Batteries, fake leather, packing material, soil purification, dyes, imitation steaks and experimental treatments for alcoholism all have one thing in common: They can be made from mushrooms.
Fungi, a category of life completely separate from plants and animals, continue to surprise us, and experts have watched public interest bloom—or rather, mushroom—in recent years. In Santa Cruz, however, fungiphilia is nothing new.
Since 1974, visitors to the annual Fungus Fair have marveled at giant displays of local mushrooms and enjoyed fungi-filled foods. But Covid closed the doors on the multi-day event in January 2021, which had been held for the last several years at the London Nelson Center.
Last February, the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History teamed up with the Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz to bring back a “mini” version of the free event. The one-day fair, outside the museum where the event launched almost five decades ago, drew nearly 1000 people.
The collaboration continues this year with another mini fair outside the museum on Dec. 10. It will include the classic fungi display and local vendors and activities.
Visitors can paint with mushrooms, sniff around an olfactory-focused booth or learn about lichens. Interested foragers can practice identification and bring their own mushrooms for the display, and the culinarily inclined can try “fungus forward food” from Areperia 831.
The Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History will set up a station about identifying plants—a valuable skill for mushroom hunters. And local artists will display nature-focused art.
“We call it mini because it’s going to be smaller than London Nelson. But as you start to put it together, it gets bigger and bigger,” says Marisa Gomez, the community education and collaboration manager at the museum. “There’s so much love for mushrooms in Santa Cruz.”
The fair will kick off mushroom season both for the museum and the Fungus Federation, which will host mushroom hunts in January.
The Fungus Federation encourages people of all ages to explore the wild world of mushrooms. There’s only one rule: “If you don’t know what it is, don’t eat it,” says Phil Carpenter, a retired chemist who has led mushroom walks for more than three decades and is one of the science advisors for the federation.
“It’s not ‘maybe,’ but ‘for sure,’ because there’s a lot of lookalikes,” he emphasizes. To appreciate the beauty of mushrooms, just take a camera, he says. But for eating, it’s vital to get more in-depth.
“Learn how to identify, know people who know how to identify and know people that you can trust to give you the proper identification before you eat something,” he says. The Mini Fungus Fair could be a good place to start.
The Mini Fungus Fair takes place on Saturday, Dec. 10, 11am-3pm. Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, 1305 E. Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz. santacruzmuseum.org.