Larry Evans: The “Indiana Jones of Mushrooms”
by Paul Richards

Raised on a Christmas tree farm in central Illinois with his parents and three brothers, Larry Evans preferred spending time in the woods around the farm, after his chores of pruning and mowing around the trees were finished. Evans’ parents were devoted mushroomers, with his father offering the boys a nickel apiece for each morel (Morchella species).
“I had my first ‘a-ha! moment’ when I was ten,” Evans said. “I found slippery jack, looked in guide book for its Latin name (Suillus luteus), and discovered that it was edible. ”

Dr. Paul Shildneck, a retired chemical engineer and amateur botanist, taught Evans about the Illinois native tallgrass prairie
ecosystem and the myriad of plants there. Evans followed through on his interest in the environment, founding the “Ecology Club” at his school, organizing litter pick-ups along highways, and holding glass recycling drives.

Evans studied environmental sciences and environmental engineering at the University of Illinois, before transferring to the University of Montana at Missoula, Montana.

“In 1977, I was lucky enough to take a course from the great mycologist Orson K. Miller, author of Mushrooms of North America,” Evans said. “Although he was on the faculty of Virginia Polytechnic University, Miller was also a visiting professor at Montana for over 20 years. I took his eight-credit class in mycology at the university’s Yellow Bay Biological Station. That’s when I really fell in love with mushrooms. It wasn’t long before I had Miller’s book memorized.”

Evans also studied plant ecology and, beginning in 1978, worked as a U.S. Forest Service plant taxonomist at the Coram Experimental Forest in the Flathead National Forest in Montana.

After graduating from the University of Montana in 1979 with a degree in botany and a minor in microbiology, Evans performed contract work with the Flathead National Forest, the Kootenai National Forest, the National Park Service, and later, in the 1990s, with David Pilz at the Forest Service’s Research Laboratory in Corvallis, Oregon.
Would you buy a dried morel from this man?

Evans also became an expert on hitchhiking, hitchhiking in every state except Hawaii. Drawing from his experience and a thousand questionnaires completed by fellow hitchhikers, Evans and his brother Don published a paperback guidebook titled, “Hey Now, Hitchhikers !.”

Evans briefly worked as a high school science teacher, an experience that later helped him develop a teacher education curriculum concerning mycology. He went on to teach mycology at the University of Montana and at the Glacier Institute.

Evans estimates he has taught mushroom seminars for at least 45 different nonprofit and nature-oriented groups, including the Audubon Society, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Bitterroot Historical Museum, Montana Outdoor Science School, Western Montana Mycological Association, Southwest Montana Mycological Association, Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness, Garden City Seeds, Glacier Institute, Colorado Mycological Society, Far East Wilderness Foods, Macon County (IL) Conservation District, Cove-Mallard Coalition, North Idaho Mycological Association, Teller Wildlife Refuge, National Forests Protection and Restoration Alliance, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Blackfeet Nation, Swan Valley Ecosystem Center, Sierra Club, Pacific Environmental Resources Council, and Montana Natural History Center.

In the early 1980s, Evans found his way to Japan for two years, where he lived next to a shiitake farm, taught English, studied judo at the Kodokan, and worked as an actor and model. Based in Japan, Evans traveled extensively to Indonesia, Thailand, China, India, Bangladesh, Tibet, and Australia, carefully studying the mycology of each region visited.

In the mid-1980s, Evans moved to Seoul, Korea, where he established the English Language Academy and also received his third degree black belt from the Korean National Judo School. Ultimately, Evans was hired by the Daewon Academy, where he won the Korean national “English Teacher of the Year” Award in 1987. He continued extensive traveling to Thailand, China, Tibet, Nepal, India, Kashmir, Bangladesh, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, New Caledonia, and New Zealand, photographing and documenting over a thousand fungi.

Evans returned to North America in the early 1990s, settling again in Missoula, Montana, and co-founding the Western Montana Mycological Association (WMMA) in 1991. Evans began his long stint as editor of the Association’s Fungal Jungal, organized a cooperative of vendors, and initiated wild mushroom sales at the Missoula Farmers Market. In 1992, while working as a roofer, he wrote and received a conservation grant from the Missoula County Conservation District to begin a series of workshops that grew into the Oyster Mushroom Project.

Russia became the focus of Evans’ interest in 1993, when he traveled to the Russian Far East in search of mushrooms and medicinal plants, ultimately publishing a paper for the Institute of Soviet-American Relations on “ Non-Timber Forest Products in the Russian Far East.” It was during this trip that Russians tagged Evans with the moniker “the Indiana Jones of mushrooms.”

Evans also initiated a decade of participation in the nonprofit video advocacy group Cold Mountain, Cold Rivers with a 15 minute educational video titled Welcome to the Fungal Jungle, which won honorable mention at the 1994 International Wildlife Film Festival. After morel season, he returned to the Russian Far East for three more months in 1994.

In 1995, Evans attended the Rene DuBois Conference on the Russian Far East in New York City to present a paper on mushrooms and other non-timber forest products. He also continued working under a grant from the International Foundation to bring various hardy vegetable seeds to the Russian Far East.

