POD MALLS AREN'T the only things springing up in Southern California at this time of year. As the winter rains begin, mushroom season spreads a carpet of delicious and sometimes deadly flora over foothills and woodlands, and pickers descend to track up the floor.
"It's a treasure hunt. It's even a treasure to find a lethal one and know what it is," says veteran mushroom hunter John Clawson, who calls himself a cautious collector, even after a lifetime of fungus finding that began when he walked the Utah canals with his irrigation-specialist father.
It's also a walk on the wild side, or as close as we can come to it in Southern California; mushroom hunting offers the opportunity to get some fresh air and exercise and to explore nature. And in the process, it's possible that a fabled fungus will be discovered. There are about 1,200 kinds of mushrooms and related large fungi in Southern California, 80% of which are edible (though many are not tasty).
Since there's always the other 20% to consider, mushrooming can be extremely hazardous to the health of the unwary and untutored, making it imperative that prospective hunters learn much about their prey before undertaking the chase.
A pleasant and informative way to do so is to participate in field trips sponsored by the Los Angeles Mycological Society. The society's free guided trips are leisurely walks during which different kinds of mushrooms are identified. No experience is required, but shoes and clothing should reflect the fact that most good mushroom areas are also hotbeds of poison oak.
The mushroom is a fruit, according to Greg Wright, editor of the LAMS journal, The Spore Print.
"When you pick an apple or an orange," he says, "you don't harm the plant itself. The same is true of picking mushrooms, unless you remove so much of the fruit that it is unable to reproduce itself, or you damage the necessary connection between mushroom and tree. To avoid this, we teach pickers how to gather mushrooms without removing leaves or disturbing the soil."
January, February and March are Southern California's best mushrooming months, and the date for the first LAMS field trip of 1990 is set for mid-January.
More information can be obtained from the mushroom society's information line, (213) 292-1900, which will also provide news about mushroom fairs; the first of these will take place in Orange County on a yet-to-be-scheduled date in March. Spore Print editor Greg Wright also welcomes interested individuals to call him at (714) 593-3791.