The Quest for Phaeocollybia (and much more)
an interview with Lorelei Norvell
Leon Shernoff: I usually start off with ‘How did you get your start in mycology?’
Lorelei Norvell: It’s a long story.
Essentially, I’ve always liked rumbling around in the woods, but in grade school I was much more interested in science. But then I was set on an accelerated path, and when I was a 17-year-old freshman I ended up causing a sort of silent explosion in the chemistry lab, and decided that perhaps I didn’t have the temperament to be a good scientist.
I ended up in modern languages; but when came up north, I found out that there was no longer a language requirement to graduate from college, so the bottom had dropped out of the academic job market. All of my professors were out of work. So through a series of circumstances I went into art and ended up being a glass artist for a number of years.
When we bought our property here in Oregon, I returned to my first love, which was just identifying things. So I shot through flowers, you know, then the trees, and the ferns (although boring) weren’t too difficult, and then I finally got to the mushrooms, which were difficult – they were not easy to identify.
Eventually I joined the Oregon Mycological Society and on one of the forays in 1986 I got a speeding ticket. When I came home and confessed to my husband, Todd looked at me and said, “Well, the boys and I have decided to send you back to college, to get your doctorate in mycology.” I’ve never quite figured out the connection – it was quite a non-sequitur.
But I did go back to college – at Portland State, because this time I needed a full science degree –and then I got my doctorate at the University of Washington. I was originally interested in mycology primarily from an identification standpoint, not an edibility thing. I had begun reading the literature in the seventies, then got very involved with making lists and learning about the nomenclature and discovering the meaning of the scientific names.
Learning the Land
At that point I began a distribution list for macromycetes of the Pacific Northwest. I eventually got up to about, oh, six thousand entries. That doesn’t mean species, of course; that just means names. I complied an index using around 350 references from the OMS library here in Portland. When you’re trying to track which species grow where, however, you eventually realize that it’s just someone’s opinion as to whether a species occurs in a particular area. There is NO TRUTH without vouchers!1
So you start doing a little more research and then you realize there’s this idea called taxonomic “concepts”. But the concepts clash. And the bulk of the people have a concept of what a given species is – I think of it as being a “field guide concept” – and they will fight: “Well, you don’t really know this; I know this, because this is on page 123 of my field guide, where this picture – that shows what that is.”
Of course we now recognize that what we have on the west coast of North America is usually not the same as there is in Sweden or Germany or wherever it was that these names were originally coined, and that we have many new, unnamed species. When I began working on Phaeocollybia, working with DNA, you begin to see at a very deep level whether or not something is the same – and once you know that, the observable differences that matter begin to emerge.
But species are a puzzle. I’m intrigued with putting things together and unraveling puzzles, and one reason mycology intrigued me is that it’s not settled – it was a new science, leaving a lot of room to muck around and make a contribution – and be entertained besides. The entertainment factor looms large. By now, my husband and kids will tell people, “Well, I don’t want to mom you out,” which is their way of saying, “talking non-stop about mushrooms, 24/7.” (laughs) Not everyone finds it as entertaining as I do!
So that’s what got me into mycology: I joined the Oregon Society in ’73, was pretty active in it for a number of years and had great fun. I still enjoy and love the people, but things changed after I went back to school, and now I tend to want a break from mycology on meeting nights.
LS: Yes, I’ve invited mycologists to talk at the Illinois club and they’ll just use words like “stipe” without thinking that they need to translate that into “stem”.
LN: Yes! It’s difficult to convey things. At one point in the 90s I was the organizer for Breitenbush. One time only; I think I was a resounding flop. I organized a more academically oriented weekend, and most who attended really enjoyed it, but it wasn’t what Breitenbush is all about.
But one success was that one lecturer, Scott Redhead, brought along a microscope with a television camera on it. With that you could show people microscopic features and finally convince some of them that “Look, there is a big difference between these two fungi, and it’s big enough that you can see they’re not related.”
It’s a very useful teaching tool; when you start waving your hands in the air and talking about molecules, you lose a lot of people. And it’s also difficult to explain that something may look like the picture in your book, but it’s also clearly different in other ways.. and we don’t have a name for it yet.” I felt that, of all the textbooks that are geared toward the field mycologists, the best is probably David Arora’s Mushrooms Demystified. What he offered – back in the 80s when most field guides didn’t – was to lead you to a certain point in the key and he just put on “group.” And he would describe the various species that are in that group, and anybody who was intrigued enough could pursue it on their own.
He was a little low on listing the primary literature that you would use to check it out, but if you’re that interested you’re going to find the references. And in this age of Mycoweb and Mushroom Observer, and all the wonderful things that are available, your tools are a lot more there and you can get a lot of information in a hurry on a particular group and figure it out, if you really are interested.
