The Truffle Hound

When I was a few years younger – well, when I was in elementary school – I would draw blueprints of the houses I planned on living in when I grew up. Some looked like your garden variety mansions, opulent and symmetrical, towering Versailles gingerbread houses that now make me wince a bit. Others were more avant-garde, tottering and bizarre (and definitely not to code), equal parts The Once-ler’s house and James’ peach.

But the best marriage of my dualling desires for genteel luxury and radical experimentation, my elementary school self eventually surmised, was probably something like Big Ears’ house. A well-appointed two-storey toadstool loft would be both fashionable and functional, and with all the attendant benefits of a pleasant rural forest neighbourhood to boot.

(L-R): Saprophytic fungus growing on a decaying stump; mycologist Andy MacKinnon examining lichen species under a hand lens; Isothecium stoloniferum moss in 100 Acre Wood, Metchosin.

Fastforward a decade or two, and I find myself at the trailhead to just such a pleasant forest, this one in Metchosin, waiting for a mushroom man. Andy MacKinnon is a forest ecologist and mycologist, co-author of six books on related subjects that together have sold over half a million copies – unsurprisingly, he’s been called a local “rock star”. We’re on a botany class field trip to learn about the role of fungus in our local ecosystem, and it sounds like we’ve found the right guy.

After a few minutes, MacKinnon arrives, trailed by an energetic truffle hound*. He explains that he’s been ensnared in a long-term dogsitting arrangement, and that Piper, who by this time has bounded across the road and is barking frantically at an impassive cow in the neighbouring field, needs a walk and will be tagging along.

Using a hand lens to examine pores on the underside of a Fomitopsis cajanderi (rosy conk).

Before we set off into Metchosin Nature Park (which, in keeping with the children’s lit theme so far, is nicknamed 100 Acre Wood by locals), MacKinnon talks briefly about his career with the province’s forest research branch. He’s worked in developing BC’s Biogeoclimatic Ecosystem Classification system (BEC), a method of assessment that integrates analysis of the biology (vegetation), geology (soil), and climate of a place in order to identify its different ecosystems.

British Columbia has sixteen classified biogeoclimatic zones, and a multitude of sub-zones; MacKinnon tells us that we’re currently standing in “Coastal Douglas-fir – Moist Maritime (CDFmm)”, an area that includes the city of Victoria, and just straddling the fringe of “Coastal Western Hemlock – Very Dry Maritime – Eastern (CWHxm1)”. Mapping these zones through the observation of “indicator species” allows for precise and comprehensive differentiation between ecosystems, yielding data that would require an impossibly dense network of climate stations to map.

Lichen specimens on a branch. Recent discoveries suggest that both ascomycete and basidiomycete fungi live together with an algae or cyanobacterium to create the symbiosis that forms these lichen.

It’s not the best time of year to find visible fungi, MacKinnon says, and I quietly give up my hope of finding a Big Ears-sized toadstool on the hike. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungal networks – tucked beneath the ground, or within their food source, seeking to reproduce – and so many appear through the summer and into the fall here when conditions are drier and friendlier to spore disbursal. It is mainly the saprophytic variety that we’ll observe today, those fungi that grow on dead or decaying organic material, like the rotting logs scattered damp and heavy through the forest.

If mushrooms are scarce, though, something else is visibly abundant: the lichen that everywhere drape the rocks in vibrant shawls and drip from tree branches with Seussian extravagance. There are more species of lichen in BC than there are species of vascular plants – MacKinnon tells us that nearby Albert Head, little-used DND land which is publicly off-limits and therefore uniquely undeveloped, is thought to contain the highest lichen species richness in the world.

Lichen, he says, are like “fungi that have discovered agriculture” – a partnership between algae, or cyanobacterium, living amongst the filaments of a fungus. Biologists have long marvelled at the uniqueness of three distinct kingdoms living together in this kind of symbiosis. But reality may be stranger still: recently, a young lichenologist named Toby Spribille found that in addition to the known ascomycete fungus, lichens are often comprised of a second fungal component as well, a basidiomycete yeast, upending decades of conventional thought on the subject.

(L-R): A moss-covered stump, looking bug-eyed; overlooking Matheson Lake, Metchosin; the twisting limb of an Arbutus menziesii.

We move into the forest and soon spot some small decomposer fungus sprouting from the forest bottom. MacKinnon stoops and delicately examines the specimens with a hand lens. As he straightens, Piper, sensing an opening, vaults forward and eviscerates the mushrooms with the sort of unbridled glee usually reserved for chew toys.

“Piper!” chastens MacKinnon, looking pained. Turning to us, he explains that smaller mushrooms are generally decomposer fungus, while larger ones are usually the product of the mycorrhizae that attach to plant roots and ferry nutrients and information back and forth. Finding a mushroom that he suspects is slightly poisonous, he takes a nibble and allays our worried looks, saying, “mushrooms are like plants – most aren’t poisonous, and most aren’t tasty.”

Holding a specimen from 100 Acre Wood in Metchosin. The gills on the underside of the mushroom cap, called lamellae, increase the surface area available for spore production.

Exaggerated fears about toxicity and taste aren’t the only sort of notoriety mushrooms have garnered in the past – you can find a dose of (Victorian) taboo on the list, too. The common stinkhorn, properly (and tellingly) named Phallus impudicus, is known to have so scandalized Etty Darwin, daughter of Charles, that she collected them regularly and burned them in secret in order to preserve the “purity of thought among her female servants.”

But these days, worries and prudishness seem to have abated as the powerful health benefits of mushrooms are being increasingly acknowledged. Whenever I pass through the herbal dispensary at the downtown Pacific Rim College campus, I look at the long shelves of mushroom blends: reishi, lion’s mane, chaga, cordyceps. In a permaculture context, mushrooms can serve as valuable myco-remediators, helping to remove toxins from the soil. Some species are good for companion planting, or a crucial component of a forest garden; others can be grown on inoculated logs or in a simple substrate, for both food and medicinal purposes.

Nearing the end of our walk, we approach a grand-looking Thuja plicata, the western red cedar. A member of the Cupressaceae family, the trees are not actually true cedars at all, and the fungi that form mycorrhizae with their roots don’t fruit mushrooms. MacKinnon explains that we are therefore unlikely to find any mushrooms nearby – but that ectomycorrhizal fungus, the sort that produces truffles, is probably in the area. We turn expectantly towards Piper, who is a few feet away, but he is vigorously chasing his tail and does not seem concerned with this information. And so we walk on.

*Not actually a truffle hound.

Words and photos by Dylan Roberts, a student of the Permaculture Design and Resilient Ecosystems Diploma at Pacific Rim College.