Foraging Season, Part 2: What to Bring on a Mushroom Hunt
Welcome to part 2 of our three-part series, Foraging Season. In part 1, we introduced you to the reasons why you might want to start foraging, and this week we’re back with a handy guide for what to bring when you forage for mushrooms. No matter where you’re located, there are likely mushrooms just waiting to be discovered right outside your front door. Join us as we walk through the finer points of mushroom hunting: From what to bring and where to forage, to what to expect while you’re out there, then be sure to share your own tips, tricks and tales of foraging success in our ‘Shroom Club.
What to bring on a mushroom hunt:
As you most likely will end up walking some distance in natural landscapes, it makes sense to wear comfortable clothing and good shoes (or go barefoot to get grounded!). If you plan to head deeper into the woods, bring a reliable map and a compass with you (sure, modern phones can serve this purpose, just don’t trust your life with them).
- A basket to collect your finds with - preferably not made of plastic as the mushrooms like to breathe (just like us humans!)
- A knife, any kind of sharp pocket knife will work. It makes sense to already do the major trimming and cleaning of the mushrooms in the forest if you’re sure about the identification.
- A drink. Carrying good drinking water is always a good idea and 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 despite these lovely little flying creatures.
With these few things, you will do just fine. Everything else, from wax paper bags to magnifying lenses to notebooks, you can add 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.
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. It’s a bit of a different mindset to go roaming around collecting various different kinds of mushrooms for later identification. The latter rarely gets you much to eat, though it is of course a great way to expand your knowledge.
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!
Pro tip: when you find an edible species which has gone past its prime, you can do as the russians do - they place the mushroom up on a branch at a reachable height. this allows the spores to possibly travel further and helps the sought-after mushrooms appear in bigger numbers in years to come!
Where to forage:
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, it makes sense to do research on where chanterelles usually grow and then look for similar types of 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 residues 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 to a heavily traveled road.
Finally, listen to your intuition. Go back to the good spots you’ve already visited or pick a new one by asking around, researching or just by gut feeling. Wherever you find yourself, take the following advice from JJ, The Joyful Forager:
“Get yourself settled in the forest spot that you’re about to forage and take a minute. Find a seat on a fallen log, take your thermos of hot mushroom drink that you brought with you and enjoy a cup while giving thanks to nature for providing you with delicious food for free from your own environment.”
This re-connecting with Mother Nature alone will make you a winner, whether you come across any mushrooms or not.
Note about local legislation:
Make sure you are not breaking any local laws regarding foraging. In many states, it’s permitted for individuals to roam and pick wild mushrooms for their own use in state parks and even in national forests. 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 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).
What goes without saying though is 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 the air like you are meant to – in an unharmful way.
“Treat the earth well – it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” - the Haida indians of the Pacific Northwest Coast
Fun fact: By walking amongst the mushrooms in the forest, you help them to spread their spores. This is why often a lot of mushrooms pop out of the ground around roads and paths where animals (including humans) have travelled and unintentionally carried the spores. We are not just visitors to our landscape, we are a part of it.
“What is this mushroom?”
Even with all 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 guess work.
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 experts:
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. Enquiring within these, or local nature centers, hiking clubs or even college biology departments for any upcoming mushroom forays or workshops will likely result in finding 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.
Good foraging books
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 otherwise worthy of your time – other than to admire the unique 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.
Note that 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 so 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 (Western US)
- One Thousand American Fungi by Charles Mcilvaine, Robert K. Macadam, and Charles Frederick Millspaugh
- Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora as a very extensive reference book to have handy at home.
- http://www.mushroomexpert.com/ - a very elaborate online database of mushrooms.