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Club collects, learns about fungi on Sycamore Island

| Sunday, May 17, 2015, 12:01 a.m.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Nancy Kline, of Oakmont, looks for mushrooms during a 'species survey' for the Allegheny Land Trust on Sycamore Island in the Allegheny River between Blawnox and Verona on Saturday, May 16, 2015.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Ari Lattanzi, of Pittsburgh, displays a Polyporus Squarnosus mushroom during a 'species survey' for the Allegheny Land Trust on Sycamore Island in the Allegheny River between Blawnox and Verona on Saturday, May 16, 2015.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Janet Pingitore, of Forest Hills, holds up a morel mushroom she found during a 'species survey' for the Allegheny Land Trust on Sycamore Island in the Allegheny River between Blawnox and Verona on Saturday, May 16, 2015.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Ari Lattanzi, of Pittsburgh, digs for a mushroom during a 'species survey' for the Allegheny Land Trust on Sycamore Island in the Allegheny River between Blawnox and Verona on Saturday, May 16, 2015.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Ari Lattanzi, of Pittsburgh, picks a Polyporus Squarnosus mushroom during a 'species survey' for the Allegheny Land Trust on Sycamore Island in the Allegheny River between Blawnox and Verona on Saturday, May 16, 2015.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Nghi Dao, of McCandless, admires the soaring trees as she and others scour the island during a 'species survey' for the Allegheny Land Trust on Sycamore Island in the Allegheny River between Blawnox and Verona on Saturday, May 16, 2015.

It's hard to believe, but at just 14 acres, Sycamore Island on the Allegheny River in Blawnox is home to 60 species of mushrooms and counting.

As part of a number of studies of the island owned by the Allegheny Land Trust, all flora and fauna has been under examination with the help of volunteers from the public.

In 2008, the Allegheny Land Trust bought the uninhabited island for $250,000.

Sycamore Island is the largest remaining, privately owned undeveloped island in Allegheny County, according to the Land Trust.

Open to the public, the island features a quarter-mile-long trail that wraps around the island, meandering through a field of jewelweed and dense clumps of trees. A former marina and party place, the site is clean with dense stands of large silver maples and occasional rusty artifacts from its marina days.

These days, the preferred mode of transportation to the island is kayak — no docks or slips for motorized boats.

A field trip offered by the Western Pennsylvania Mushroom Club and the Land Trust attracted more than 30 first-time mushroom hunters on Saturday looking to collect and learn.

Allegheny CleanWays offered use of its pontoon boat, which shuttled visitors from the Verona public dock to the island.

“With all of our properties, we want to partner with educational groups,” said Keri Rouse, a community organizer with the land trust.

“This is a little hidden gem that exists in Pittsburgh,” said Janet Pingitore of Forest Hills, who visited the site for the first time.

She made a find of a lifetime: A morel mushroom — a choice edible mushroom coveted by mycologists, who are secretive about where they harvest their fungi treasures.

“I'm going to take this home, reconstitute it and fry it up,” she said.

The club tallied 21 species, adding two species including the morel.

“It's safe and delicious,” said LaMonte Yarroll of Bethel Park, one of the club's mycologists, the highest rank of a volunteer who can identify mushrooms.

Specimens were collected during the day for DNA sequencing, the gold standard for identifying species of mushrooms.

The trip is part of the club's third year of a fungal biodiversity survey of Sycamore, where specimens are collected, counted and identified.

The island has the requisite shade and moisture to promote mushroom growth, he said.

According to Rick Duncan of Penn Hills, the volunteer site steward of the island, he and other volunteers are busy eradicating invasive plants and increasing the diversity of the island.

Young trees are planted, staked, or marked in some way.

Duncan was not thinking about mushrooms, though.

“The mammals. They're missing. We have no food for them,” he said.

Although occasional squirrels do come by but there are no acorns or other nuts. The oaks and other nut-bearing trees have been planted, but aren't mature.

Volunteers continue to not only preserve but bring back the island's environmental heritage.

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or mthomas@tribweb.com.

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