SAN DIEGO — Bob Kerekes gets excited over fungus.
On misty mornings, he and other wild mushroom pickers forage about lawns, cemeteries, canyons and parks for the fleshy mushrooms.
It is the season of Kerekes' delight. When the ground is wet from dew and the sky is hidden by clouds. When mushrooms start to appear.
For nearly half his life, the 50-year-old Spring Valley resident has been a mycologist, the name science uses to identify those who study fungi.
Though he holds no college degree, he has become an expert through years of patient study and finding, identifying, codifying and classifying mushrooms. He has no special license or gear. He and a handful of other local mycologists rely on their knowledge of where to look, their good eyes and timing.
"I'm one of the only ones who know anything about them down here," Kerekes said.
For a couple of years now, Kerekes has worked with the Natural History Museum in Balboa Park and UC San Diego's Poison Control Center. He is on call at the center to identify some of the umpteen varieties of mushrooms found in Southern California, some of which are highly poisonous.
"I found seven species just in the course of a (recent) bike ride," he said gleefully.
As proof, he displayed freezer bags stuffed with mushrooms found along Bancroft Drive, a few miles from his apartment.
He said that was a fertile spot because a brook flows from Mt. Helix and alongside the roadway, keeping the ground damp this time of year.
Kerekes was particularly enthusiastic about his bike ride cache because he discovered what he suspects is a fourth variety of Amanita. He had thought only two existed here, and he plans to study his find carefully to determine whether it has been previously discovered and if it is poisonous.
"You have to know when and where to look," he said. "It's a spontaneous thing. You have to go when the time is right, except you don't always know when it's going to rain."
Kerekes takes pleasure in describing mushroom-related trivia, and he is a walking storehouse of facts on the subject. To wit:
- The "sulfur shelf" mushroom does not need rain because it thrives on eucalyptus trunks and dead wood.
- The gills of the luminous jack o' lanterns glow in the dark.
- Puffballs are plentiful here since they can grow in a drier climate. When sliced open, the often softball-sized fungi have the consistency of stale marshmallow cream. Not very appetizing, perhaps, but nonetheless edible.
- The puzzling and seemingly fragile shaggy manes can push up concrete.
- The large, common Coprinus atramentarius mushrooms sprout up around November and become poisonous when consumed with alcohol.
- Delectable yellow chanterelles are an epicure's delight. Sometimes found on Mt. Palomar and in Encinitas, these go for $4.50 to $20 a pound wholesale, depending on the supply.
"Most fatalities are caused by some species of Amanitas, also known as death caps or destroying angels. . . . The real deadly kind have a special type of poison," Kerekes said. "Amanita ocreata is the deadliest kind of mushroom we have in this area. They start to show in December and may be found until the end of March."
He has just finished preparing a booklet on mushroom identification for the poison control center. Through identification, he said he has "been able to save kids from having to, unnecessarily, take ipecac syrup," a foul-tasting solution used to induce vomiting.
Mycologists and the poison center advise people not to eat wild mushrooms without having them identified by an expert.
Of the more than 2,000 mushroom species in California, about 100 are known to be poisonous. The common lawn-loving Chlorophylum molybdites, for example, have been the cause of numerous San Diego area poisonings, causing nausea but no deaths.
Two years ago, three Mexican nationals died six days after eating a variety of Amanita mushrooms in Escondido. In 1982, five Laotians suffered severe liver damage after eating death caps picked in Lakeside that they mistook for a similar-looking, edible kind found in Southeast Asia.
It is the intangible qualities of the mushroom that lured Lynne Blackman to become an amateur, mushroom-hunting enthusiast. The Del Mar resident is one of Kerekes' students.
"Mushrooms are a mythic symbol, a thread you find in religion and cultures all over the world," Blackman said. "Especially in mythology."
Blackman, 48, a novelist, world traveler and instructor in creative writing at UC San Diego extension, said some cultures are "mushroom phobic" while others are "mushroom loving." The United States falls into the first category while Europe is in the latter, she said.
"It's delightful to watch the French people have an almost hysteria about the first mushroom of spring, the first morel out of the forest," she said.
Like most mycologists, Blackman makes spore prints of some of the mushrooms she finds. This, in conjunction with a good field guide, helps to identify them.
Spore prints are made by cutting the mushroom cap off the stem and placing it upside down on paper. After a glass is set over the cap for a couple of hours, the print is complete. Many poisonous varieties produce white spore prints.