Book Review

Common Mushrooms of the Talamanca Mountains, Costa Rica

by Roy E. Halling and Gregory M. Mueller.
NY: New York Botanical Garden Press, 2005.
ISBN 0-89327-460-7. 195 pp.

Costa Rica has earned considerable international attention for its conservation efforts and is high on ecotourists' lists of places to visit. For many such visitors, the availability of field guides allows them to increase their appreciation of the huge diversity of organisms that exists in that relatively small nation (roughly the size of New Hampshire and Vermont combined). Until recently, however, mushrooms were not among the groups for which guides existed. That has begun to change, as evidenced by this new offering from two well known U.S. mycologists who have spent considerable time studying the macrofungi of Costa Rica and other parts of Central and South America.

Cover

As the title suggests, the book is focused on the most common and distinctive species that occur in one well-studied mountain area, particularly those in its oak forests. It is not intended to be a comprehensive treatment, either taxonomically or geographically. We are still many years away from the time when such a project would be feasible.

The content and organization of the book are typical for a field guide. Sections include The Mushrooms in This Book; Introduction (notes on the biology and geological history of the Cordillera de Talamanca, Documenting the Diversity of Costa Rican Macrofungi, Goals of This Book and the Targeted Audience, Descriptive Notes, including lists of the species thought to be endemic to [occur only in] tropical Montane oak forests, and thought to form ectomycorrhizas with neotropical oaks); Recommendations for Collecting Mushrooms for Scientific Study (preparing specimens-making spore prints, taking photographs, making notes, material for DNA analysis, drying specimens, general reminders); Key to Included Families; Species Descriptions (the bulk of the book); Literature Cited; Specimen Vouchers List; Glossary; and Index.

By my count, 101 species are described in detail, each on one or two pages. Every entry includes the fungus's name and author citation; photograph(s); description (mostly using technical jargon) of macroscopic and key microscopic features (e.g., spore dimensions and shape, cystidia, gill trama, pileipellis, clamp connections); substrate, mycorrhizal host (where applicable), distribution, and commentary. The main photos are all in color, are of good quality, and are effective for identification purposes. Some were taken in the field but most were boringly staged against a neutral background in the lab. For some species, there is an additional aspect photo and/or electron micrographs of spores and/ or cystidia, and the section also includes a few habitat photos that provide a good feel for the areas in which the fungi were collected.

Russula

According to the authors, "The target audience for this treatment includes mycologists and others interested in tropical diversity, land managers, conservation biologists, educators, naturalists, nature tour guides, etc." It is mycologically authoritative, clearly laid out, and should be quite serviceable for that audience. However, the approach, especially the heavy use of jargon (e.g., "tubulose" or "lamellate hymenophore," rather than "pores" or "gills") may prove a hurdle, or at least an annoyance, for those who aren't trained mycologists. I get the sense that the book was put together by taking material from Roy's and Greg's journal publications without much editing for the less technically grounded users who comprise a large part of the intended audience. Careful editing could have increased the user-friendliness of the book, with negligible loss of precision or accuracy.

I also wish most of the photographs were larger, preferably closer to the size of the "second" photos of species covered on two pages (which are roughly 10 x 13 cm, as opposed to about 6 x 8 cm for most of the main photos). To make room for larger images, extraneous material from the description and comments could be deleted. For instance, we don't need to be told the mushroom has a lamellate hymenophore when the photo clearly shows a gilled fungus. Likewise, given the book's title, we don't need to be told in the distribution that the fungus occurs in the Talamanca Mountains of Costa Rica. In many cases the commentary repeats information from the description or distribution that adds little to our understanding and could be deleted.

Despite these quibbles, I like this little book and think it has succeeded in its intent to provide an enticing introduction to the macrofungal diversity of what by most accounts is a most wonderful part of our planet. At $19.95 it's worth picking up for an armchair excursion even if you aren't planning a Central American vacation any time soon.

This book is Vol. 90 in the Memoirs of the New York Botanical Garden Press, 200th Street and Kazimiroff Blvd., Bronx, NY 10456- 5126. Tel. 718-817-8721. E-mail <nybgpress@nybg.org>. Website www.nybg.org. Price $19.95+shipping/ handling ($6.00+5% of subtotal). U.S. checks, Visa, MasterCard, and Amex accepted.

— Review by Steve Trudell, Seattle, WA
— Originally published in The Mycophile 46:2, 2006