Denver Botanic Gardens mycologist gives presentations in Vail, Sept. 9-10 | VailDaily.com

Denver Botanic Gardens mycologist gives presentations in Vail, Sept. 9-10

VAIL — Vera Stucky Evenson grew up on a farm in Montana established generations prior by pioneering ancestors. Surrounded by natural things, she became the kid who was constantly gazing at the wild birds and butterflies as they flitted amongst the sheep and the chickens and the turkeys that roamed the property.

She explored the marshy areas, walking amongst the violets and other exquisite little plants, always mindful of the tiny crowns peering through the taller foliage in shades of white and beige and brown.

"We were taught to be very afraid or respectful of mushrooms," she said. "I can only image how many I saw when I was a kid, probably new species, and didn't know what they were. But my father liked morel, a famous edible. We used to go along the river and collect them just for him. He would love to eat them."

Walking along the riverbank, her eyes trained on the ground, Evenson became more and more fascinated by the visual beauty of the various mushrooms and their ability to materialize and disappear so fleetingly from one day to the next.

"It's not like a plant that's out there in your backyard; you can go out there every day and look at it. It changes a bit, but it's there," she said. "Mushrooms could be there three days, that's it, all year, or every 10 years, so it's their beauty and also their unpredictable appearance — they're just there and then they're gone — and I find that absolutely fascinating. That's what started me in my interest."

As diverse as the stars

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That interest led Evenson to pursue a bachelor's degree in botany and bacteriology from Montana State, followed by a master's in microbiology from Oregon State, but it wasn't until she had children who, like their mother, were fascinated with mushrooms that she really began focusing on fungi in earnest.

Studying fungi, Evenson discovered, is a bit like studying the constellations.

"Ask a normal person to bring in a shovelful of soil. What's in there? They say, 'well, it's got to be a lot of insects and a lot of plant debris,'" said Evenson, who now works as a mycologist at the Denver Botanic Gardens. "But 90 percent of the biomass — take the minerals out and the moisture — 90 percent of that remaining biomass is fungal. It blows your mind when you think about that.

"There are 2,000 genomes in there never before looked at. Walk down the road and take another shovelful, and you'll find hundreds of different ones. … It's mind-boggling when you think of the numbers, a bit like the astronomer. It's a lot like the contemplating of the stars: What in the world is in that shovelful of soil?"

Even a handful of soil contains hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of different fungi, all interacting with one another and providing moisture and nutrients to surrounding plants, Evenson said. If you were to imagine no fungi on the planet, you'd imagine a planet much different from the one we currently inhabit.

"We wouldn't have any plants, then, as we know them because pants are totally dependent on fungi, and if we didn't have any plants, we certainly, as we know them, wouldn't have animals or us," she said.

But despite their essential role in ecosystems and their pervasiveness — second to insects, there are more species of fungi on the planet than any other organism — we still know relatively little about the fungi kingdom.

"They're very hard to study, compared to an animal or a butterfly," Evenson said. "We don't see all our fungi, as they're underground most of the time."

Fruit of the fungi

Most of what we witness of this vast network is the fruiting body of the fungi — mushrooms — which will be the focus of Evenson's talk when she comes to the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens Education Center today.

"I'll mention how important fungi are on the planet, but that's not what this is about, as far as studying that," she said. "We'll recognize it and then go on to focus our interest on the charismatic, higher, beautiful mushrooms this time of year in our mountains.

"I'm walking up that trail and here's this beautiful conch on this tree. Is it going to be dangerous to the tree, is it a friend, what's its role in the environment? That's the sort of questions we'll answer."

Evenson also will lead a corresponding workshop on Saturday, in which participants will learn the various ways mycologists identify mushrooms through chemical tests and spore printing and study a variety of mushroom species in depth.

"We can't begin to talk about the little guys, the various thousands of different ones that we can only study in a microscope, but this will be the so-called higher, or macro, fungi, the big guys, mushrooms, puffballs, coral fungi, the ones you see as you walk in the woods," she said.

If you go …

What: Intimate Evening in the Gardens and mushroom workshop with Vera Stucky Evenson, mycologist with Denver Botanic Gardens.

When: 5-8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 9; workshop 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 10.

Where: Betty Ford Alpine Gardens Education Center, Ford Park, 522 S. Frontage Road, Vail.

Cost: Talk is $20, which includes gourmet appetizers, wine and beer; workshop is $25.

More information: To register for the workshop, email info@bettyfordalpinegardens.org or call 970-476-0103, ext. 3. Visit http://www.bettyfordalpinegardens.org.