’s an adventure to learn the differences between a white button and a black trumpet chanterelle.
“I am by nature and upbringing a very curious person,” he continued. “I’m constantly trying to explore and learn. I feel it’s a human being’s prime directive.”
He returned to Del Norte County in 2008 and attended a mushroom festival.
“When I saw the incredible diversity and awesome natural beauty of fungi as a life form, it was overwhelming,” Yarborough said. “Finding them in stores for salads and on pizza is one thing. But finding they are only the fruiting body of a much larger organism, that fungi are found in so many areas of our lives without our awareness is humbling.”
His fascination, well, mushroomed.
“There’s a saying, ‘If you were a fish living in the ocean how would you know?’ With no experience of what it is to breathe air, a fish lives in a bubble. Finding the global diversity, the various species, the biology of fungi in and of itself plus, the striking beauty of mushrooms — it’s a whole world to explore.”
Dickson, too, enjoys stalking fungi in the forest after a good rain. She and her club members meet regularly from September to April to share recipes and discuss the mysterious mushrooms they’ve encountered on their forays under the tree canopies.
While many poisonous mushrooms make their presence known with bright red caps and other deterring features, many, including the popular Pacific golden chanterelle, have look-alikes that are poisonous.
“You should never eat something you can’t identify 100 percent,” she said. “Never identify a mushroom based on a picture alone.”
“But they’re some of the most beautiful things out there,” Dickson said.
The club aims teach people — and lessen their fear — about the array of mushrooms available in the forest year-round.
For more information about the Wild Rivers Mushroom Club or the festival, contact Dickson at 541-661-1385.