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Originally published Monday, October 24, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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For some, a mushrooming hobby

The teenager behind the table wore glasses and a mushroom T-shirt. The misty fall weather hadn't discouraged him from wearing flip-flops...

Seattle Times staff reporter

The teenager behind the table wore glasses and a mushroom T-shirt. The misty fall weather hadn't discouraged him from wearing flip-flops with his jeans.

Gripping the roots of a scaly, saucer-sized mushroom in one hand, Joshua Birkebak's eyes lit with recognition.

"Yes," he said to Jean Bishop of Bothell. "This is the lepiota rachodes."

As a boy, Birkebak used to categorize his toy cars and trucks.

Yesterday, the 16-year-old joined scientists and veteran mushroom experts identifying mystery fungi at the weekend's Wild Mushroom Show at Seattle's Magnuson Park at Sand Point.

He examined the scales on Bishop's backyard discovery, commonly known as "the shaggy parasol," and recommended it in a sauce with meat.

"Oh, goody, goody," said Bishop. "We're going to have mushrooms tonight."

Science and cuisine have blended at the annual wild-mushroom show for 42 years. Although membership in the Puget Sound Mycological Society has dropped off since its peak in the late 1980s, its 500 members relish identifying some of the area's 10,000 to 15,000 species of mushrooms.

"Because they're so spotty, you know, you go back to the same place the next year and you might not find them," said secretary Dennis Oliver. "It's like a treasure hunt, really, actually."

The society found Birkebak at a presentation for kids at a local library five years ago.

"I just thought it was fascinating," he said. "I have a really categorical mind."

He found it easy to remember the names and traits of mushrooms. His mother, Tambra Birkebak, said that although her son spends some of his money on CDs and typical teenage expenses, he also buys a lot of mushroom books online.

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"How he spends his money — if we saw it in a pie chart — would be really hilarious," she said.

Joshua Birkebak, who was home-schooled, is now taking classes at Highline Community College. He said he hopes to pursue a doctorate in mycology — the study of fungi — at the University of Washington.

Although his friends, admittedly, aren't into mushrooms, Birkebak said he's made new friends who are.

In his third year of identifying mushrooms at the festival, Birkebak is one of the society's best identifiers, said President Ron Post.

For much of the weekend, a line formed from his table, which was littered with dirt, moss and the occasional interloping slug. People carried their finds in baggies, boxes, trays and old flowerpots. They had uprooted them in the woods, in public parks, in the cracks between the sidewalks in front of their houses.

"A lot of people are just curious about what they have in their yard," Birkebak said.

His mother was initially leery of his hobby. For one thing, Tambra Birkebak said, she doesn't eat mushrooms — can't stand them. For another, frankly, "It was kind of hard to trust your life to your 13-year-old."

At first, she would feed the family only wild mushrooms that other experts had approved. But her son's knowledge grew so fast that "the identifiers convinced us he knows what he's talking about," she said. "He's not going to poison the family."

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

Information

Puget Sound Mycological Society: http://www.psms.org/

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