How mushrooms are touching all aspects of Utah culture, from house bills to nature

Casual hobbyists and serious seekers show their fascination with fungi in Facebook groups.

(Illustration by Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) A collection of photographs of mushrooms submitted to The Tribune by members of the Mushrooms of Utah Facebook group. Photos submitted by Brandee Aragon, Korbin Haveron, Raymond Smithson, Tyler Hacking, Ethan Macintosh, Jennie Frandsen, Tama Anderson, Morgan Hansen and Sage Chatterton.

Mushrooms grow all over in Utah — and the fascination with them is growing, too.

Several Facebook groups are dedicated to mycology, the study of fungi, with thousands of members discussing the mushrooms they find around the state. They are passionate, and sometimes argumentative, about mushrooms.

One group, the Mushroom Society of Utah, has been lobbying to have the porcini — a species that grows in mountainous areas, such as Utah’s forests — named the state’s official mushroom. The lobbying effort has made significant progress, enlisting Rep. Christine Watkins, R-Price, to sponsor a bill in the 2023 legislative session.

“Because they make up so much of the biomass that our forest trees are growing in, they’re in 50% of the soil, that’s a huge indicator of forest health,” said Ashley Simon, president of the Mushroom Society of Utah, explaining the choice of species.

Watkins has experience with such bills, having helped designate the honeycomb calcite as Utah’s state stone in 2021.

Watkins told The Salt Lake Tribune that she was approached by Sen. Jan Iwamoto, D-Salt Lake City about the mushroom bill.

“They’re ready to sell this mushroom,” Watkins said of the bill’s supporters, who have even created an online petition. “They told me the porcini is very prevalent in Utah and it plays a huge ecological part [in our state].”

Simon said the bill will do more than give Utah another state object. “By having a state mushroom, we can bring attention to the fungal kingdom and get more support and attention paid to this critical part of our ecosystem,” she said.

Types of mushroom lovers

Another group, Mushrooms of Utah, has nearly 16,000 members spread across all corners of the state, united through Facebook. The group’s founder and owner, Don Johnston, said he is “baffled” at how popular the group is.

Johnston said he launched Mushrooms of Utah in 2019, because he wanted a discussion group to talk about whether some mushrooms were edible.

Such discussions are absent from the Facebook page of the Mushroom Society of Utah (of which Johnston is a former president). It’s not a policy, said Simon, but a preference of different leaders in the group. (As further proof of the cross-pollination of the two groups, Simon sometimes moderates the Mushrooms of Utah’s Facebook page.)

In Johnston’s group, for example, a member can upload a photo of a mushroom, and others can weigh in on whether it’s edible or not.

“Some people have contrasting opinions. Some people think some mushrooms are edible and others think they are not,” Johnston said, adding that one of his favorite mushrooms “can potentially be poisonous to some other people.”

The Mushrooms of Utah group is designed to help people identify mushrooms by their scientific names, and prompt discussions about them. On the group’s Facebook page, it declares that “Mushrooms of Utah is dedicated to the amateur mushroom collector who may wish to eat some of the mushrooms you’ve found. We will attempt to inform participants on various aspects of toxicity.”

But there’s a warning attached: “Bear in mind, there is no rule of thumb to tell a poisonous mushroom from an edible one. You must know the specific identity of any mushroom.”

Johnston wrote a book, “Mushrooms of Utah,” some 20 years ago, after he found some “very large puffball mushrooms” growing outdoors that piqued his curiosity and started him researching.

For Johnston, the best part of the group is seeing the different mushrooms people find all over Utah, and helping them identify each one.

One of the rules of the Facebook group is “no promotion of illegal substances.” Johnston said the group is “against the use of psychedelic mushrooms for recreational use. They can be and are being used medicinally, by medical professionals.” Trying to balance that rule with the enthusiasm of some group members, he said, “gets pretty complex from time to time.”

Mushrooms for this and that

Mushrooms of Utah caters to the casual hobbyist and serious mushroom hunter alike.

Tama Anderson and her daughter, Bronwyn, 15, started foraging for mushrooms when Bronwyn was 12, so they could explore the Uinta Mountains and get away from screens.

Bronwyn, her mother said, has always been in tune with nature. “She’s always been kind of a little naturalist of a kid,” Tama said.

Mostly, they forage in Vernal and other nearby spots in the Uinta Mountains. They have taken trips to Kanab, in far southern Utah, and at Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons in the Salt Lake Valley.

Sometimes, they don’t need to venture farther than their own front yard.

“We’ve found different varieties [at our] half an acre, which is full of trees and everything,” Tama Anderson said. Her son maintains saltwater tanks, and he changes out the water near a particular tree in the yard. “This fall we found these puffball mushrooms growing there that only grow in a salty water environment,” she said. “We cultivated our own variety of mushrooms.”

Anderson said the experiences have been an “exciting science experiment” and they have had memorable mushroom moments — like when they found a mushroom (which they dubbed “UFO mushroom” because of its flat top) by Spirit Lake in the Uinta Mountains.

