CA Mushrooms
CA Mushrooms

Book Review

Mushrooms of British Columbia

By Andy MacKinnon & Kem Luther
Royal BC Museum Handbook
ISBN 978-07726-795-5-0
2021; paperback, 5.5 × 8.5 inches; 504 pages
$29.95 (USA) / $34.95 (Canada); ebook $14.99 / $17.99

After more than 50 years, British Columbia (BC) has a new mushroom field guide, but one with a familiar home. In 1964, the Royal BC Museum published Guide to Common Mushrooms of British Columbia by Robert Bandoni and Adam Szczawinski as part of its Handbook series, which MacKinnon and Luther’s offering now joins.

Andy MacKinnon is a forest ecologist and co-author of six previous books, including Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast (usually just referred to hereabouts as “Pojar and MacKinnon”). He’s past president of the South Vancouver Island Mycological Society and has been known to sing about mycorrhizas to the tune of the Troggs’ 1960s hit, Love Is All Around. Kem Luther is former dean of a communications, culture, and information technology program at the University of Toronto. Since the 1990s he has focused on writing interpretive articles and books. Both live on the south coast of Vancouver Island.

Their intent was to produce a guide specific to BC for anyone wanting to know about the province’s mushrooms, whether to study them with scientific goals, harvest them for the table (seemingly the largest target audience given the frequent reference to “foraging,” which means to search for food), or photograph them. "e 350 species were chosen to represent BC’s most common and more easily identified mushrooms, as well as some less common, but distinctive, species. "e book clearly is aimed at those with relatively little experience with mushrooms — species are referred to by common names throughout, anything resembling a technical term has been avoided (although many unused terms are included in the glossary), and no information on microscopic features is included, even when essential for an accurate identification.

The organization is typical for a field guide. "e sections comprise Introduction (About this Guide, What Are Mushrooms? Mushroom Life Cycles, Ecological Roles, How to Use this Guide, Species Descriptions, Collecting and Eating Wild Mushrooms, Other Ways to Enjoy Mushrooms, Other Resources, References Cited), Guide to Mushroom Groups (the book’s only “key”), Mushroom Descriptions (Veined, Gilled [broken down by spore color and taxonomic subgroups], Boletes, Toothed, Clubs, Corals, Polypores, Jelly Fungi, Puffballs, Bird’s Nest Fungi, Morels and Similar, Cups, Truffles, Other Fungi), Acknowledgments, Glossary, Credits, and Index.

Each of the 350 species descriptions occupies a single page and includes a generously-sized photo (kudos for that), the mushroom’s names (both common and scientific [without author], with the common name emphasized), macromorphological features of cap, gills/pores/teeth/veins, latex, odor, taste, spore color, stem, ring, volva, “fruiting” (habit, substrate, habitat, season), edibility, similar species, and comments, the latter nearly always including the meaning of the species epithet and sometimes that of the genus as well. "e names are as up-to-date as can be expected, given that it’s almost guaranteed that some will change between the time the manuscript is completed and the book is printed and hits the street. Most of the recent names are used in the headings, but some appear in the Comments section.

The text is clear and well written, and side-bar-type diversions, such as discussions of dyeing with mushrooms and the possible effects of climate change on fungi, are scattered among the species accounts to shed light on various aspects of mushrooming.

The photos were provided by roughly 60 contributors (fewer than 10 were taken by the authors) so their quality varies widely. Quite a few are excellent (including the very attractive cover shot), most are good (although some of these had their tops unaesthetically chopped off to increase room for text), and the color rendition is good. However, a handful are poorly exposed and/or don’t show the mushrooms at all well and should never have found their way into a book. A number are attractive pictorial shots that don’t show the key identification features well. Small inset photos are provided in some descriptions — some of these are helpful but others are too small to be very useful. Note: the photo allegedly of Suillus lakei actually shows S. ampliporus (previously referred to by the European name, “S. cavipes”).

Warning: common-names rant ahead. Feel free to proceed to the next paragraph. I don’t like the decision to use so-called “common” names to refer to the species. the purpose of names is to promote communication—so that we can be sure we are talking about the same thing. If there was a universally agreed-to list of common names, such as pretty much exists for North American birds, using those names would be fine. But few mushrooms have legitimate common names because only a tiny handful of them are familiar to most people. Arguments that such names are needed because scientific names are unpronounceable hold no water. Folks deal easily with “rhododendron,” “eucalyptus,” “rhinoceros,” hippopotamus,” Homo sapiens, and Tyrannosaurus rex, so Amanita, Boletus, and Tricholoma should not present a problem. Is “ambiguous stropharia” any easier to pronounce than Stropharia ambigua? Many of the names used will only lead to increased confusion — “honey mushroom” is used just for Armillaria ostoyae when it is widely used for A. mellea or more generally for all its closely related species; “amethyst laccaria” already is used for Laccaria amethystina, but here it is applied to L. amethysteooccidentalis; Peziza varia is the “brown cup,” even though that name could be used for nearly every peziza, as well as many other cups. Some mycenas are “mycena,” but others are “bonnet;” some gymnopilus are “gym,” but others “flamecap.” this may work for someone who uses only this book and interacts only with other users of it, but relying on mostly manufactured common names merely serves to handicap further learning.

