It's a good idea to know about our local fungi, especially if you have children or pets
Mushrooms are actually the spore-bearing, fruiting bodies of fungi. They pop out of the ground in order to spread their spores for reproduction. They have an underground network of threadlike cells called mycelium that can live for many years, often growing in mulched areas, compost piles or on decaying tree bark and roots.
Mushrooms are a highly sought-after delicacy around the world. But don't start picking them and bringing them into your kitchen without knowing what you're doing. In fact, never consume a mushroom you find unless you are 100 percent certain what it is or have had it properly identified by a qualified professional. I've listed some resources below.
Mushrooms come in all shapes and sizes. Some mushrooms have caps (curved tops) with gills (feathery membranes) or pores (small holes) underneath. The caps are usually supported by stipes (stems/stalks). Others have rings and cups. Some varieties have stems that rise from a cup (also called the volva). In order to properly identify some mushrooms, a “spore print” and molecular identification is often required, said Hung Doan of the UC Davis Department of Plant Pathology.
One of the most common mushrooms here is the turkey tail (Trametes versicolor), which can be found nearly anywhere you find decomposing stumps, logs or old wood. Their clustered, fan-shaped masses have contrasting shades of brown to reddish-brown, and their caps are velvety and slightly fuzzy.
Another common species found in our area is the Armillaria (often called honey fungus), one of the largest living organisms in the world. It is a parasitic fungus that feeds on living and dead plant material. Their yellowish-brown caps can be convex or conical and are generally moist and sticky to the touch.
One specimen of the species, Armillaria solidipes, found in Oregon, is said to be 2,400 years old, and covers more than 3.4 square miles!
Although thought to be rare here in California. I found what appears to be Boletus erythropus in my own backyard. Since the mushroom is not fresh, proper identification can be difficult. Doan said it is likely one of two species — Suillellus amygdalinus (formerly Boletus amygdalinus) or Boletus erythropus.
Its unusual and varied color really caught my eye. The large caps vary from dark to light brown or even coppery bronze. The pores start out orange and then become bright red to rusty brown. The spore tubes are lemon-yellow but turn bluish-green when cut or bruised. They can be found under spruce and beech trees, and occasionally under oaks, as this one was.
Several varieties of mushrooms are toxic, but very few are actually deadly. One of the most deadly found here in the Bay Area is the Amanita phalloides, Death Cap, which has rings and cups as described above. It accounts for nearly 50 percent of all deaths caused by mushrooms. Symptoms of toxicity include severe cramping, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach pain. It can cause liver and kidney damage, and as the name implies, often death.
Its large, spore-less cap can be 2-6 inches wide and can range in color from pale yellow to olive-green. The cap is covered by a thin white veil. Stems and gills are usually white and have a ring and cup (you may have to dig into the soil to see them). It is often mistaken for the edible Paddy Straw mushroom (Volvariella volvacea), which has pinkish-brown gills.
Death Caps are generally found when out hiking and or foraging in our coastal hills where coast live oak and cork trees are found but can be found in urban areas as well.
There are edible varieties of Amanita, but avoid them unless you are a skilled and experienced “shroomer”.
There are many mycologists (those who study fungi) right here in the Bay Area. To learn more, or to join an upcoming foraging adventure, check out these organizations:
- Bay Area Mycological Society (BAMS)
- Mycological Society of San Francisco (MSSF)
- Sonoma County Mycological Association (SOMA)
by UC Master Gardener Rebecca Jepsen
This article first appeared in the January 27, 2019 issue of the San Jose Mercury News.
“Rodale's Basic Organic Gardening: A Beginner's Guide to Starting a Healthy Garden”, by Deborah L. Martin
If you want to start your first garden or want a refresher on the basics of organic gardening, this is a good book to start with. It is written in a friendly, easy-to-read style. It provides information on soil, plant care, pest and weed control, and attracting beneficial insects to the garden.
“California Plants, A guide to Our Iconic Flora”, by Matt Ritter
The gardener interested in California native plants will love this book. The photos are fantastic and there's one for every plant mentioned. Not only does the book list both the common and scientific names, it also includes the history and origin of each plant. There are also maps that show growing regions.
“Private Gardens of the Bay Area”, by Susan Lowry and Nancy Berner; photographed by Marion Brenner
This well-done, coffee table format book showcases more than 35 private gardens in the San Francisco Bay Area. It has stunning photos as well as inspiring landscaping ideas for tiny spaces, hillsides, and even rooftop gardening. Information on soil and microclimates is included as well.