LS: The species groups, and the discussion of genus concepts are features that I really appreciate about Mushrooms Demystified. When you get to the text for a family or large genus, he gives a quite substantive discussion of the taxa within that group and their delineation from other groups. And equally importantly, in his discussions under the species entries, he often refers back to those diagnoses, saying things like “This is a typical xxxx, with its [typical features] except that it has [abc distinctive feature(s)].” This is a big difference from all other field guides, really: while they may include some brief genus discussions, in layout and content, they emphasize going directly to the species write-up, which is very much the sort of feature-dense full description that you mentioned making your eyes cross.
LN: I agree completely about Arora’s field guide approach. I don’t think that most non-academics developed generic concepts until Mushrooms Demystified came out. This despite the fact that every former author did try to explain such concepts, but not as accessibly and entertainingly.
I’ve come a long way, myself. During one of our pasture crawls in the 80s, Jim Jacobs noted that I when “straight to species” first, while most would (wisely) utter, “I think that’s a Cortinarius.” At the time, I figured if I didn’t know the species name, I didn’t know anything. Not until I was working on my PhD at UW did Joe Ammirati wear me down to consider genus first and then species.
What is doubly ironic is that about 80% of the time a field identification to species is wrong – either because you have a faulty species concept or because you are looking at an undescribed species. The more you learn about taxonomy, the more hesitant and less secure you become in intoning some name over a specimen. In the early 90s I was driven to distraction by Scott Redhead’s hemming and hawing over an identification (he still maintains it’s because he wasn’t sure of any field ID), while untutored me was nothing if not positive. After thousands of microscope hours and hundreds of taxonomic & phylogenetic papers, I hem and haw with the best of them these days – not a little embarrassed about the dogmatic pronouncements I once made over some poor misdetermined specimen.
This is one reason why no one should EVER EVER EVER believe an herbarium label. While at UW I collected and left behind hundreds of specimens, all carefully labeled with best guesses. The poor boxes are still there, unlooked at because succeeding generations of grad students have their own mislabeled specimens to deal with. Meanwhile, I have around 10,000 or so collections here in my own herbarium, awaiting my next stint at the microscope.
But it’s an exciting time to be a mycologist, and that is because of the shifting awareness of evolutionary alliances: seeing that the things that we believed were related aren’t really. And then when I did my doctorate, I had… possibly the most wonderful topic to work on: I had been involved with the Oregon group and kind of designed a project for the chanterelle study, which we started in 1986 and it was ongoing for a number of years, trying to determine whether or not… if you pick chanterelles, would you over-harvest and thus drive them to extinction? This was a big thing in the 80s. At the time, nobody really knew, much to our surprise. It turns out that no, not really, and sometimes almost may possibly stimulate the growth, provided that you don’t dig up and extirpate the mycelium underneath.
Well, I thought that would just be a dandy doctoral topic! But Joe Ammirati, my advisor, he looked at me and he said “No, no. That’s way too superficial.” And I said “Do you realize what’s involved in knowing that?” and he said “No, you can’t just do an ecological study. You really want a taxonomically defined project where you have to learn all the various disciplines in order to understand an alike group.”
So I ended up with Phaeocollybia, for which Alexander Smith had done the first contribution toward a North American monograph in 1957, followed by a revised key with several new species in 72. Even after Egon Horak made contributions toward a world monograph in 1977, very little was still known about the genus. It was a very biologically intriguing mushroom. No one knew what its feeding requirements were, but the general consensus was that it was probably saprophytic.
And so here I was handed this nice, small understudied genus with only about a hundred – maybe a little more than that – species worldwide. I always regard Oregon as being the Phaeocollybia Garden of Eden, because we have the greatest number of species right here. I lived up in Washington for three years, returning here every week to see my family and the Phaeocollybias. It was just ideal, and I was able to uncover the biology of a very peculiar entity. I was able to look at the taxonomy, consider its development, examine the habitats… I’ve now looked at thousands of Phaeocollybia collections, which is a bit odd given that it is a listed genus.2 It is rare, but it can be locally abundant if you know where to look. It was just a honey of a project.
I did the DNA work and I tried to get to grow in culture. It won’t – it’s mycorrhizal, and I haven’t found the key to get it to culture. The spores just don’t germinate. But I was able to do something that – as Joe said – you want in any doctoral project, which was to bring all the various tools to sort of unlock the mystery.
It was a long term project, much longer than I had hoped. I was used to getting my degrees in three years or fewer, and it took a little longer (seven years) to get the doctorate. But it was great.