With a crowd of mushroom enthusiasts around her, Autumn Summers held up a bright red specimen about the size of her head that was gingerly speckled with white spots.
It was an amenita muscaria, a mushroom that's easily identified, but not generally recommended for a meal.
"This is one that's potentially hallucinogenic and won't make you feel really good," Summers said. "Santa Claus may have come from this mushroom. I mean, why is he red and white? Why are the reindeer flying?"
Summers, who leads outings for LandPaths, was demonstrating how a hunter can find distinguishing characteristics on a mushroom and determine, at least to some degree, whether it's safe to eat.
Under the mushroom's cap, are there gills, pores or teeth? Does the stalk seem chalky or milky when it breaks? Does the mushroom stain a little bit blue when its flesh is cut?
Those were just a few simple tips offered to narrow down the tricky game of mushroom identification, which can be so elusive that even veterans like Summers, who's been hunting for 20 years, can be stumped.
For the trickiest specimens, Summers recommended making "spore prints," an impression of the mushroom cap's underside, made by pressing the spore surface on a white paper and leaving it covered overnight. She passed around a sample spore print that looked like a delicate lithograph.
Summers led a group of about two dozen nature lovers on a trek through the hills of Riddell Preserve on Friday, a 400-acre woodland rich with oak and madrone trees, and a perfect habitat for fungi. The event was a fundraiser for LandPaths, a nonprofit organization whose aim is to foster a love of the land in Sonoma County.
As the group drifted off a dirt road and foraged over the wooded slopes, experienced mushroom hunters shared their tips about finding fungi amongst the fallen leaves.
"You just notice a color .<TH>.<TH>. and you'll just see a lifting-up," Summers said. "Once in a while you'll lift the leaves up and you just find these pristine mushrooms underneath, and you just feel like my week, my month, was made."
Chanterelles, the golden, vase-shaped and delicately flavored fungi, often grow near madrone trees, Summers said.
Black trumpet mushrooms, the darkly colored and highly coveted member of the chanterelle family, can be found around tan oaks and in mixed woods, said Amy BeberVanzo of Petaluma, a board member of the Sonoma County Mycological Society.
"The way you find black trumpets is you look for a hole," BeberVanzo said. It's not that the delectables grow in a hole among the leaves; it's just that that their shadowy appearance looks like one.
Randy Stevens, 62, of Santa Rosa found one of the first prized chanterelles of the day, and got a high-five from Summers.
"I got eagle eyes," said Stevens, a retired water treatment plant operator. "I just found mine in the brush right here."
Around the same time, the group came across a patch of short-stemmed russulas, and Summers taught an impromptu lesson on the difference between the russula family, where some varieties are inedible, and the highly coveted chanterelles.
"These gills are like blades," Summers said of the russulas. "And these are more blunt...,these are distinctly folds," she said of the underside of the chanterelles.