Candy caps, candy caps, candy caps. The delicious, maple-flavored mushrooms littered the forest floor — once you knew what to look for. That's where the invaluable Fungus Federation comes in. Those folks can spew out a string of Latin genus names that will make your tongue spin.

And they also have the mushroom identification skills to save your life. Recently, members of a Santa Cruz family were hospitalized after ingesting what is speculated to be the poisonous Amanita phalloides, also known as a death cap. Their experience points out how important it is to know what you are harvesting from the forest.

Unless you're sure of what you've got, it is better to simply marvel at the complexity and earthy beauty of the mushroom.

One of the ways to become more knowledgeable and perhaps enthusiastic about these tasty and sometimes deadly mushrooms is by attending the Fungus Fair, today and Sunday at the Louden Nelson Center.

Bob Sellars, one of the founders of the Fungus Federation, led a group on a foray at Marshall Fields just above the UC Santa Cruz campus on Empire Grade Road last weekend. He was collecting for the upcoming fair and was able to find fungi the rest of us passed by.

We'd tromp by, and he would turn over a seemingly innocuous clump of dirt, revealing a beautiful mushroom below. His expertise at finding them revealed his passion for the fungus. When asked why he hunts mushrooms, he says:

"I like them because they're so ephemeral. They're there and then gone, a fleeting part of our landscape. Knowing when to go out and look for them is another fun part" of the hunt.

He also likes the edible aspects of mushrooms.

"They're free. Certain ones are quite tasty. It's like having a whole different batch of foods to make recipes with," he says in admiration. "Number one, they're pretty to look at — a lot of them are just gorgeous. They are a part of nature with a lot of beauty"

His favorite edibles include king bolete, black trumpet or horn of plenty, and all edible wild agaricus like a button or portabello. He makes a lot of cookies with candy caps Lactarius fragilis. Others prefer them for creating flavored vodka.

But the poisonous ones have a strange allure as well.

"I always like finding members of genus Amanita; they're usually large, often very stately looking, noticeable, with all different colors and features," he says. "They're a solid, beautiful group of mushrooms. They look really tempting to eat. They're big, meaty, and there's often a lot of them"

Other mushrooms fun to find are inedible witches hats, which come in bright colors, lighting up against the dark of forest floor.

"Mushroom hunting is a rainy-season sport. As soon as the rains start, mushrooms follow," Sellars says. That's why the Fungus Federation, founded in 1984, meets September through May, and hosts local and long-distance forays, sometimes traveling to other parts of the state.

"I started collecting mushrooms when I moved to Santa Cruz in 1978. I lived with people who picked a lot of them when they were at UCSC," he says with a laugh, recommending that any novice first get a good mushroom identification book such as David Arora's field guide "Mushrooms Demystified" and go out with experienced people.

"Have people verify what they collected — if they want to eat them, that is," he says, also encouraging amateurs to attend some of the free I.D. classes that the federation provides.

"I always go out and get surprised. The anticipation of what you might discover that day when you go out makes it never a boring experience"

Contact Stacey Vreeken at svreeken@santacruzsentinel.com.

If You Go

WHAT: Fungus Fair.

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and Sunday.

WHERE: Louden Nelson Community Center, 301 Center St., Santa Cruz. Additional parking is available on Center Street, south of Laurel Street, near the police station.

COST: $6, $4 students and seniors; kids under 12 free.

DETAILS: www.santacruzmuseums.org or www.fungusfed.org.

WHAT: Fungus Federation.

WHEN: Third Wednesday of every month, September to May.

COST: $25 per household; $20 per year thereafter.

DETAILS: www.fungusfed.org

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Fungus Fair Schedule Today and Sunday

  • 11 a.m. Medicinal mushrooms with Christopher Hobbs, noted herbalist and author.
  • 1 p.m. Cooking demo with Todd Spanier, self-proclaimed 'King of Mushrooms.'
  • 3 p.m. Cooking demo with Jozseph Schultz, formerly of India Joze.

Additional programs, ongoing both days

  • Mushrooms 101
  • Poisonous mushrooms
  • 'Fantastic Fungi' with Taylor Lockwood
  • I.D. table: Bring mushrooms in wax paper or paper bag, not plastic.

Kids Room,

ongoing both days

  • Storytelling
  • Clay mushroom building
  • Face painting