“Hot Color, Dry Garden: Inspiring Designs and Vibrant Plants for the Waterwise Gardener”, by Nan Sterman
Drought and dry weather are becoming the new normal here in California. If you want to have colorful, vibrant, low-water gardens that are teaming with birds, butterflies, and wildlife, this book provides good information and photos to get you going.
“Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots: Gardening Together with Children”, by Sharon Lovejoy
This is a great book to get your kids excited about gardening! You'll find instructions for creating a moon garden, pizza garden, pumpkin garden and even a garden in a boot. With a list of the 20 best plants for kids and instructions on making seed tapes, your kids will be digging right in!
“The Flower Gardener's Bible: A Complete Guide to Colorful Blooms All Season Long”, by Lewis Hill and Nancy Hill
Although the authors live on the East Coast, the information and format provided in this book will be useful to both the novice gardener or seasoned guru. It not only offers really good design information, it also has details on soil fertility, plant groupings, watering, cuttings, bouquets, gardening arts, and lighting.
“Golden Gate Gardening ” by Pamela Pierce
The third edition of this famous book, often called the go-to encyclopedia of vegetable gardening, has more than 400 pages of tried-and-true information on growing year-round herbs, fruits, and veggies throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Concise, clear data is given on what and when to grow from seed and transplant, pests, disease, weeds, watering and even harvesting.
“The New Western Garden Book: The Ultimate Gardening Guide Sunset”, by The Editors of Sunset
Known as the Gardening Bible of the West, and now in its ninth edition, this is THE book almost all nursery experts and gardeners go to. The new addition has added more than 500 new plants and even more photos. It provides details on our local hyper-climates, planting in regard to space requirements, how to plant, plant care, pruning and much, more. …
Thanks to the Master Gardeners who gave their input on great garden books to give: Ingrid Graeve, Janet Hamma, Paula Larkin Hutton, and Heather Dooley.
by UC Master Gardener Rebecca Jepsen
This article first appeared in the December 23, 2018 issue of the San Jose Mercury News.
I planted it in a spot on the side of our home near the driveway where I had had a hard time getting anything to grow and really take off.
Let me tell you, I hit passion-pay-dirt with this little one-gallon plant! Not only has it taken off, it is trying to take over the side of my small, built-in porch.
Passiflora, or passion flower, is a genus of more than 500 species of flowering plants. Most are vines that have prolific tendrils for climbing, but some grow as hearty shrubs or even trees. Ninety-five percent of Passiflora edulis, or passion fruit, (often known as granadillas) come from South America. The rest come from Asia, Australia, and North America. They are edible, vining varieties that are coveted for their fruit as well as their juice. Fruit can either be purple, yellow or bright green and can range in size from as small as a pea to as large as a grapefruit.
They are sensitive to severe frost and prefer a moderately cool area when planted in warm climates. They like a relatively humid, moist area – but not too wet. If you decide to plant one, be sure to provide enough irrigation throughout the warmer months, but cut back on the water when the cooler weather hits.
Be sure to amend with organic compost, agriculture lime and bone meal. When I planted mine, I mixed in organic soil amendment, some compost and a little bit of slow-release organic fertilizer (as I do with most everything I plant).
Passionfruit are really beautiful plants with dark green foliage and unusual, striking flowers that look like little fringy-starbursts. Flowers can range from vibrant red and brilliant fuchsia to blue, pink, all shades of purple and even tricolored.
Although my plant had no tag, I believe it is the common purple granadilla because of its creamy white petals, deep purple crown and lime green ovary, anthers, and stigma.
It has been in the ground for six to eight months, and I am so impressed with how easy it has been to grow. I am trying to train it into an espalier form. I just trimmed away about half of the plant and made four horizontal branches across the length of my porch (see photo).
I have already harvested a couple of fruits and they are quite tasty.
Even though flowers only last for a day or two and plants only survive three to six years – I would highly recommend trying one out. If you have the patience, you can try to grow it from seed, but if you're are like me just pick up a transplant from your local nursery or farmer's market and give it a grow!
You can sometimes find fresh passion fruit and juice in your local market. It is also becoming a popular ingredient in drinks, cakes, icing, ice cream, and yogurt.
by UC Master Gardener Rebecca Jepsen
This article first appeared in the November 25, 2018 print issue of the San Jose Mercury News.
However, where they decide to nest can quickly turn them from friend to foe!
I was recently weeding a planting bed near our barbecue when I was stung in the abdomen and chest by a couple of aggressive little wasps. Our outdoor fire pit and dining area are in the same general area and we, and our dog, hang out there all the time. The wasps were flying around a stacked-rock retaining wall, so I sprayed some hornet and wasp spray into the crevices and figured I had solved the problem.
