Nearly a decade has passed since I was first introduced to the topic of mycology, the study of fungi.
When I first began to learn I was surprised by how critically important fungi are in our everyday lives, yet it had taken me 20-something years to even notice their existence!
As the years have passed, I have been lucky to witness the blossoming (or should I say mushrooming?) interest in mycology across the United States, especially around the topic of wild foraging and medicinal mushrooms. Here's a primer to help kick-start your wild foraging career!
How to get started with foraging
There are thousands of species of mushrooms in North America alone, and many of them don't resemble the traditional button mushroom with its wide brimming cap, fleshy gills, and centrally positioned stalk.
Wild mushrooms grow in all different shapes and sizes. They grow from the dirt, on twigs, dead stumps, underground, and even way high up in trees. Some have gills, some tubes or even teeth, and they range across all the hues of the color spectrum. I always recommend that newbie foragers tag along with an experienced friend or community forager who can help them put on their mushroom eye and begin to see all the different sorts of mushrooms that can grow in the wild.
The essential field tools
Whether going out on your own or with a seasoned group of mushroom foragers, there are various tools that you may want to bring with you on your foraging excursion:
1. Basket or other carrying device
Baskets and mesh bags allow spores of the mushrooms you find to spread out before you bring them home.
2. Paper bags
Used for separating your fungal finds, paper bags allow air to flow into your specimen. (Plastic ones constrict airflow and promote unwanted mold growth on the mushrooms.) Separating your mushrooms in the field is especially important when you are unsure of what the mushrooms are, since it helps prevent mix-ups between edible and potentially poisonous species. You can spend more time working to correctly identify the mushrooms once at home.
3. Sharp knife
You'll need this for cutting and collecting your mushrooms.
4. Paintbrush or other small brush
This is an optional item for brushing dirt off your specimen before putting them in your basket.
5. Regional field guides
These may be carried with you in the field or left at home to make your ID's upon your return.
6. Field notebook
Field notebooks are used to jot down all the information you need to make a proper field ID, including notes about the mushroom, surrounding plant growth, and other features of the environment. Notes From the Leading Edge is a predesigned field journal that helps you take all the notes you need!
These days, there are many mushroom field guides on the market and online. It is important to use field guides that correlate with the region that you are foraging in—most regions around the world have their own regional field guides that you can find with a Google search. Some popular online resources include MushroomExpert.com and MushroomObserver.org.
You should also cross-reference the mushroom specimens you collect with those in an identification book (or two, or three!). Though there are many safe wild edible mushrooms, there are many that have poisonous lookalikes. Cross-referencing your ID's will help you to minimize your chances of falsely identifying a mushroom. Never eat a mushroom that you are not 100 percent sure of!
Here is a list of wild mushrooms that are easy to identify, delicious to eat, and have little to no poisonous lookalikes.
Do's and Dont's of foraging
1. DO minimize environmental impact.
Soil compaction (the result of a lot of walking in one area) can damage fungal networks below the ground. To minimize soil compaction, walk in a single-file line if foraging with a few buddies. If there are many of you in a group, spread out over a larger foraging area.
2. DON'T collect specimens unless you plan to use them.
Though mushrooms are fun to collect, if you are not planning to eat, cultivate, or ID them, it's better to observe them in the field and leave them to live out their full life cycles.
3. DO document your collections.
There are many reasons to document information about your fungal finds. For one, many mushrooms will grow back in the same spot year after year. If you document where and how you found those mushrooms, you will be able to find them time and time again.
Moreover, there is a lot of change that is taking place in the environment including weather patterns, migrational patterns of birds, growth patterns of trees, and much more. All of this affects the world of fungi and it is up to all of us to learn about and share the changes that we observe!
4. DO share this with a friend.
Fungi are keystone organisms in all of the ecosystems around the world; they help to promote communication, energy exchange, and community between the plants, animals, bacteria, and all the life that exists in a place. Like the fungi, we can connect and strengthen our communities through sharing our experiences in the wonderful world of mycology.