Santa Cruz Celebrates Mushroom Bloom at Historic Fungus Fair

The Fungus Fair celebrates its 50th, this year at the London Nelson Center in Downtown Santa Cruz, as mushrooms seem to pop up everywhere.

By Bridget Lyons

Jan. 9, 2024—Mushrooms are having a moment over in Santa Cruz County.

The evidence for this?

  1. I can’t seem to ride or run in the mountains without seeing at least ten different species right next to the trail.
  2. Mushroom walks are selling out.
  3. The Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History’s recent Mushroom Market was so crowded I had to park my bike across the street.
  4. Three people told me they were buying mushroom grow kits as holiday gifts.
  5. January’s Fungus Fair is shaping up to be the event of the winter.

We seem to be experiencing some sort of perfect storm. There are more mushrooms out in the woods than there have been in years, likely a result of the rainfall we experienced last winter. On top of that, there’s more interest than ever in these fascinating creatures. And for good reason—scientists have discovered that fungi enable trees to communicate with each other through what is now being called the “wood wide web.” As decomposers, they play critical roles in nutrient cycling. And some varieties, as many of us know, are delicious.

But mushroom mania isn’t at all new to Santa Cruz.

“This town loves mushrooms,” said Marisa Gomez, Community Education and Collaboration Manager at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. And it has for a long time.

Case in point: The Fungus Fair, an iconic three-day event, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. From Jan. 12-14, the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History and the Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz will join forces to display hundreds of species of fungi (labeled with their common and Latin names, of course!) at the London Nelson Community Center. The event also boasts a packed schedule of guest speakers, demonstrations, activities, and vendors.

The fair was started back in 1974. It was originally held at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History’s charming facility on East Cliff Drive and Pilkington Avenue, but as it grew, it moved first to the Harvey West Community Center and then to the London Nelson Community Center. These larger indoor venues have allowed organizers to assemble displays in advance—a key advantage, given that the fair’s famous replicas of woodland environments have grown increasingly complex over the years.

The Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz registered its non-profit status in 1984, making it 40 years old this year. To use their words, the Federation is “made up of a collection of creative individuals who come together for the study and pursuit of wild mushrooms.” Today, the group boasts approximately 350 members who have the opportunity to participate in day-long excursions, multi-day foraging trips, monthly meetings, periodic dinners, and an active email listserv dedicated to mushroom identification.

Santa Cruz has produced a number of well-known mycologists, no doubt thanks in part to the existence of its active and visible community of mushroom enthusiasts. The most famous of the cadre is probably David Arora, author of Mushrooms Demystified, the book that has, since its publication in 1979, been considered the authority on western US fungi. Arora lived in Santa Cruz until 2004 and played a significant role in getting both the Fungus Fair and the Fungus Federation up and running.

Christian Schwarz, co-author with Noah Siegel of the popular identification resource Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast, is another Santa Cruz “mycogeek.” He can be found teaching mushroom workshops both online and through the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. In fact, he will be the keynote speaker at this year’s Fungus Fair.

Phil Carpenter is the Science Advisor of the Fungus Federation. As such, he’s the organization’s go-to identification guru, the man you’re bound to see in the vicinity of the specimens at the Fungus Fair. “In good years with ample rain like this one, I expect a wide diversity of genera to be represented, with as many as 250 different species on display,” Carpenter said. “We should still see some fall species, lots of winter species and maybe even some spring species.” He recently received the Harry and Elsie Knighton Service Award from the North American Mycological Association for his service to the community of fungi enthusiasts.

For the last three years, COVID prevented the Fungus Fair from assuming its full and festive format, yet the mini-fairs and online events that were held had hundreds of attendees. With the fair back at London Nelson, it’s guaranteed to be a huge gathering—one worthy of both the rich history of fungi enthusiasm in Santa Cruz County and the impressive flush of fungi we’re currently experiencing in our local mountains.

Hilltromper is proud to be a sponsor of the 50th Annual Santa Cruz Fungus Fair, January 12-14,2024.

For more fun with fungi, read "A Mushroom Walk with Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History" on Hilltromper Santa Cruz.