In 1996, Evans and his wife, Kristin, bought the Black Dog Café in downtown Missoula and introduced popular vegetarian dishes, many including wild mushrooms as ingredients. Not one to abandon traveling, Evans visited Italy with prominent authors Greg and Dorothy Patent, attending truffle markets and sampling Italian mushroom dishes. This knowledge was put to good use when the Black Dog Café sponsored a number of truffle dinners, which raised funds for the Missoula Public Library, Missoula AIDS Council, and the WMMA.

By the later 1990s, Evans began addressing invasive plant issues, obtaining a grant and the right to graze sheep on an experimental patch of leafy spurge on University of Montana land. Evans’ goal was to avoid application of potentially dangerous herbicides. The success of this and a subsequent experiment resulted in the use of thousands of sheep to control leafy spurge infestations on open space on the mountains surrounding Missoula.

As a board member of the Montana CHEER Coalition, Evans helped bring hundreds of thousand dollars to community first responders and watershed education projects, including the erection of a fish ladder around the Rattlesnake Dam that permitted the first migration of endangered bull trout back to their native spawning grounds in over a century.

In 1998, Evans toured Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, again focusing on local fungi. He was extensively profiled by Ian Frasier in Outside Magazine . By 1999, the Black Dog Café was offering live music four days a week, a vegetarian menu with wild mushrooms, some meat dishes and beer and wine as well. Evans produced a “ Live at the Black Dog” compact disk, featuring Missoula-area musicians.

Evans received the Alliance for the Wild Rockies’ Conservation Business Supporter of the Year Award in 2001. The State of Montana drafted him to write certification criteria for wild mushroom buying and made him the first “competent identifier” and state-certified vendor of edible wild mushrooms.

This bug is actually made out of a folded
palm leaf!
Due to numerous news articles and other media coverage, the Fungal Jungle Website grew to over one million hits in only the first half of 2001. “Google ‘ Montana’ and ‘mushrooms’ and there we are at number one,” Evans said. “ The Western Montana Mycological Association comes up first.”

Unfortunately, the Black Dog Café lost its lease toward the end of 2002.

In 2003, Evans produced the cult classic “ Fungal Boogie” compact disk, featuring Zoe Wood. “ The lyrics are fun and quite instructional,” Evans said. “ They really help mushroomers learn more about 13 types of mushroom.” It was featured on National Public Radio and on the children’s radio program “Pea Green Boat.” In 2004, Evans became program director at Cold Mountain, Cold Rivers and produced or co-produced environmental educational television programs and music videos.

In 2005, Evans explored Brazil and Argentina, visiting an agroforestry project in the Atlantic forest area of Bahia, and meeting with botanists in Curitiba. Evans met with Dr. Stephan Beck, curator of the Bolivian National Herbarium, and was invited by Dr. Beck to collect in Bolivia for the herbarium.

Alaska beckoned Evans in the spring of 2005 with reports of six million acres of burned forest providing habitat for the sub Arctic post-fire morel. Accompanied by a dozen or more pickers, he set up camp near Tok , Alaska and prowled the burns for two months, spawning a series of “Flash in the Pan” morel hunting articles by syndicated columnist Ari Levaux. Evans presented a paper on mushrooms and non-timber products at the Third International Myco-Medicinals Conference in Port Townsend, WA that October.In 2006, Evans traveled to Ecuador , Peru , and Bolivia , photographing fungi from Mindo to Machu Picchu and attending the inaugural celebration of President Evo Morales. He obtained “visiting scientist” status with the Charles Darwin Foundation for his tours of the Galapagos, and continues to advise them on mycological issues. He began collecting fungi in Madidi National Park under an agreement with the Bolivian National Herbarium. Evans was featured in the book, Montana Folks, distributed nationally by the Globe–Piquat Press.

In 2007, Evans returned to Madidi in the northeast corner of Bolivia , wedged between Peru and Brazil , to work with four volunteers surveying mushrooms of the upper Amazon. After that, Evans forayed in Argentina , spending time in the Lake District and presenting to the faculty of the University of San Martin de los Andes . He came home to produce another compact disk, Fungal BoogieMan, which musically teaches listeners about another dozen mushrooms.

Through all of his travels, Evans maintains a rigorous speaking schedule. He is frequently featured at noted mushroom festivals, such as those at Crested Butte and Telluride, Colorado . He teaches workshops every summer. Evans has also presented to North American Mycological Association Conventions and presented a paper to the Third International Myco-Medicinal Conference. He currently holds a seat on the Sierra Club Montana Executive Committee.
Evans has been a contributing editor to Mushroom, The Journal of Wild Mushrooming for over a decade, where he has written extensively on subjects such as non-timber forest products, morels, mushroom taste tests, and mushroom ecology and forest restoration.

Evans estimates that the Western Montana Mycological Association’s Fungal Jungal reciprocates information and articles with 30 other mushroom newsletters throughout North America .

I love to put the fun into fungi,” Evans told this interviewer. “I’m seeking solutions; solutions to all kinds of environmental problems and ecological issues.

“Mushrooms have a key role to play in nutrition, ecological restoration, detoxifying brownfields, purifying drinking water, and restoring forest health. Fungi are crucial parts of our past and they will prove pivotal to our future.”
(Paul Richards is a Montana-based freelance journalist that has specialized in Western resource and environmental issues for 40 years.)