Updated: Jul 21, 2022
Puhpowee: Potawatomi word describing the phenomenon of a mushroom emerging from the ground overnight. (Source: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robyn Wall Kimmerer)
The Owyhee Desert is full of fungi! The harsh desert conditions—low precipitation and soil moisture, the wicking action of the breeze, and the lack of shady vegetation exposing the soil to the hot sun—do not seem like favorable conditions for fungal growth. However, even under these conditions, ecology still requires the decomposition of organic matter, which is exactly the ecological niche fungi exploit.
Fungi is often referred to as the fifth kingdom in biology, alongside Animalia, Plantae, Protista, and Monera. Interestingly, fungi are more closely related to animals than plants: fungi respire oxygen and expire carbon dioxide as we do, and they are heterotrophs, meaning they must go in search of their food rather than making it through photosynthesis. The fleshy mushrooms that sprout from the ground or wood are the sexual reproductive organs of the fungi emitting clouds of spores, whose primary "body" is an underground network of a white cobweb-looking net called mycelium. This structure can be as thin as one cell and is strung beneath the soil, resembling an animal's neural network. The mycelial network of one organism can extend for tens to hundreds of feet, or even miles, in the case of the Humungous Fungus of the Malheur National Forest near John Day, Oregon.
The main role of fungi is decomposition—breaking down organic material into compost—and the mycelium acts as an underground nutrient tract. The organism absorbs nutrients from one location and sends them to another. For instance, many mycorrhizal fungi that grow symbiotically on plant roots absorb macronutrients from a decaying shrub and deliver them to the living plant in exchange for sugars. Plants can absorb nutrients and water on their own, but studies show that mycelia are essential to the efficiency of this process, especially in low-soil moisture conditions. Thus the importance of desert fungi: helping plants access soil nutrients.
I've kept my eye out for desert fungi, and I still see relatively few! They often sprout after a rain—or puhpowee, rather. In the Owyhee, I've most commonly found little brown mushrooms (commonly just referred to as LBMs, not a scientific name!) scattered in the grass on cow dung. A bit more interesting are the white cap mushrooms that appear near riparian
areas. I've collected a few species of inky caps (Coprinus sp.). Though I've heard several personal reports, I have only found one western giant puffball (Calvatia booniana). Another fairly common Owyhee mushroom is the earthstar (Gaestrum sp.): an iconic, small desert mushroom that emerges and then quickly unfolds onto the ground, like peeling an orange. This results in a small ball atop a perfect star! When the breeze whips by it, it emits puffs of dark brown spores.
The Owyhee Puffball
Yep, that's right—there is actually a species of mushroom named after the Owyhee! In 1964, Dr. Zellar and Dr. Smith published "The genus Calvatia in North America" in which the Owyhee puffball was named. Smith also named the puffball featured in the two pictures above, Calvatia booniana. Probably during his time in the Treasure Valley finding mushrooms to name, he hung around College of Idaho: C. booniana is named after the founder of College of Idaho, Dr. William Judson Boone.
Influenced by Smith, but mostly for her passion of fungi and the outdoors, Ellen Trueblood (pictured right) became the premiere Owyhee amateur mycologist, receiving a 1982 award from the North American Mycological association for "Contributions to Amateur Mycology". Teamed with other College of Idaho naturalists, she scoured the Owyhee for fungi. She also named a local puffball, Calvatia packardae, seemingly after her field friend and acclaimed Owyhee botanist Pat Packard, who named and collected many rare or endemic plant species found in the Owyhee, such as the Owyhee clover (Trifolium owyheense) and the Packard's blazing Star (Mentzelia packardiae). In 1975, Ellen authored an exquisite paper in the McIlvainea—the Journal of American Amateur Mycology—titled "Forays in the Owyhee Desert" (pg 6). "She was a professional outdoors woman", noted Carol Prentice a tribute during an Idaho Fungi symposium in her honor.
Sighting, Identifying, Reporting, and Collecting Fungi
As described in the last few paragraphs of Ellen's paper, you too can take a fungi foray and record your sightings! As Owyhee naturalists and mycophiles, we are interested in your sightings. Please use your iNaturalist account, use a specimen packet, and/or learn about the MycoFlora Project. This collection and storage guide may also be useful if you go full mycophiliac!
How do I know what mushrooms I have found? The quintessential pocket field guide to mushroom identification is All the Rain Promises, and More..., followed by the 900-page tome Mushrooms Demystified, both by David Arora. Internet forums can also be useful, such as Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest on Facebook or the r/mycology subreddit (very responsive). Two local Owyhee groups can answer questions: the Southeastern Oregon Mycophile Adventurers (SOMA) and the more official Southern Idaho Mycological Association (SIMA). Personally, I always enjoy getting fungi identification questions!
Do not eat wild mushrooms. While there are many edible and choice wild mushrooms, we do not recommend foraging and collecting for the table. Many wild mushrooms cause gastrointestinal upset, mild to severe poisoning, and even cause death. Take photographs and only handle when identified confidently.
Land Conservation is critical to wild fungi and many mycological clubs or groups take on local conservation efforts as well. Though mushrooms seem much more like plants, like animals, their critical habitat is dependent on a healthy ecosystem. Remember, fungi are decomposers, so they need continual replenishment of the foliage to succeed, just like animals; no foliage, no food. No shrubs growing, no shrubs eventually dying to decompose. Just with all natural things, it is important to avoid overcollecting. The mushroom is like an apple—it is the fruit of the plant. But these are fruits of the wild and sometimes few.
Are You a Mycophile?
If you find yourself interested in the subject, take a deeper dive with this enigmatic TEDTalk by mushroom entrepreneur Paul Stamets (pictured right with the author), owner of Fungi Perfecti and author of Mycelium Running. If you prefer a long slow-cooking read, Eugenia Bone's Mycophilia is a pleasurable read covering many fungi topics. There is even the great bimonthly "Fungi Magazine"!
Sammy and his family are long-time mycophiles! From the Cascades to Alaska, Wisconsin to New Mexico, here are a few favorite moments:
All photos are the authors unless otherwise noted. With the exception of the contents on the table after the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire mycological science foray (top-center), all mushroom species pictures were positively identified before handling.