So, with that out of the way, how does the species coverage compare with that of other similar guides? I found it interesting that the authors steadfastly avoided including BC as part of the “US” Pacific Northwest, seeing as how the province is in the southwest of Canada. However, a large part of BC is biologically part of what is generally referred to as the North American Pacific Northwest (PNW) and books covering the PNW are relevant for folks wishing to know about the province’s mushrooms.

Guides focused on the PNW include the venerable New Savory Wild Mushroom (Margaret McKenny-Daniel Stuntz- Joe Ammirati), Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest (Steve Trudell-Joe Ammirati), the forthcoming revised edition of Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest (Steve Trudell), Mushrooms of the Northwest (Teresa Marrone- Drew Parker), Mushrooms of Cascadia: An Illustrated Key (Michael Beug), and Mushrooms of Western Canada (titled Mushrooms of Northwest North America in the USA; Helene Schalkwijk- Barendsen). I’m not including David Arora’s two books, Mushrooms Demystified and All that the Rain Promises, both of which have been popular but cover a broader area than the PNW and are in need of updating. Similarly, Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast (Noah Siegel and Christian Schwarz) includes a large number of PNW species and is very useful here, but also many that do not extend into most of the PNW. !us including these three books in quantitative comparisons would have been difficult.

Together, the seven PNW guides cover over 1,400 species. Of the 350 species treated in Mushrooms of BC, only about 20 are not included in any of the other six guides, whereas about 70% appear in at least three of the others. This is in keeping with the objective of featuring the most common BC mushrooms but also highlights the fact that the other guides are useful north of the border (and, conversely, that the BC book is useful south of the border). Comparing the different books also demonstrates the tradeoffs that are inherent in writing a field guide, seeing as how it is impossible to cover all the species in an area, include workable keys for their identification, describe them in detail, and illustrate them with large clear photographs, ideally with more than one image per species. Mushrooms of BC, similar to Mushrooms of the Northwest, mostly includes the most common species. In contrast to the latter book’s small size, the larger format and higher page count of Mushrooms of BC allows for large photos and more extensive text descriptions. In contrast, Michael Beug’s Mushrooms of Cascadia: An Illustrated Key was designed to cover a much larger number of species (just shy of 900 by my count), including many uncommon ones, in a smaller package (same page size but only 314 pages, rather than 500). Over half of the 900 appear only in that book or in just one of the other six. However, the text is in the form of an extended polychotomous key with very brief leads and inserted commentary and the photos range from small to tiny. thus, it will not function effectively as a stand-alone guide and, indeed, Beug strongly suggests using it in conjunction with the free software program, MycoMatch (formerly MatchMaker), which includes detailed descriptions of several thousand PNW species and photographs of a large number of them. Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest (both the original and forthcoming revised edition) takes an intermediate approach, including close to 500 species in each (nearly 750 in the two editions combined), emphasis on commentary rather than lengthy morphological descriptions, and many smaller-than ideal-sized photos. Unsurprisingly, it is intermediate in its coverage of not-so-common species—falling short of Beug’s total, but considerably larger than that of Mushrooms of BC. the single perfect field guide doesn’t exist, so buy them all!

A few miscellaneous complaints: there are several references of the sort, “results from a (insert date) study indicate that . . . ” but no author names and publication details are given such that an interested user could go read them. Occasional bits of misinformation are presented. That mushrooms produced by ectomycorrhizal fungi “only grow in forests at least 30 to 40 years old” is not true. I have observed huge fruitings of Tricholoma vaccinum in 15–20 year-old Sitka spruce stands. the claim that at least some of the morels are mycorrhizal is questionable, if not false. While there is a widespread belief among mushroom hunters that they are mycorrhizal, there is no well substantiated evidence for it. And the Index is absolutely horrible. Many entries (primarily those for the genera and using the scientific names) are in paragraph form, making it difficult to find what you’re after. Plus, initial feedback from users has indicated that there are many missing entries.

Quibbles aside, this is an attractive, well produced guide that will serve its intended audience well and should be in the library of every PNW mushroom hunter.

— Review by Steve Trudell
— Originally published in Fungi