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How an amateur scientist became one of B.C.’s top wild mushroom experts

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The first thing you notice when spending time with Paul Kroeger is that very little escapes his eye.

From garbage on the streets to a child’s footprints embedded in concrete, to the plants and animals in and around his neighborhood, the 65-year-old from Vancouver notices it all.

โ€œWhat a lot of people lack is the power of observation,โ€ he said. “It’s a good thing to be able to go anywhere and observe and interpret what you see and notice things.”

A life of curiosity led Kroeger, a self-proclaimed citizen scientist, to become one of the foremost authorities on wild fungi in British Columbia, a place where there are at least 3,000 species.

Kroeger watches a fungus growing on a tree in Vancouver in December. (Chad Pawson / CBC News)

He has helped write many books on mushrooms and helps the province’s poison control center identify mushrooms that people have ingested. This is all due to its unique ability to recognize fungi where they grow.

“I was tired of the personal interest in it, the motivation and the taste of being alone in the woods,” he said. “I did a lot of the fieldwork and saw a lot of mushrooms, so I started to recognize the mushrooms so that there weren’t a lot of other people with similar abilities.”

“We are going to Paul’s”

“Fungiphiles” like Kroeger are about as numerous as the species themselves. Scientists have determined that fungi are more closely related to animals than to plants. They can be hard to find, look strange, serve delicious, nutrient-dense foods, and play a vital role in healthy ecosystems as well.

โ€œThe diversity is breathtaking,โ€ said Shannon Berch, a retired research scientist with the British Columbia Ministry of Environment who worked on several studies with Kroeger.

Berch says Kroeger’s long-standing passion means that he developed an in-depth knowledge of fungi, making him a special citizen scientist.

โ€œWhen professional mycologists have questions about the diversity of fungi here, we go to Paul and ask because he just has this encyclopedic knowledge,โ€ she said.

Kroeger shows a mushroom growing on a wooden structure in Vancouver. The fungus, which he discovered in 1984, is called deconica horizontalis. (Chad Pawson / CBC News)

Kroeger became addicted to finding and learning as much as possible about mushrooms when he moved to Vancouver in the early 1970s from Penticton with his parents and three siblings.

He grew up walking in the woods trying to identify plants and animals for fun, but in Vancouver he was impressed by the size and abundance of the fungi he began to encounter.

โ€œWhen I got to the coast, I was blown away by how many mushrooms there were,โ€ he said.

Kroeger bought mushroom field guides published by the Royal BC Museum and spent hours researching the species in the wild.

In 1979, the Mycological Society of Vancouver was formed and he became a distinguished member, organizing field trips and research projects among like-minded enthusiasts.

“People love to search”

โ€œOne thing that’s really appealing about mushrooms is a search feature,โ€ he said. “People love to search and that’s why kids love the Easter egg hunt, hide and seek. I think we have an innate urge to search.”

Although he has no formal post-secondary education, Kroeger is a regular at UBC’s botany department, where he does laboratory research. He says he made a living, “although not very rich,” working on research projects and acting as a consultant.

โ€œI kind of became useful because I had the skills and experience to be able to recognize fungi,โ€ he said.

In recent years, his name has made headlines, most often accompanying stories about the rise in British Columbia of the world’s most poisonous mushroom, the so-called death mushroom. It is an invasive species that looks ordinary, but can be fatal if ingested. One person in British Columbia has died from the fungus in the past five years.

The British Columbia Poison Control Center has used Kroeger as a consultant for decades to help identify samples sent in by people who fear their children or pets have ingested something dangerous.

Kroeger warns people against consuming wild mushrooms, but rejoices that a new generation of mushroom researchers are eager to learn and curious to find them in the wild.

โ€œIt’s a good thing to think of it as a great excuse to get out and in some really beautiful habitats,โ€ he said.

“[To] to really appreciate the natural world, you have to get a feel for its complexity and there is no better way to get it than by trying to learn all the neighboring organisms around you. “

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