A fungus resembling a human brain sat on one shelf, facing another the size of a log.
Nearby sat a puffball as big as a basketball, a bit deflated since a visiting sixth-grader had poked his thumb into it.
This room, tucked at one end of a nondescript science building at Washington State University, is home to the university’s 81-year-old “mycological herbarium” - a warehouse of 70,000 kinds of fungi. It’s one of the largest such collections in the Northwest.
There are slime molds and mushrooms and yeasts. There are fungi that swim, fungi used by native tribes to make red body paint, fungi so large Indians carve them into funeral effigies. There’s even a type of mushroom that some think spawned the story of Santa Claus.
“We have specimens in this herbarium that go back to the early days of the last century,” said Jack Rogers, chairman of WSU’s plant pathology department.
The samples are used to identify fungi when books and descriptions aren’t detailed enough - or are wrong, he said. He said they also are used to study plant diseases, about 85 percent of which are due to fungi.
Rogers opened a metal cabinet, one of about two dozen stretching down a corridor.
Inside were hundreds of paper folders, each containing dried fungi samples. He pulled out a strawberry plant fungus collected in 1937.
“Have fungi. But be careful,” advises a poster near the entrance to the lab.
“There are fungi that a piece the size of a dime will kill you,” said Rogers. “Most of them won’t kill you, but for some time they might make you wish you were dead.”
One of the most well-known mushrooms in the collection is Amanita muscaria, a red-capped mushroom with white warts. Eaten, it acts as a hallucinogen, distorting a person’s sense of distance and height, Rogers said. A person trying to step over a stick, for example, will think he’s scaling a fence.
The amanita mushroom has the same effect on reindeer, which love to eat it, Rogers said.
He said some people have theorized that hallucinating herdsmen and high-stepping reindeer inspired the legend of Santa Claus.
Some varieties of amanita mushrooms, Rogers said, are deadly.
“They’re beautiful things, and people just can’t believe you shouldn’t eat them,” he said.
Fungi are genetically closer to animals than plants, he said. Unlike plants, which simply suck up nutrients, fungi produce enzymes and use them to dissolve and digest something else. A mushroom growing on a log, for instance, will convert the wood to digestible sugars.
Some fungi move. Rogers said some aquatic types create “swarm spores,” which propel themselves through the water with a whiplike flagellum, looking for something to grow on. And bright-colored slime molds - close relatives of fungi - will move along a log in slow, rippling waves.
Founded in 1915 by a botany professor, WSU’s collection constantly is being added to by researchers who backpack into rain forests in search of new finds. The lab is filled with envelopes and boxes from such expeditions: North Carolina, 1967 … Thailand, 1993 … British Columbia, 1994.
The fungi usually are dried in the field, then shipped to the herbarium. There, the samples are treated with insecticide. The collection’s biggest headache, Rogers said, is the mite - a tiny spiderlike insect that likes to eat and live in mushrooms.
At one end of the herbarium are trays of velvety fungi, looking like they just emerged from the back of a bachelor’s refrigerator. The fungi, raised in petri dishes, are fed a diet of oatmeal, sugar or potato. Researchers make microscope slides of the fungi for study.
Undaunted by the amanita mushrooms and their ilk, Rogers sometimes goes out on weekends to gather wild mushrooms for his dinner table. His favorite: the morel, which often is found growing in areas recently scorched by a wildfire.
“They look like a sponge on a stick,” said Rogers. “But sauteed in butter, they’re wonderful.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Eating habits Unlike plants, which simply suck up nutrients, fungi produce enzymes and use them to dissolve and digest something else. A mushroom growing on a log, for instance, will convert the wood to digestible sugars.