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A fungus among us: Students push for new Vermont state mushroom

The bear's head tooth, pictured here in Pennsylvania, may soon be immortalized in statute as Vermont's official state mushroom.
The bear's head tooth, pictured here in Pennsylvania, may soon be immortalized in statute as Vermont's official state mushroom.

In a packed room at the state capitol in Montpelier, second graders Charles and George Pelton sat at the end of a long table, flanked by legislators on all sides.

“I’m gonna talk the whole time and George is gonna do the slides. He doesn’t really want to talk,” Charles said.

The boys, two-thirds of a set of triplets, were students of Windham Elementary before its closure. Last fall, their school was approached by state Rep. Michelle Bos-Lun, a Democrat from Westminster, to decide on a new state symbol: a mushroom.

“We voted on different mushrooms. First we voted by a voice vote and then voted with a hand vote, which is also called a division,” Charles explained to the House Committee on Agriculture, Food Resilience, and Forestry.

Now, the students were asking lawmakers to write their favored mushroom into state law.

Two similar-looking boys sit in front of a monitor.
Michelle Bos-Lun
George and Charles Pelton testify before the House Committee on Agriculture, Food Resiliency, and Forestry on why they believe the bear's head tooth should be the new state mushroom..

State Rep. Esme Cole, a Democrat from Hartford, asked the boys what they learned about mushrooms and the legislative process.

“I think I learned that bear’s head tooth mushroom and lion’s mane mushroom are both in the Hericium americanum family,” Charles said.

His brother corrected him: “Well, the Hericium family, not the Hericium americanum.”

A mushroom in the making

Having students involved in adopting a new state symbol isn’t new to Vermont: in 2016, the Gilfeather turnip — a cross between a rutabaga and a turnip — was named the state vegetable following lobbying by a group of students at Wardsboro Elementary School.

A year earlier, the state adopted a second state motto in Latin, on the suggestion of a Lyndon Institute student.

Bos-Lun said the state mushroom project evolved from an exercise she would do with students. In a simulation of the legislative process, The representative would have classes debate and vote on a hypothetical state ice cream (maple creemee would almost always win, she said). But it stopped at the end of the lesson.

“The last time I did that lesson I thought, you know what, the next time I do this, I want to do it with something that we could see all the way through the process,” Bos-Lun said. “And if the students come up with a good idea, I can actually submit it as a bill.”

As for why it’s a mushroom, the idea came naturally: Bos-Lun describes herself as a mycophile (a lover of mushrooms): She cultivates them. She forages them. She cooks with them. She even photographs them, a practice known as mycography. When she looked up if Vermont has a state mushroom, she knew what she had to do.

Bos-Lun partnered with two schools, Compass School, in Westminster, and Windham Elementary School. The interest was already there, Bos-Lun said.

The students at Compass School pose in front of their final choice for a state mushroom: the bear's head tooth. From the left are Nicholas Duprey, Zinth Holder, and Mustapha Tucker, the three Compass students who testified.
Michelle Bos-Lun
The students at Compass School pose in front of their final choice for a state mushroom: the bear's head tooth. From the left are Nicholas Duprey, Zinth Holder, and Mustapha Tucker, the three Compass students who testified.

Compass School, which serves middle and high school students, had two different mushroom guides come into the school and lead guided mushroom tours in the woods. Windham Elementary students hadn’t had that experience, but their interest was piqued by a fairy ring — a naturally-occurring circle of mushrooms — outside the school.

Bos-Lun presented students with a variety of mushrooms and had them narrow it down by voice vote and then division, where students would either raise their hands or stand up to be counted.

A group of children point to a projected image of the Bear's Head Tooth mushroom
Michelle Bos-Lun
The Windham Elementary students point to their final choice for a state mushroom: also the bear's head tooth.

“What I told students was that in the Legislature, a bill will pass if it has a majority. But as it turned out, we had almost a unanimous decision,” Bos-Lun said. “I liked the idea that they were coming together around a common idea and it worked out that way — they all kind of came into agreement and basically came to see each other’s way of thinking and looking at the bear’s head tooth as the best choice.”

What makes a state mushroom?

Vermont has a lot of state symbols. There’s a state animal (the Morgan horse), state beverage (milk), two state fossils (the Charlotte whale and Mount Holly mammoth), even a state soil (the Tunbridge soil series). But fungi are not represented.

The bear’s head tooth mushroom, Hericium americanum (Hericium is Latin for hedgehog, owing to its spikes, while americanum means American, as the Peltons explained to the committee), has an almost regal appearance. It’s all-white in color, and its flowering body almost looks like icicles — something that stood out to the students.

“It’s just one unique mushroom that also looks like waterfalls or frozen icicles you’ll find on the highway rocks when you’re driving around Vermont.” said seventh grader Zinth Holder of Compass School.

There were ultimately several criteria the students decided on to pick their mushroom. To start with, it had to be edible: while many mushrooms are poisonous, the bear’s head tooth is not. The students considered the jack-o-lantern mushroom, which glows in the dark, but shot it down because it’s poisonous.

