There’s so mushroom for fun at Cumberland’s Fungus Fest

It’s never a bad idea to invite some mushrooms to a party — they’re fun-guys!

There will be mushrooms galore at Cumberland’s fourth annual Fungus Fest, which kicks off on Thursday, September 28 in downtown Cumberland, and runs through Saturday, Sept. 30.

“Once you start foraging for food in the woods, how can you be anything but enthusiastic about mushrooms?” asked Dawn Copeman, a longtime resident of Cumberland who will be leading some of the festival events.

Fungus festivals have popped up like mushrooms after a fall rain in communities across B.C., including Whistler and Bamfield. The Sicamous Fungi Festival has been around for nearly 20 years.

The Cumberland Fungus Fest pass ($30 for adults, $5 for kids under 16) includes access to workshops, specimen tables, kids activities, a fungus market and guided walks. Walks require pre-registration — pass holders automatically receive registration details by email. Proceeds from the fungus festival support the Cumberland Community Forest Society (CCFS).

Meaghan Cursons, CCFS’s executive director, said this year’s interdisciplinary festival will offer its biggest program yet, with workshops and exhibits on art, forest ecology and cultivation as well as a new theme related to addiction, trauma, end-of-life therapy and psilocybin use.

Intersections of forest ecology and human health

“We’re only beginning to understand the role that [fungus] can play not only in forest health, forest ecology [and] potential communication between plant life — but also, what does the fungus have to say to us about human health and human psychological health?” Cursons said.

Some festival events will consider how fungus uses and breaks down carbon.

“We really lean into some of the death-and-decay role that fungus plays on planet Earth,” said Cursons.

Fungus is involved in all stages and cycles of life on Earth. Over 140,000 organisms fall into the fungi kingdom, including mushrooms, molds, mildews, smuts and yeasts. Experiments on fungus have led to major scientific breakthroughs, including the discovery of penicillin and advances in modern genetics. Bread, cheese, wine and beer also need fungus for their fermentation process.

“It really intersects with a whole lot of different aspects of life on Earth. And so if we think about life on Earth as an interconnected system, as opposed to putting forest here and humans here, fungus is a great connector, right?” Cursons said.

Copeman, who has lived in Cumberland for 31 years and was an early member of Cumberland Community Forest Society, says her favourite fungus-like organisms are slime moulds. (Slime moulds reproduce using spores and were previously classified as fungi. They are now considered to belong to their own supergroups of organisms.)

Slime moulds are “sentient one-celled creatures, closer to our intelligence than you’d think. And they move towards food,” Copeman shared excitedly

Cursons said she is particularly interested to learn about lichens and other organisms that contain both fungi and other kinds of life.

Lichens are an intricate lifeform, containing both a type of fungi and an alga or cyanobacteria. They often contain various types of species, not just two.

Copeman explained that certain lichens, such as old man’s beard and lungwort, are good indicators of air quality within forests. One 2021 study found that lungwort was a particularly good bioindicator of heavy metal impact within environments. Old man’s beard is also a good indicator of a healthy forest, as it is very sensitive to air pollution.

“Not caring about fungus is like saying you don’t care about life — it is that important,” said Copeman.

She mentioned the dryer summers are adding stress to the local ecosystem, but that opportunities for adaptation give her hope.

“It’s a crucial time right now for our local ecosystem,” she said.

Tickets to Fungus Fest and the separately ticketed Forest Feast, which will close off the festivities, are available through the festival website.

Madeline Dunnett, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Discourse