Mushroom stroll

FALaFEL members gather around mycologist, Dr. Rosanne Healy, at Kanapaha Botanical Garden Sunday for the Summer Fungal Foray. 

“Did anyone do the optional homework?” a woman at the front of the room asked with a smile.

A few raised their hands as newcomers filed into the small meeting room with baskets of mushrooms.

The woman, Sarah Prentice, walked around the room looking at the field data slips filled out by the 15 members unified by their interest in fungus. Books sprawled on the table with detailed illustrations of mushrooms.

The meeting was the fourth workshop in a five-week series called “The Fungus Among Us,” hosted by the Florida Academic Lichen and Fungi Enthusiast League (FALaFEL) at the Alachua County Library. The workshop teaches participants the different techniques for identifying the fungi.

Prentice used a projector to show the different species of mushroom while passing around fresh toadstools for demonstration. Participants inspected the mushrooms for gill spacing, cap surface and stem shape to make their decisions.

Connie Morrison, a retiree from Gainesville and new member of FALaFEL, said she wishes she joined earlier. Now, she’s on the lookout for mushrooms wherever she goes. After weeks of searching for mushrooms with no luck, Morrison finally found some over the weekend.

“I got these mushrooms from my neighbor’s backyard,” she said. “I was getting desperate!”

FALaFEL was co-founded in 2017 by Prentice and has grown to include 300 members. Prentice, 30, graduated from UF in 2010 after studying religion and environmental studies. She went on to take a graduate course called Fungal Biology which sparked her interest in fungus.

“I was kind of sad when the class ended,” Prentice said. “I wanted to continue learning about fungus.”

After searching for mycology clubs in Gainesville with no luck, she decided to start her own. The inspiration for the name of the club came from an unexpected source.

“I was really hungry one day and pitched ‘FALaFEL’ as a joke,” Prentice said, laughing. “Who doesn’t love falafel?”

According to Prentice, the group is very informal and welcome to all levels of experience in mushroom collecting. The group is associated with the North American Mycological Association (NAMA), a nonprofit organization for amateur fungi enthusiasts.

This past weekend, nearly 40 members gathered at Kanapaha Botanical Gardens to collect mushrooms.

Prentice said she hopes more fungi enthusiasts will be encouraged to join the club.

“I just want to make this as free and accessible as possible,” Prentice said.