It had to have medicinal value: the Hericium genus of mushrooms produces compounds being studied for use in treatment of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

It had to have no poisonous lookalikes: bear’s head tooth’s only lookalike is the lion’s mane mushroom, which is also edible, and isn't generally found in the wild in Vermont.

“Some people call it the bear’s head tooth’s twin because it’s hard to tell them apart,” said seventh grader Nicholas Duprey, also of Compass.

A composite of two images, the left image is the bear's head tooth, which grows in clumps of downward facing teeth, while the right image is lion's mane, which is a sphere covered in spikes, like a pom-pom.
Left: glhans / iNaturalist
Right: plantpolicechief / iNaturalist
Though they may look similar, the bear's head tooth tends to branch out while the lion's mane grows around a single area, forming a pom-pom-like shape.

It also had to be unique. Fifth grader Lydia Dutton, who presented on the history of state symbols, said 20 states have milk as their state beverage. But only five states have state mushrooms, and no other state has bear’s head tooth as its mushroom.

It couldn’t be endangered: while bear’s head tooth isn’t something a forager will find on every expedition, it isn’t rare enough to be considered at-risk.

It had to be cultivable, both in order to preserve the species and to make it viable to sell.

“You can grow the bear’s head tooth in your backyard. The fact you can do that and find it in the woods is very unusual, because if you do that, then you can increase the numbers of the bear’s head tooth, which would do more good for the environment.” Nicholas said.

The students at Windham Elementary wanted a mushroom that grows on trees (something Vermont is famous for), and bear’s head tooth grows on another state symbol, the state tree: sugar maple.

Testifying before the committee

Each student presented a different facet of the mushroom bill. The Peltons gave a general overview and talked about the process to decide on a mushroom. Lydia talked about state symbols. Zinth, a self-described mushroom fan like Rep. Bos-Lun, spoke about mushrooms in general and how they benefit the environment, or as they phrased it, “Why they’re just amazing.”

“Mushrooms can even be used to fix damaged soil, but only a few like oyster mushrooms. These mushrooms are used to remove toxins from the Earth’s soil, such as oil spills,” Zinth said.

A child sits at a laptop surrounded at the end of the table. People in suits sit around the rest of the table.
Michelle Bos-Lun
Seventh-grader Zinth Holder testifies before the House Committee on Agriculture, Food Resiliency, and Forestry about the importance of mushrooms.

Nicholas discussed the bear’s head tooth itself, which was only described as a separate species in 1984.

Rep. Henry Pearl of Danville asked Nicholas how to safely harvest the bear’s head tooth so that it grows back.

“It’s safer to cut it to not damage the roots so they can keep growing and so they won’t be extinct,” Nicholas said, without missing a beat.

Eighth grader Mustapha Tucker finished things off with a presentation on the voting process and why the students chose the bear’s head tooth.

Asked about the difference between mushroom and fungi, Mustapha noted that, while the kingdom of fungi includes mushrooms, yeast, and mold, the state mushroom would work as a good representative of fungi as whole.

“We don’t want a state yeast or state mold, this would just represent the entire community of fungi,” Mustapha said, to laughs. “A state mold would be kind of interesting, though.”

A child reads from a script at the head of a table, where people in suits sit.
Michelle Bos-Lun
Eighth-grader Mustapha Tucker testifies before the House Committee on Agriculture, Food Resiliency, and Forestry on why the bear's head tooth should be the state mushroom.

The road ahead

After their testimony, the students took a break in a side room; there wasn’t enough room for every student and parent to stay in the committee room.

“Honestly, I was a little nervous because I haven’t done speaking in a second. I presented to the middle school yesterday and that was a little harder, because they’re middle schoolers,” Nicholas said in an interview after his speech. “I think I did an overall good job.”

A child sits at a table watching a laptop while behind him a child shows a group of adults his drawing on a chalkboard. The drawing is out of frame.
Corey Dockser
Vermont Public
The students unwound in a nearby room between testimonies.

“It was less stressful than I expected it to be. I was expecting to be bombarded with questions or something like that,” Zinth said, noting they revised their speech three times before reaching the final version. Ultimately, they were asked five questions.

The committee voted to advance the bill, and it's since passed the House. Now only the Senate's approval, and the governor's signature, remain.

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Updated: March 21, 2024 at 10:06 AM EDT
This article has been updated to reflect that Windham residents voted to allow students to attend other schools on public tuition, effectively closing Windham Elementary School for the foreseeable future.
Corrected: March 21, 2024 at 10:06 AM EDT
The original version of this article misstated the grades of the Pelton twins: they are in second grade, not first. Additionally, it was the schools that voted on the mushrooms, not individual classes in each. The lion's mane mushroom is not generally found in the wild in Vermont, but it can grow here and is cultivated.
Corey Dockser is Vermont Public’s first data journalist, a role combining programming and journalism to produce stories that would otherwise go unheard. His work ranges from complex interactive visualizations to simple web scraping and data cleaning. Corey graduated from Northeastern University in 2022 with a BS in data science and journalism. He previously worked at The Buffalo News in Buffalo, New York as a Dow Jones News Fund Data Journalism intern, and at The Boston Globe.