Wild Peninsula

Legendary 'Ghost Bread' Mushroom Discovered on the Key Peninsula


To hear Adam DeLeo describe his astonishing recent discovery of agarikon on the Key Peninsula is to eavesdrop on a moment of hard-won epiphany that could probably be described as spiritual, though DeLeo would be the last to describe it in those terms.

“The profile just jogged me,” he says as we trek through Key Central Forest in search of more. “You see that elephant trunk — you have to do a double take. Like oh my, that is what that is. That mushroom’s been somewhere in the back of my mind for so long.”

DeLeo, owner of Adam’s Mushrooms in Key Center, grew up on the KP and knows its mushroom communities and their backwoods haunts as well as anyone. It was around New Year’s when he made the discovery. Cabin fever propelled him into a local forest he had only visited once or twice and wanted to know better.

He says it was his legs that made the critical decision. They detoured him onto a weird little side trail. “The tree itself caught my eye because it was a big old tree.”

I’ve seen the tree. Not only is it big and old — and I mean old-old, true old-growth — it leans at a wild angle and has a stunted mop-top of fat limbs like an ancient fisherman bent into a permanent huddle against the wind after a lifetime of being caught out in storms. It is 110 feet tall. Halfway up, a hearty young body of agarikon shelfs out. Seventy-five feet up is the meat of the epiphany, a fruiting body that pours out of the tree’s deeply furrowed bark and hangs in a shape that can only be called absurd, for it is a laughably familiar shape. Though its surface is weathered and chalky, pallid, tinged with green — Northwest Coast peoples once called it “ghost bread” and associated it with a shaman’s power to pass between worlds — it looks to me like a tall stack of pancakes. Which I guess is fitting. Pancakes have inspired their fair share of epiphanies.

Agarikon, also known as quinine conk, is a shelf mushroom like the familiar red-belted and artist’s conks. But it grows almost exclusively on ancient trees. It is rare even in untouched old-growth forests, hence almost unheard of in our thrice-logged lowlands. This find is a big deal.

Like other conks, agarikon is a wood-rotting fungus. It infects trees through wounds like sheared-off limbs. To fruit it takes decades at a minimum. Once it does fruit, it adds a new layer of spore tubes to its fruiting body each year, eventually creating a distinctive hanging hoof shape, the pancake tower. All the while the tree survives, ever so slowly decaying from within.

Agarikon lives in the Pacific Northwest and across Eurasia, where it is even more rare. It has been harvested for millennia and used by herbalists to address ailments from tuberculosis to cancer and as a poultice to reduce inflammation. In many European countries, its remaining localities can be counted on one hand.

A few modern scientists, including Kitsap based researcher Paul Stamets, have delved into agarikon’s complex mix of molecules and found a number of compounds that have immunomodulating, anticancer, anti-microbial, even antiviral properties. Stamets, who has made it a personal mission to culture tiny samples from 100 agarikon, a venture that involves boat trips to remote parts of British Columbia, writes that the strains he has studied vary widely in their medicinal properties, suggesting that the genomes of such ancient fungi are pharmaceutical storehouses.

Natives of the Northwest Coast used agarikon in poultices and medicines. In several American museums are large figurines carved from agarikon, with gaping mouths and the look of guardians, collected by early anthropologists from shaman grave sites. They are fantastic. A few masks also exist.

DeLeo and I have come to Key Central Forest because it is one of the few places on the Key Peninsula where big old trees can still be found. Hidden in blocks of Douglas fir managed by the Department of Natural Resources for timber revenue, these trees wait, most of them knotty or curved enough that they were spared the saw the first few times around.

Since 2006, statewide, DNR has ceased to harvest any tree more than 150 years old. We are here a week before the kickoff of the large timber harvest that will be in full swing by publication time. Flagging is everywhere. We try and fail to decipher it as our trails wind through stands. Where are the boundaries? Will these trees stand or fall?

We do know that blue means leave. Around each blue-flagged old-growth tree, DNR has marked a cluster of younger trees as additional leave trees for protection. DNR always leaves at least eight trees per acre, old-growth or not. The practice aims to avoid the creation of ecological deserts by preserving local tree genetics and giving animals at least a few refuges. DNR foresters have told me they see the practice clearly paying off: DNR forests regain their structural complexity faster than straight clearcut company land. They also pointed out that a few isolated old-growth trees are not the same as an old-growth forest, which is an entire ecosystem.

DeLeo has a practically epicurean eye for trees. He spies interesting specimens through impossible corridors of young trunks. Though we find no new agarikon, he is happy. One old-growth has what he deems a trout profile, its trunk skinny at the base then fattening then tapering again. Elsewhere he stops cold to remark on a tree’s bark, woven like latticework. Strange branching patterns get critical examination. He comments on subtle variations in hue.

“It’s pretty cool,” he says. “You end up with a couple of old-timers in here to spread their germs.”

We pass into an older mixed-species area. A yew stands next to the trail. The flagging remains mysterious. In a pocket where stands of alder, maple, cedar, and fir meet, the column of a tremendous fir rises, hardly tapering to where it has sheared off 100 feet above. A huckleberry plant grows way up there. Soon shelf mushrooms will sprout from the fir’s bark. Ants and beetles will come, woodpeckers will hammer away, chickadees will use the holes for nests. When I move in close to measure the trunk — it is five feet in diameter — I find old scars: black fire marks and faint remnants of blue paint.

The location of the agarikon tree will remain secret. But mushrooms get around. Their spores travel the stratosphere. Given enough time, perhaps more agarikon will appear among the KP’s oldest trees.