Meet your teacher: Mad for mushrooms

Latin teacher explores excitement of mushroom hunting


Provided by Scott Paterson

Upper school Latin teacher Scott Paterson shows his son, Virgil, holding some Amanita Muscaria mushrooms in Jan. 2020.

By Sally Zhu, The Harker Upper School

Upper school Latin teacher Scott Paterson kneels in a large forest in camping gear, holding a bright red Alice-in-Wonderland mushroom with his son Virgil. He’s featured in more photos, smiling and holding mushrooms of different varieties—small and large, plentiful and single, bumpy and smooth, red and brown. 

Paterson, who has been teaching at Harker for 12 years now, has enjoyed mushroom hunting for 25 years. From when he first went on a trip into the woods with some chef friends and found a huge haul of chanterelle mushrooms, he has now found many other types and has kept up with the hobby, partly due to the excitement of finding these mushrooms. 

“The thing that was so great about it is there’s a real thrill. When you find a good mushroom, there’s a thrill to it. And when you find a huge stash of mushrooms, it’s really exhilarating,” Paterson said. 

Paterson’s favorite place to go camping is Salt Point State Park, one of few places where mushroom collecting is allowed. Not only is it a beautiful state park, it is an excellent region to find mushrooms either to keep as specimens or to cook and eat, and he even established an annual tradition of camping there. 

“Before I was married, I would go out on New Year’s Eve, [and I had a] tradition where I would go camping at Salt Point on my own for New Year’s and then on January 1, I would go into the woods and collect as many mushrooms as I could,” Paterson said. 

He has also gone on multiple trips every year for 10 years now with his fellow mushroom hunter and retired Harker English teacher Dr. Ben Spencer-Cooke, who retired six years ago. They would often look specifically for chanterelles and morels, which are also some of Paterson’s favorite mushrooms to cook and eat. During these trips, Dr. Spencer-Cooke has observed the specific qualities of Paterson that make him a great mushroom hunter.

“You have to be patient, you have to be very observant, you have to concentrate, you have to move quickly to cover a lot of ground and you have to keep looking at the ground and identifying the thing you’re looking for,” Dr. Spencer-Cooke said. But [Paterson’s] always a very good companion, a fun person to go with, and of course, we make a nice trip of it.”

However, one does not need to traverse into the woods of a state park to go mushroom collecting. Sometimes, they can be found in ordinary places with nature, which Paterson also finds joy in. 

“It’s also neat sometimes to just happen upon mushrooms while you’re walking about, and that’s one of the great things,” he said. Just walking through neighborhoods, I found very interesting mushrooms and bark on the side of the sidewalk. I found interesting mushrooms on campus.”

Each and every time I find a new species, there’s an excitement about it, and I can remember the first time I found a porcine, and I can remember the first time I found a morel and I can remember the first time I found this and that; there’s something neat about finding new types of mushrooms”

— Scott Paterson

Paterson has also noted that once he became a more avid hunter, he would start scanning the ground when walking around casually, and he found many mushrooms that way. 

“Each and every time I find a new species, there’s an excitement about it, and I can remember the first time I found a porcine, and I can remember the first time I found a morel and I can remember the first time I found this and that; there’s something neat about finding new types of mushrooms,” Paterson said. 

One reason that Paterson has kept with the hobby is because of his love for mushrooms and nature overall. He finds it humbling that there are some mushroom species that cannot be cultivated artificially by humans: they can only be found in the wild.

“I found [a mushroom] with my son earlier this season when we were out on a walk called an earth star. And it looks like a little ball with petals on it,” Paterson said. 

As a Latin teacher, Paterson also enjoys studying the etymology of mushrooms’ scientific names. For example, the Amanita muscaria, a round red mushroom with white spots, comes from the Latin word mosca. According to legend, Romans would break up the mushrooms and put them in liquid to attract flies, where they would be stunned and killed. Thus, Paterson can connect his hobby to his passion for Latin as well. 

Over the years, Paterson has found many different species of mushrooms and has developed a list of some of his all-time favorites such as the cauliflower mushroom, Sparassis crispa, for eating, as well as most unique he has come across, including the latticed stinkhorn mushroom, Clathrus ruber. He also has become familiar with the times of the years that specific mushrooms will grow, and he shares them for beginner mushroom hunters. 

“Fall mushrooms are chanterelles, porcinis; winter mushrooms would be hedgehogs, black trumpets and yellow foot chanterelles; and spring mushrooms would be morels. Oftentimes, you can find spring porcinis as well,” Paterson said. 

Apart from the thrill of finding different mushrooms, Paterson’s love for nature and the outdoors will keep him mushroom hunting in the future, and perhaps with his sons. 

“[It is] a reason to get out in the woods, whether you find that mushroom or not. You get to spend the day walking through the woods, and that’s always a good thing,” Paterson said. “And just to see these amazing things that nature produces is really just a great thing. I really enjoy that aspect of it.”

This story was originally published on Harker Aquila on March 24, 2021.