Back in the 1980s, California schoolchildren fought to have the banana slug designated the official state mollusk. That tale had an unhappy ending: a veto by then-governor George Deukmejian. But a campaign now underway in New York to name Peck’s milk-cap (Lactarius peckii) our state mushroom might get better traction, at a time when awareness of the extraordinary importance of fungi in the Earth’s ecosystems is on the rise.
Indeed, fostering that awareness is the point of the bill, S07045-A “Designating Lactarius peckii as the official state fungus of the state,” which was recently introduced in the New York legislature by senator Jen Metzger at the urging of the New York Mycological Society and is currently being considered in committee. Society president Christine Moss circulated a letter to fungus-fanciers arguing that “mushroom consciousness-raising generally is an important ecological endeavor, and the declaration of state or national mushroom symbols is a good way to achieve that.”
As their Latin name suggests, mushrooms of the Lactarius genus are distinguished by the copious milky fluid or “latex” that they exude when cut, despite having brittle flesh. Found in hardwood forests throughout New York State, L. peckii or Peck’s milk-cap is reddish-brown or red-orange in color and medium-to-large in diameter. Neither poisonous nor edible – its flavor is described as “acrid” – the species is noteworthy because it serves a vital role in maintaining a healthy and vibrant forest ecosystem through its symbiotic (mycorrhizal) partnership with trees. If Lactarius is present, it means that the forest is healthy.
L. peckii was chosen as the figurehead for this campaign partly because it was first described in 1908 by a native New Yorker (and a notable figure in North American mycology), Gertrude Simmons Burlingham. She named this Lactarius for Charles Horton Peck, New York State botanist from 1867 to 1915, who himself described more than 2,700 species of North America fungi.
Passage of S07045-A would make New York one of only three states to have an official state fungus. The New York Mycological Society is encouraging mushroom buffs to send letters or e-mails of support to Senator Metzger, as well as their own state legislators. You can also register your enthusiasm online at https://bit.ly/2W2sIF2.