7 Tips for Foraging Wild Mushrooms In North America
For many, hunting and eating wild mushrooms seems risky. For the rest of us, it’s a challenging and often time-consuming passion...where the rewards are many.
You don’t have to be a hardcore health nut or outdoors person to start foraging for edible mushrooms. Every one of us has the “foraging gene” that can be re-awakened. After all, how else did our ancestors survive when there was no one growing, processing, and packing ready-to-eat food for them?
When you roam in the forests and fields, breathing in the fresh air and possibly even discovering organic food to nourish yourself with, the connection is strong – much stronger than 4G.
To me, foraging is an integral way to connect with nature and calm the mind. I’ve been foraging since I was a little boy in Finland with my mother and brother. Scouting edibles pretty much always becomes a natural way of being outdoors, and the discovery of healthy, free food is really just a bonus of this hobby.
There are many detailed field guides and books by experts out there that will be essential in moving forward. My goal is to get you interested with these seven tips and then let you loose in the wilderness with the references you need.
Wild Mushroom Foraging Tip 1: Be Safe
The only truly important rule in mushroom foraging is this: Only eat mushrooms that you have identified as edible with 110 percent certainty. You don’t want to mess with poisonous mushrooms. Even then, start with small doses, just like with any new food.
Yes, there are some toxic mushrooms that are poisonous and even deadly. There are many look-alikes out there, and mushroom poisoning is no joke.
However, none of them will kill you without you swallowing them.
Much like foraging for wild herbs, these are skills that require study and time to gain a base level of expertise.
That being said, you don’t have to learn the use and preparation of 100 mushroom types before you can implement what you know. Become familiar with just one mushroom species at a time so you can fully embrace and develop the relationship between you and your new little fungal friend. From there, it’s easier to continue on to the next species with more confidence. And it’s easier to spot look-alikes!
At the end of the day, use your senses, your field guides, and other people whom you trust to enhance your knowledge. It takes time. Embrace it.
Wild Mushroom Foraging Tip 2: Bring the Right Supplies
Here are some wild mushroom foraging essentials:
- Comfortable clothing and shoes: You’re going to be walking some distance in nature.
- A map and compass: If you’re going far these are much more reliable than a smartphone.
- A basket: Just make sure it’s not made of plastic — the mushrooms like to breathe (just like us humans!).
- A knife: Any kind of sharp pocket knife will work. It makes sense to do the major trimming and cleaning of the mushrooms in the forest if you’re sure about the identification.
- A drink: Carrying drinking water is always a good idea. Plus, hot mushroom tea in a thermos is a great treat in the forest!
- Insect repellant: If it is mosquito season, you may want to plan ahead to keep yourself comfortable.
With these few things, you will do just fine. You can add everything else, from wax paper bags to magnifying lenses to notebooks, as you build your foraging kit according to your personal needs and preferences. We find it very practical to have a mushroom basket and knife in the car at all times, especially when mushroom season rolls in. (Usually immediately after periods of heavy rain, which vary depending on where you live).
Note: When fall rolls around and hunting season begins, wear bright orange clothing or at least an orange hat in the woods so you don’t get mistaken for an animal. Safety first!
Wild Mushroom Foraging Tip 3: Forage In the Right Spots
Your choice of where to forage depends a lot on where in the world you are and what mushrooms you intend to find.
For example, if you want to find chanterelles, do research on where chanterelles usually grow and then look for similar areas around you. Many types of mushrooms grow in different kinds of forests, as a majority of the choice edibles form mycorrhizal (symbiotic) relationships with trees.
A good rule of thumb is to avoid polluted, treated, or sprayed areas. Lawns that are clearly weedless are best avoided as well as fruit tree orchards unless you know for sure they haven’t been sprayed. Pesticide residue can remain in the soil for many years.
Also, it’s best to not pick mushrooms next to busy, paved roadways. There could be lead in the soil from leaded gasoline, cadmium from tire rubber dust, or residual particles from the exhaust. A general rule is to not pick closer than 50–100 feet from a heavily traveled road.
Know the Local Legislation
Make sure you are not breaking any local laws regarding foraging. In many state parks and national forests, it’s permitted for individuals to roam and pick wild mushrooms for their own use. On private land, it may be a different story. Know the local laws.
Other experienced foragers can easily point you towards good ‘shroom-hunting areas and the local mycological societies may help you find permitted lands to forage in.
There is some debate as to whether picking the fruiting body from the forest floor or from a tree can cause damage to the mycelium. There is really no evidence of any damage done with general mushroom picking. Common sense tells us fruiting body mushrooms are at the end of their cycle and ready to be harvested. Mother Nature has provided them to be consumed by animals (and humans).
