I’ve been torn the past few days, relishing what are sure to be the last, lovely days of sunshine and warmth while anxiously awaiting the rains that will bring an official start to one of my favorite times of the year: mushroom season.
As with many things, I was drawn to mushroom hunting through my love of food. Chanterelles, for example, are a pretty common fall menu item in local restaurants. After sampling a few dishes, my obsessive nature kicked in and I figured that, at worst, looking for chanterelles would be a way to spend more time in the woods. And, you know, an excuse for more reference books.
Over the past few years, I’ve developed a roster of likely spots for my favorite species–specifically chanterelles, hericiums, boletes, and yellow feet (winter chanterelles), with a few others that I’m still working on finding with regularity (cauliflower mushrooms, hedgehogs, morels, lobsters, chicken of the woods). Because my primary interest is plants and the world they inhabit, I’ve also worked on developing an eye for habitat, with the goal of expanding the list of places I can reliably find the mushrooms and other plants I’m looking for.
As with most of my botanical knowledge, I’m self-taught. This means that I know the stuff I know, but that I am painfully aware that there’s a huge world out of there of things about which I have no idea.
In a baby step toward remedying that lack, I’m taking a mushroom identification class this fall through my local mycological society. Each week, we bring in mushrooms that we’ve collected and spend time working through the keys and guide books to identify them. It’s an exercise in precise observation and patience, and only occasionally in frustration.
That being said, the wild mushrooms that I eat most often are your basic beginner mushrooms: chanterelles, winter chanterelles, morels, hedgehogs, hericiums, lobster mushrooms, and chicken of the woods (mostly Laetiporus conifericola, in these parts).
Here are some of the resources I’ve found useful in gathering mushrooms and learning to identify various species.
Look for guidebooks specific to your region. Mushroom taxonomy is constantly changing, so check your identifications against an updated source.
David Arora is a mycology rockstar. His classics, Mushrooms Demystified and the “hip pocket guide” All that the Rain Promises, and More… are classics of the genre. Although they don’t always have the recent classification changes, they’re easy to use and fun to read. All that the Rain Promises is probably the most used book in our house.
Steve Trudell and Joe Ammirati’s Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest is a very good, relatively up-to-date resource for, obviously, the PNW. It’s the one we’re using in the ID class, and I often cross-reference what I find in my Arora books with this one.
Although Pojar and MacKinnon’s classic field guide, Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, isn’t a mushroom guide, it is helpful for identifying the plants that make up the habitats in which mushrooms thrive. Also, it’s great and belongs on more bookshelves.
Douglas Deur’s Pacific Northwest Foraging is another helpful book in the general-foraging-knowledge vein.
Langdon Cook’s The Mushroom Hunters will, at the very least, increase your appreciation for anyone involved in bringing mushrooms and other wild foods to market.
For sheer volume of edible things you can find in the wild, including mushrooms, Pascal Baudar’s The New Wildcrafted Cuisine has been revelatory.
Your personal comfort level with eating wild foods will probably determine how much education you want to invest in.
At this point, my hope is that the ID class will provide a little more structure to my knowledge. Although expanding my range of edible options would be nice, I’m actually more interested in having a deeper understanding of mushroom structure, habitat, and taxonomy. Your goals may be different.
As always with foraging, know what you’re eating and don’t eat anything you can’t positively identify!
Get a hand lens or jeweler’s loupe to help with identification. When the books talk about things like gill attachment, magnification comes in handy. In the spirit of experiential education, use a knife to dissect and otherwise destroy specimens. I use this one, which I got free with a seed order.
Waxed paper, paper bags, collecting baskets, fabric produce bags–put your mushrooms in anything but a tightly sealed plastic container! Depending on what I’m collecting and why, I’ll sometimes use a rigid plastic container to protect a fragile specimen, but sealing a mushroom in plastic is a great way to ruin it.
I keep a resuable grocery bag in the car for all my foraging; it’s stocked with fabric produce bags, waxed paper, small containers, a knife, and fishermen’s gloves.
When it comes to harvesting mushrooms, it’s a good idea to get the whole thing, particularly if it’s a species that’s new to you. You’ll want to know what kind of substrate it’s growing on–rotting wood, soil, etc.–and the base of the mushroom itself can be crucial in identifying it, as can really delicate tissues that are easily lost or damaged. If they’re mushrooms you plan to eat, keeping them as clean as posible will save you time later. If your mushrooms are really wet, as often happens in mushroom season in the PNW, do a dry sauté to cook off excess water before adding oil or other ingredients.
Regarding harvest, it’s important to note that mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungal networks. They’re more akin to, say, the apples than to the tree itself. Cauliflower mushroom (Sparassis crispa), for example, colonizes dead and dying trees, so it will return year after year in the same spot. As long as you’re not damaging the mycelium and the substrate it lives in–wood, soil–you’re unlikely to reduce future harvests.
As David Arora cheerfully points out, mushroom hunting truly is for everyone, and even if you never eat a single thing you gather, the practice of observation will change the way you think about the fields and forests you visit. Have fun!