Book Review

California Mushrooms:
The Comprehensive Identification Guide

By Dennis E. Desjardin, Michael G. Wood, and Frederick A. Stevens
2015, Timber Press
ISBN: 978-1-60469-353-9 (560 pages, hardcover)
Price: $60

The literature for identifying California mushrooms is expanding. After 2 or 3 decades of dominance by Mushrooms Demystified, Field Guide to Mushrooms of Western North America by Michael Davis, Robert Sommer, and John Menge made its appearance in 2012 and now, after an unfortunate false start, a substantial effort by three well known San Francisco Bay Area mycologists has entered the field. And that’s not all—still another large effort is in the works, covering the mushrooms of the iconic redwood region of coastal northern California and southern Oregon.

Dennis Desjardin is Professor of Biology at San Francisco State University, where he received his master’s degree under the supervision of the late Harry Thiers, to whom the book is dedicated. Upon Harry’s retirement, Dennis was hired as his successor and has carried on the Thiers tradition of research on fungus systematics and award-winning teaching. Mike Wood and Fred Stevens are long-time members of the Mycological Society of San Francisco who also were influenced heavily by Thiers and have played important roles in the annual field course held at the University’s Sierra Nevada Field Campus, both during the Thiers years and later during the courses taught by Desjardin. Wood also is the creator of (and Stevens an important contributor to) the popular website, MykoWeb, an excellent source of information on the mushrooms of California and beyond.

This book is rightfully entitled an “identification guide,” rather than “field guide.” It is large, 8½ × 11 inches (280 × 215 mm), heavy, and much too pretty to expose to rain and mud in the field. The contents consist of pretty much the standard stuff one finds in mushroom guides but in a larger format. The front matter includes the dedication, acknowledgments, introduction, and suggestions on how to identify mushrooms and how to use the book. The introduction includes sections on what fungi are, the authors’ philosophies and other matters related to why the book is what it is, nomenclature and taxonomy, morphology and phylogeny, biology of mushrooms, mushroom ecology, when and where to find mushrooms, and edible and poisonous mushrooms. The nomenclature and taxonomy, and morphology and phylogeny, sections, which aren’t included in most guides, should be particularly helpful for understanding why there is such a high rate of change in mushroom names. It isn’t simply to frustrate field mycologists.

The back matter includes a glossary; lists of plant names arranged by common name, literature cited, and California mushroom clubs; photo credits; and index.

According to the publisher’s blurb, 650 species are profiled and another 450 are briefly described or at least mentioned (out of a very conservatively estimated 3000 species in the state, so publisher please note that the book actually isn’t “comprehensive”). The mushrooms section opens with a key to the main body forms or morphotypes. Each of the types is illustrated with a thumbnail photo of a typical member of the group. The gilled fungi are further broken down by spore color group. Further keys to the genera, or multi-genus groups (such as chanterelles, lepiotoid, and tricholomatoid), and to the species in those groups include only the 650 featured species. They are based on macro features and ecology and appear to be workable, although the authors rightly warn that coming to an answer in the key does not mean one has successfully identified the mushroom, as it could belong to a species not included in the book. Thus one should keep an open mind and not try to force a fit.

Each genus, or other group, is introduced with a general discussion that precedes the key to the species in that group. The species profiles follow, in alphabetical order. Each one includes the scientific name with author; common name if it has a widely used one; short list of selected synonyms or misapplied names if there are any; descriptions of cap, hymenophore (the authors don’t shy away from using technical terms), stipe, odor, taste, spores and other micro-features, habitat, and edibility; and a useful comments section with additional information, comparison with closely related or similar species, indication of the existence of undescribed species, and so forth. Each profile includes a generously sized (mostly about 4-3/4 × 3-1/4 inches), good-to-excellent quality photograph (in some cases, two photos are provided). Wood and Stevens provided the bulk of the photos, with Desjardin and 21 other photographers contributing additional images. The “false start” mentioned in the opening paragraph involved a reprinting of the book (delaying its release by almost a year) to correct the overly dark appearance of many of the photographs. The affected photos look much better in the reprinted version, although now some photos that I thought looked fine are a bit on the bright side. If it’s not one thing …

The design is attractive and the production quality of the book is high—it is sturdily bound and I spotted only a tiny number of errors. However, no book is perfect and I must take issue with a few of the authors’ statements concerning distributions and relatedness. A number of the species are claimed to be “endemic,” that is to occur in California and nowhere else. We simply know too little about the distributions of mushroom-fungi to make such assertions confidently and, to illustrate, two of the supposed endemics (Hygrocybe virescens [see Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest, p. 65] and Tricholoma dryophilum [fide Dr. Michael Beug]) have been found in Washington state. Other species are said not to exist in California and these claims probably are true. But it is impossible to prove a negative and one never knows when a surprising first find might be made, especially when the mushroom-fungi spend most of their time out of sight. Better to say that such species are not known from, or have not been recorded from, the state. And finally, there are statements about two mushroom species being unrelated. If one accepts the fact of evolution, and I am pretty sure that the authors do, then all organisms are related and it’s merely a matter of how closely or distantly. So please say “not closely related” rather than “unrelated.” Of course, such quibbles have little bearing on the main purpose of the book—to provide a means for identifying the fungi—and it will serve that purpose very well.

At $60, the book isn’t cheap, but it offers good value. It’s an excellent addition to the mushroom literature for the West Coast and should be in the library of all who would attempt to identify the mushrooms of California or surrounding areas.

— Review by Steve Trudell, Seattle, WA
— Originally published in Mycophile