Take care not to damage the environment. Avoid picking or knocking over mushrooms you don’t intend to keep. A good mushroom hunter leaves few traces behind. If you clean the mushroom in the forest (e.g. cutting off stems of chanterelles), these can be left in a neat pile in the forest to decay and possibly help the mycelium to spread. Interact with mushrooms, plants, trees, animals, earth, water, and air like you are meant to — in an unharmful way.
Wild Mushroom Foraging Tip 4: Meet an Expert
Even with all of today’s technology, mushroom identification is difficult, often technical, and sometimes impossible. Other times it may seem easy and evident. Nothing beats the experienced eye and having a mentor who will help remove much of the guesswork.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors have been foraging for edible foods and mushrooms for tens of thousands of years. Previously, this knowledge was passed on to the next generation by the community and the elders. Nowadays, as we are suffering from lack of close communities where such basic living skills would be an essential part of our upbringing, many of us have to depend on things like books and new acquaintances to help us gain the needed skill set.
Learn from the Pros
In our experience, foragers are friendly folks. If you find a local forager, don’t be afraid to ask if you can join on an upcoming day trip. This hands-on experience will give you many revelations that otherwise may only come after many grey hairs and lessons learned the hard way. It’s amazing how much and how fast we can learn by watching and being able to ask questions from someone more experienced than us.
Luckily, there are plenty of mushroom clubs and mycological societies all over the world. Inquire within these, or local nature centers, hiking clubs, or even college biology departments for any upcoming mushroom forays or workshops. You’re likely to find yourself having fun in the forest with many other like-minded foragers.
Farmers markets are a fruitful source not only for edible mushrooms, but also for use as a foraging and sourcing networking arena. If no one person seems to have a bounty of fungi available, ask around to see who might be the area’s foremost mushroom forager. And again, just start by politely asking if you could tag along on some upcoming foraging.
Wild Mushroom Foraging Tip 5: Grab a Book
When your curiosity starts to grow, and you decide you’d like to learn more about different mushroom species, it is essential to have a couple of good field guides.
Even many veteran foragers who have been doing this for decades still carry a field guide. It’s such a pleasure to be able to readily identify a mushroom in the forest and to know if it makes sense to gather more to take home, or to leave them there.
Remember though, there are tens of thousands of mushrooms, and field guides describe at most a few hundred. It isn’t realistic to be able to identify each and every mushroom you stumble upon. If it is a choice edible or a poisonous mushroom – or just hasunique beauty – it will be listed and quite possible to identify accurately.
The most efficient way to identify mushrooms is through scientific keys like those featured in the books listed below. A key asks you to make choices, one by one, in order to narrow down possibilities.
Probably the least successful method for identifying mushrooms is by comparing them to photos. Photos alone almost never convey the many details that are important in determining a mushroom’s identity.
Unfortunately, many field guides lack the scientific keys and only encourage you to make determinations based on cap color and virtually nothing else. Color is actually one of the least reliable features of a mushroom. Always make sure to make a positive identification using at least one, better two, field guides for specific details of description, such as habitat, spore color, and toxic look-alikes.
Remember: “When in doubt, throw it out!”
The following books are our recommendations for your foraging library:
- National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms by Gary Lincoff
- The Mushroom Hunter’s Field Guide by Alexander Smith and Nancy Smith Weber
- All That the Rain Promises and More by David Arora (for the western U.S.)
- One Thousand American Fungi by Charles McIlvaine
- Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora (very extensive reference book to have handy at home)
Bookmark http://www.mushroomexpert.com/ for a very elaborate online database of mushrooms.
Wild Mushroom Foraging Tip 6: Memorize These 4 Wild Mushrooms
There are more than 140,000 species of known mushroom-bearing fungi across the globe. Of these, an estimated 2,000 species are thought to be edible and/or medicinal. Thus, the odds are not actually in our favor that any random mushroom would be wise to consume, and could in fact be a poisonous mushroom. On the other hand, there are a couple thousand species for you to choose from!
The most rewarding forages are generally those in which you set your mind to find a particular kind of mushroom, discover a good patch or two, collect them, and call it a day. These four mushrooms are my favorite to introduce to friends.
1. Morels (Morchella)
The morel is probably North America’s most sought-after wild mushroom. It is also one of the easiest to identify.
Morel season lasts for approximately three weeks in the spring. This short season falls at different times in different regions of the continent. They may begin as early as March in Los Angeles and North Carolina and end as late as June or July in Canada. Morels are found in the Rockies as late as August.