But a week later when I saw several wasps flying around the same area, I was surprised to see them emerging from the ground behind the wall. I decided I needed some help with the situation and immediately called Deb Conwayn with GirlzWurk in Saratoga. Deb is a beekeeper, does bee removal and relocation, and sells amazing honey. I was lucky to reach her right away and she came to our house the same day.
When we removed a large section of the stacked wall and dug a few feet into the soil, we found a huge, eight-layer yellowjacket nest. Deb guessed that there were at least 5,000 live yellowjackets in there! She smoked and removed the hive and vacuumed up the wasps. Apparently, they had created their nest in an abandoned gopher hole.
These yellowjackets were smaller and darker than most that I had seen so I sent the photos off to UC Davis for identification. Per Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at Davis, mine was a Vespula vulgaris, or common wasp. “It's the second most abundant yellowjacket in California after Pensylvanica, the so-called western yellowjacket.” said Kimsey.
Vesplua is a small genus of social wasps. They, along with their sister genus, Dolichovespula, are known as yellowjackets or yellow jackets. Vespula vulgaris have a stronger tendency to nest in the ground than other species.
Their normal habitat is dry grasslands and woodlands, however, they have certainly adapted to our urban areas. Only the queens survive the winter. They emerge in the spring to build their paper-like nests (made from chewed wood pulp) in hidden cavities like animal burrows, tree stumps, or in crevices like rock walls.
The initial brood of larva, which is cared for by the queen, hatch into workers who continue to build and protect the nest. They also care for the subsequent broods. Workers only live about two to four weeks and are replaced throughout the summer.
Again, all wasps can be beneficial and definitely serve a purpose. But, if you or a family member are allergic to their venom or they have taken up residence in a place that is intolerable, you may want to take action to relocate or eradicate them.
Deb Conway services most of the South Bay and can be reached at 408-373-0454. Find other good bee removal services at BeeRemovalSource.
by UC Master Gardener Rebecca Jepsen
This article first appeared in the October 28, 2018 print issue of the San Jose Mercury News.
The tarantula hawk (Pepsis formosa) is actually a spider wasp that can grow up to 2 1/2 inches long with a 4-inch-wide wingspan. This one had a beautiful blackish-blue, metallic body with vivid, bright orange wings. Some have shiny blue/black wings that match its body. It has long black antennae and six velvety black legs with hook-like claws on the ends.
As the name indicates, they prey on tarantulas, which they need as hosts for their larvae. (I have only seen one tarantula on my property in the six plus years we have lived here).
Only the females sting. She will fly low to the ground looking for spiders. When she finds a tarantula's burrow she will disturb the web, mimicking trapped-prey. When the tarantula emerges to inspect its web, she will sting and paralyze it. She will then drag the tarantula back into its burrow, lay a single egg on its body and then cover over the opening to the burrow.
When the egg hatches, the larva will feed on the still-living spider, avoiding the vital organs in order to keep the host alive as long as possible. After approximately three weeks to a month, the larva will emerge from the now-dead tarantula's body.
Adult tarantula hawks feed on pollen and nectar from flowers, and juice from fruits and berries. They seem to be especially attracted to milkweed, soapberry trees, and mesquite trees. Males live approximately two months or less; females can live longer.
Although the tarantula wasp is not aggressive and stings are relatively rare, it is reportedly one of the most painful stings of any insect in the world. The stinger is a fierce 1/3 of an inch long. The pain is said to be absolutely excruciating and so debilitating that you can lose control of your body. If you get stung, it is recommended that you lay down as quickly as possible to avoid stumbling and falling and causing further injury. An intense, burning pain will last for about 5 minutes. You may experience swelling and soreness around the area for a few days – but it will pass and is not life-threatening.
- Species of tarantula hawks have been seen as far north as Utah and as far south as Argentina, with more than 250 species living in South America.
- Fifteen species of Pepsis are found in the United States, most of them residing in the desert.
- They are generally active during the summer months. They avoid the hottest part of the day (mine was out in early evening).
- Due to their extremely large stingers, they have very few predators; only roadrunners and bullfrogs will take them on.
- The tarantula hawk is the state insect of New Mexico.
So, definitely admire this wasp from afar, but avoid contact, and make sure your kids and pets do as well!
by UC Master Gardener Rebecca Jepsen
This article first appeared in the August 26, 2018 print issue of the San Jose Mercury News.