“I think mushroom hunting, although fun to find new and interesting mushrooms, is most beneficial because it teaches how to slow down and respect the delicate balance of nature,” Anderson said.

Being able to see the great outdoors and get down to seek mushrooms has reminded the Andersons that “nature [is] sometimes dirty, but sometimes you have to get dirty to find the real beautiful things in life.”

For Yesenia Aguilar, who has been foraging for three years, a time-lapse YouTube video of a mushroom growing that sparked her curiosity.

“It was really cool how fast they grow and [how] every single different type of mushroom grows differently,” she said.

Aguilar has taken to making her own mushroom-art jewelry. She creates earrings, bracelets, necklaces and rings. The most popular items are mushroom- and forest-themed terrariums, made out of smaller mushroom species she forages.

She started making jewelry after getting in a car accident, that put her on bed rest for four months. She wasn’t able to forage much at the time. Aguilar used the mushrooms from her mother’s backyard after she saw people making floral pendants. Now she preserves the mushrooms in resin and other tools, so they don’t smell.

“You think of a really musky smell when you think about mushrooms, but different mushrooms have different smells,” Aguilar said. “I have some mushrooms I collected and they smell like maple syrup.”

Since creating her first jewelry three years ago, Aguilar now sells them at events all over Utah, from Eagle Mountain to Park City. She also has an Etsy shop.

The most joyful part about mushrooms, she said, is going outside to enjoy nature and coming across “these tiny little presents. … It’s interesting to see what kind of insects have built their homes around them. You just come around these whimsical scenes.”

Science and economics

Others, like Ryan Jacobsen, see scientific and economic benefits in Utah’s mushrooms.

Jacobsen has been growing mushrooms for 20 years, first in California and now in Utah’s Cache Valley, where he founded his company, Bear River Mushrooms. (According to its website, the company sells mushrooms May through October at the Cache Valley Gardeners’ Market, so Jacobsen is in his off-season now.)

Jacobsen’s interest in mushrooms goes back to childhood.

“Mushrooms were just something that were always kind of mysterious to me because they don’t really grow the same as plants,” Jacobson said.

“When I was a kid, I tried digging them up out of my yard once when I found them and putting them in a pot,” he said. “I believed that they had to grow in the dark, so I potted them up and put them inside a shed, then forgot about them.”

“When I moved here, I looked around and didn’t see anyone growing mushrooms, so we started up the farm,” he said.

“Initially, it was a lot of education that had to be done,” Jacobson added, noting that each mushroom grows differently. Groups like Mushrooms of Utah, he said, help farmers like him because they educate the general public.

Some people think they can get rid of a mushroom by picking it off the yard — but, with some types, he said, “that mushroom is the fruit of the organism. That’s like picking an apple off of a tree.”

Jacobsen said he enjoys the Mushrooms of Utah Facebook page because it teaches “about the types of mushrooms. … Anything that gets people excited about eating something that’s not a white button mushroom that you buy at the grocery store is a good thing.”

For Tyler Hacking, a recent botany graduate from Utah Valley University, education goes beyond edibility.

“The more that I learned about plants and soil chemistry, the more I realized that fungi are fundamentally critical to all of the ecosystems on the earth,” Hacking said.

When it comes to ideal fungi growth environments, Hacking said, Utah is interesting because it has every type of habitat for different species of mushrooms. Utah, he said, is “spoiled” when it comes to diversity in edible and medicinal mushrooms.

The recent waves of snow storms, Hacking said, will be the biggest factor in determining how many mushrooms will grow in the upcoming season.

Hacking cites the morel mushroom, of which some 30 species grow in Utah. The morel’s honeycomb caps are prized by chefs, who will pay $20 a pound for them, according to AllRecipes.com.

Why so expensive? Because they are hard to cultivate, have a short growing season, and are perishable because they’re hollow and don’t ship well, according to AllRecipes.com. (There also are false morels, which look a lot like the true morels except they’re not hollow. Some false morels are poisonous.)

“They’re not like other mushrooms,” Hacking said. “They have special depths of their lifecycle that are difficult to reproduce.”

Though Hacking said the risks of overharvesting morels, or any species, in Utah is minimal — “there’s a lot of wilderness in Utah,” he said — he advised people not to harvest mushrooms that are still underdeveloped.

“Pretty much leave the small ones,” he said. “It’d be pretty hard to kill all the fungi, because they just live throughout all of the soil in the whole state.”

And, like the warning on the Mushrooms of Utah Facebook page, Hacking advised mushroom foragers not to eat anything that hasn’t been properly identified — to make sure it isn’t toxic.

Hacking said he tries to be as active as he can be in Utah’s mycology community. He said he’s on the Mycology Society of America’s education committee, trying to design requirements for a mushroom identification merit badge for the Boy Scouts of America.

Utah isn’t unique in its mushroom obsession, Hacking said. But because of the state’s variety of ecological habitats, and a population full of “outdoorsy people,” he said, it’s a perfect match.