Part of the attraction of morels is the mystery that surrounds their location. People speculate if the best spots are old apple orchards, conifer woods, swampy places, or construction sites. After all, it seems like we find them where and when they choose to appear. Morels vary in size and shape, and their colors range from pale gold to near black.
But their most distinctive features are consistent: an egg-shaped-to-conical head of ridges and pits and a hollow cap and stem. The only look-a-like you want to familiarize yourself with as well is Gyromitra, the false morel.
Once you have seen them both, however, there is no danger of mistaking one for the other again. The cap of the false morel is more brain-shaped than spongy, and it is not hollow when you cut it open.
False morels are actually a celebrated mushroom in many areas of the world, including Finland. It is essential to boil them twice in water before cooking to remove the poisonous compounds in them.
Boletes are some of the most prized edible mushrooms. On a good day, they can easily be very bountiful too.
With over 200 species in North America, this large family of mushrooms, Boletaceae, is easy to recognize. Boletes often resemble gilled mushrooms from the top, but when you turn them over, you will notice a spongy bottom with pores instead.
Boletes grow in mycorrhizal association with the roots of many trees, and some grow under only one kind of tree such as ash or white pine. By noticing this, you can learn about both trees and mushrooms.
The season for boletes is pleasingly long, often ranging from midsummer to late fall. Going back to a good spot again a few weeks later might result in another great haul.
Most species of boletes that grow in North America are edible and taste great. There are some species that are unpalatable, bitter, or can cause discomfort if not properly cooked. Luckily, it’s quite easy to make an identification once you have a mushroom in your hand with pores underneath the cap.
There are several choice species of chanterelles, but it is Cantharellus cibarius that is the best known and most popular. There are few sights more tantalizing than a woodland floor carpeted with scores of these vase-shaped, orange mushrooms.
The chanterelle is usually presented as one of the easiest mushrooms to recognize. Still, there are a few species that resemble it; one of them is poisonous, and it does take some care to tell apart.
The chanterelle is distinguished from its lookalikes by the presence of blunt ridges with forked veins running down the cap and onto the stem. As with all mushrooms, be sure before you eat!
It’s funny how so often, finding the first mushroom is hard. Once you have spotted one, all of a sudden mushrooms begin appear all around you. This is especially true for many species that like to hide under debris, like chanterelles. My mom taught me to hack this by putting on my “mushroom-eyes” and looking carefully for the first one, after which you’ll be surrounded by many.
4. Turkey Tail
On top of all the different edible species, it is surprisingly easy to find many medicinal mushrooms growing near you. Turkey tail is by far the most obvious one; it can often be found right outside your door growing in the park or within city limits.
Turkey tail earned its name due to the fungi’s fan shape that resembles, well, the tail of a turkey. The Latin name Trametes versicolor, meaning “of several colors,” is also fitting for this mushroom that is identified by the concentric circles of varying colors.
A pervasive grower, you can find it almost anywhere where there are dead or fallen hardwood trees, stumps, or branches. This quality may have been what led to its use in traditional Chinese medicine: It has been said that ancient Taoists were astonished by how easily this rainbowed fungi grew from pine, which is considered a notoriously anti-fungal wood. They quickly concluded that a mushroom of such tenacity and strength must contain incredible medicinal properties.
To be triple-certain of your identification, this six-step “Totally True Turkey Tail Test” can come handy.
Wild Mushroom Foraging Tip 7: Cook With Edible Mushrooms
Now that you have brought home a basket full of delicious edible mushrooms, it’s time to treat yourself! Before jumping into it, it’s wise to try one new species at a time, eating only a small amount at first. Just as some people can’t eat nuts, shellfish, or other foods, allergic reactions to some mushrooms are certainly possible.
Most mycologists believe that mushrooms are more desirable and tastier unwashed. Clean off most of the dirt in the field. Then at home, you can wipe them with a damp paper towel if needed.
The first time you cook a mushroom, make it a one-species sautéd dish. Half the fun in mushroom cookery is experimenting, and this will give you the chance to experience your find in all its glorious essence.
Start over a low flame with some butter and keep a close eye on it so you don’t end up with burnt ‘shrooms. With that said, mushrooms are excellent assimilators, adapting to, and even enhancing, almost any culinary environment they find themselves in.
Feel free to experiment, adding the mushrooms to soups, stews, casseroles, sauces, omelettes, pastas, breads, and so on. In general, a more delicately flavored mushroom will do best with vegetables or other light dishes, while stronger-tasting mushrooms can take more highly seasoned foods.
Want to connect with other wild mushroom foragers? Join our ‘Shroom Club on Facebook!