Adolf and Oluna Ceska’s fungi and the coastal ecosystems they nurture.
IN THE WORLD OF MUSHROOMS, Adolf and Oluna Ceska aren’t just well known; they’re heralded. They’re also incredibly modest. When I first contacted them they demurred. “We are just preparing a talk to the Pacific Northwest Key Council on our (basically Oluna’s) work on Observatory Hill,” Adolf told me by email, and then passed me a dozen links that had more to do with fellow mycologists’ work than with their own achievements.
Both Ceskas are members of the Natural History Society and the Southern Vancouver Mycological Society, a 200-member group they started 20 years ago. Oluna, with Adolf as her research partner, has contributed to mycological research through the categorization, classification, and discovery of new species of fungi on Observatory Hill in Saanich. She also participates in knowledge-sharing that reaches far beyond the world of mushrooms, into the biodiversity work of dozens of scientists around the South Island.
“Even Adolf has agreed that mycology is more interesting than botany,” teases Oluna, during our eventual meeting at a Saanich Starbucks. Adolf swats her hand and laughs. “I couldn’t have a better partner,” she continues, “he’s a fantastic photographer.”
The Ceskas arrived in Canada from Czechoslovakia in 1969, just after invasion of the country by Soviet and other Warsaw Pact forces. After studying at the University of Victoria, Adolf became curator of vascular plants at the Royal BC Museum, and a specialist of rare plant communities for the BC Conservation Data Centre. Oluna worked as an associate researcher in cellular biology at UVic before returning to her own research in the late 1990s, concentrating on the mycology of particular regions in BC.
Fungi, or mushrooms, might seem like a minor genus to focus on in the natural world. Popping up in the Capital Region after late summer and fall rains, their fruiting bodies rise from roots that spread through forest soils like thick mats. Some are edible, some poisonous, and their ragged forms, by late November, can seem insignificant, even eerie, amongst the stately firs and fire-red trunks of arbutus. But their importance to a forest’s health is still being uncovered.
In the last 12 years, Oluna has categorized over 1,300 species of fungi in a 185-acre area of Observatory Hill. In their biography on the Mushroom Observer website, Adolf (despite his serious botany credentials) lists his involvement as consisting of “driver, field assistant, photographer, computer operator, library liaison, and chef.” The two work side-by-side collecting, categorizing and identifying new species of fungus. “Our methods are not conventional,” says Oluna. Using an “intuitive path” method for finding species, they “just wander and observe.”
The Ceskas recently donated 3,316 specimens (stored in over 52 shoe boxes) to the University of British Columbia’s Beaty Biodiversity Museum, which accounts for more than one-third of the museum’s current collection. The Canadian Botanical Association provided $16,000 toward the costs of preparing the collection for donation. The museum is eager to accept whatever they provide. “We need more collections,” says Oluna. Adolf laughs; he describes their house as already full to bursting with gathered species; “We don’t need more collections!”
The Ceskas began work on Observatory Hill in 2004. The hill, sometimes called Little Saanich Hill, is crowned by the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory and managed by the National Research Council’s Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics. Large areas of the federal property were left undeveloped in order to protect night sky observations. This has conserved some of the region’s last untouched swaths of open Garry oak and Coastal Douglas fir ecosystems.
Since 2004, the Ceskas have visited the hill 380 times, collecting, drying and storing samples, recording species through photographs and drawings, and ultimately creating the first comprehensive study of fungi in the varied ecosystems of the hill. The results of their work can be found online at www.goert.ca.
Professor Joseph Ammerati of the University of Washington has called Oluna’s work “the longest, most detailed biodiversity study in North America.”
After 2013, when the $4000/year funding for her work was cut by the Astrophysical Lab (which also resulted in Federal closing of the facility itself), she continued collecting data, but has not compiled the results into reports.
Many species of trees—including Douglas fir and many coastal rainforest species—depend on fungi. About one-third of mushrooms are mycorrhizal, which means their roots have intertwined with tree roots underground. In BC’s coastal forests the tree roots of oak, fir, arbutus and pine depend on a variety of mycorrhizal mushrooms. The higher the tree species diversity in a forest, the higher the diversity of mycorrhizal fungi. Oak milk caps only grow under oak trees; chanterelles prefer Douglas-fir forests of 80-100 years old, where roots have had a chance to develop symbiotic relationships. Mycorrhizal fungi help protect trees from pollutants, cleanse heavy metals from the soil and keep them from passing to the tree itself. They increase a tree’s vitality, helping it to resist disease and insects.
Mycorrhizal symbiosis also allow trees to access nutrients otherwise unavailable. The mycelium of the mushrooms provide minerals to the trees in exchange for sugar from the tree. A tree’s roots are too large to absorb minerals like nitrogen, phosphorus and copper from the soil, so mushroom roots harvest the minerals for them. They actually mine them from rocks, passing the nutrients not only to the connected tree, but from tree to tree, including between two species of trees. Without the minerals that mycorrhizal mushrooms provide, trees wouldn’t be able to grow taller than a few feet.
This shared economy also increases overall forest health through far-reaching and species-crossing effects. Come fall, a spawning salmon dragged out of a river by a black bear can end up feeding not just the closest tree, but an entire grove. Salmon cells, in other words, are digested by the mycorrhizal tubular roots and end up dozens of metres away, in the cellular structure of a grand fir, an alder or a cedar. It’s the fungi that make that communal meal possible. In such ways, it’s clear the Capital Region’s biodiversity depends on healthy fungi populations. Unfortunately, over the last few years, due to drier summers, some early fruiting varieties of mushroom have not appeared at all. This, in turn, causes stress to trees that depend on the fungi.
Long-term monitoring of the Coastal Douglas Fir Biogeoclimactic Zone provides an important way of monitoring not just plant, fungi and animal ranges, but also the changes in climate, including rainfall and temperature, that southern British Columbia is increasingly facing. Many of the species Oluna found on Observatory Hill are at the northernmost edge of their range. “We are so lucky we started this research before the effects of global warming became visible here,” says Oluna.
Other researchers appreciate the Ceskas’ comprehensive approach and huge data bank. This year, the first Oluna and Adolf Ceska Mycology Award, created by the late fellow mycologist Jean Johnson, will provide support to a UBC mycology student. When asked about the award name, Adolf demurred, “It was an extremely touching moment, and I did not know if I, Adolf, should accept that honour, since I am just Oluna’s assistant.”
Oluna also submits specimens for DNA sequencing, which has resulted in the discovery of several previously unknown species. More may be forthcoming. “Mycology is now in revolution,” she says, explaining, “sequencing the DNA proved that it is a superior method to just morphological identification.”
While much of Europe has taken a holistic view of ecosystem study, North American scientists have tended to concentrate on individual species (usually endangered ones). That, say the Ceskas, has to change. “We are so behind in BC,” laments Oluna. “Southern Vancouver Island is so exceptional, we have to save what’s left.” Saving what’s left will depend on first knowing what’s there.
Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast (New Star, 2012). She is currently completing a PhD in Human Geography, focusing on the intersections between the social sciences and poetry.