Hunting Wild Edible Mushrooms
(short cut to Hiring your personal mushroom guide)
Going out into the forests or just searching our backyards for edible mushrooms is one of the most exciting and gratifying ways to forage for gourmet food.
However, being able to recognize the mushroom you would like to dine on correctly beyond doubt is an absolute prerequisite. You do not need to know all mushrooms, but you need to know the species you are going to consume very well. On one level, it is just like foraging for blackberries. Discovering their great taste should not lure us into munching on all berries we are encountering. We do not need to know all berries out there, but we need to be able to recognize a blackberry and we need to know that there is nothing similar to a blackberry that is poisonous or even deadly. The big caveat is, what in actuality are the similar features of the mushrooms in question. Perception of degrees of similarity might vary strongly for observers with different backgrounds. The necessity of knowing your mushrooms cannot be overstated, since poisoning or even killing ourselves and others can be the likely unintended outcome of a misidentification. Also, a knowledge of possible poisonous local look-a-likes is also extremely helpful, just to know the stakes.
Golden Chanterelle (Chanterellus formosus)
Shaggy Parasol (Chlorophyllum olivieri)
The Prince (Agaricus augustus)
How to Identify a Mushroom?
A good starting point trying to learn about wild edible mushrooms is getting mushroom books specific to the area you are foraging. Using a guidebook that focuses on another region you might spend a lot of time matching your find to a mushroom that does not grow in your area. In the Pacific Northwest, my favorite starter books are "The New Savory Wild Mushroom" and the new "Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest". Also locally of relevance are David Arora's books and some others (for complete references see below). Furthermore of awesome value is the MatchMaker software. Although the fungal match making tool might not always work for us, it is revolutionary when trying to identify a mushroom by certain traits like "smells like garlic", "pink spores and purple cap" or looking up all mushrooms growing on wood in clusters. In addition, the vast collection of PNW mushroom photos in MatchMaker is really unrivaled. In addition it is a free download!
I love using photos to narrow down the search when identifying a mushroom, but photos are limited too. There are only visual clues, no information regarding smell, taste or consistence of the fungal tissue, not to mention chemical reactions etc. However, this information is integrated in detailed written descriptions, when using a key to identify a mushroom. Most helpful information for keying out a mushroom is David Arora's "Mushrooms Demystified" or the keys authored by the PNW Key Council. Relying on descriptions for identification requires learning a lot of mycological terminology. This is sometimes scary and seems tedious, but with each term a distinctive characteristic comes alive that helps us identify mushrooms and see differences, some of them hard to recognize without labeling such a phenomenon. Another great resource is the internet, where you can google for detailed descriptions and a range of images. Just make sure the webpages you are consulting have been authored by someone who really knows what he or she is doing.
Habitat and Seasonality
Looking for any mushroom, it helps a great deal to know in which habitat to look. Even if you check weekly throughout the year you will not find a desired mushroom in the wrong habitat. Still you could face a similar challenge looking in the right spot if you are looking during the 10 months of the year the mushroom is not growing, due to the seasonality of the growth of fruiting bodies. Moreover, following the current weather pattern as applied to fruiting season will better help you to be able to predict this year's fruiting season in order to avoid going out on a foray and coming home with an empty basket.
The best and safest way to learn about edible mushrooms is to learn from people who have applied their knowledge successfully for many, many years and survived their fungal foraging. Although I am collecting mushrooms for fourty years now, still most of the time whenever I want to try a new edible species, I try to eat or at least to collect it with someone who has been experienced with this species for years. This way, each year I am trying some new species and continually growing my knowledge of edible mushrooms. Having said this, I should state that it is really not about the quantity of edibles one is familiar with. Actually, the range of really excellent wild edible mushrooms is rather limited. From a beginners perspective this is great news, but it would be lovely if we had really dozens and dozens of choice wild edible mushrooms, but this is not the case. Being familiar with five or ten choice edibles like chanterelles, hedgehogs, morels, king boletes, lobsters, princes, shaggy parasols, shaggy manes, cauliflower mushrooms, lion manes, oysters and angel wings is fully sufficient to have a wide range of great mushroom hunting experiences through the year.
Brown Shaggy Parasol - Chlorophyllum brunneum
Dining on Wild Mushrooms
When eating wild mushrooms for the first time, it is advisable to only sample a small amount, a few bites for example to see how our system reacts, instead of enjoying a big dish of "pasta con funghi incogniti". There is not a single mushroom out there that will not cause a negative reaction for someone, including chanterelles and button mushrooms. Furthermore, one should stick with sampling one new species at a time, so if there are complications, one can attribute it to a specific mushroom instead of having to give up on all new mushrooms in the mix. An unattractive alternative is having to try all these mushrooms individually again to find the culprit. And be aware, many adverse reactions to mushrooms come from eating old mushrooms, which would have been unproblematic when consumed fresh. In most such cases the fear resulting from a negative reaction is much worse than your body's physical reaction. Facing an unexpected reaction after having eaten a mushroom one was not so sure about in identification is really downright scary. The fear factor from a possible misidentification cannot be overstated, even if the actual symptoms are rather harmless. In many cases the mental torment is much more acute than the physical problems. And then there are the rare cases in which toxic mushrooms really mess up people's health and the right first step is calling the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.
The best way avoiding this 800 number is to learn mushroom hunting from experienced collectors. Some people are lucky enough to have learned their skills from family members who passed on their knowledge. Learning from friends is a great experience too, but often experienced mushroom collectors are very reluctant to take local friends to their hunting grounds, since there is a great likelihood that next year your friend might beat you to your spot. For many of us the easiest way to learn the ins and outs of foraging for wild edible mushrooms is joining a mushroom club or mycological society. I have many West Coast clubs listed on my Fungal Links. Most of these clubs offer mushroom identification, forays, monthly meetings, wild mushroom exhibits, cooking events and other fungal fun. Bigger mycological societies also offer classes to introduce people to the collection of wild edible mushrooms, PSMS for example offers such classes in spring and fall and I frequently volunteer as a presenter. Also joining a mushroom club is a great way to connect with like-minded people and there is much to learn about the environment, cooking, crafts etc. beyond mushrooms. I have benefited incredibly by being an active member in the Puget Sound Mycological Society.
Mushroom Identification Services
Most Mycological Societies offer mushroom identification as a free service. You can always bring specimens to club meetings, where they will be ID'ed for you. Sharing mushroom photos on the internet or by email is a very convenient way to solicit someone else's opinion, but unfortunately is often not sufficient for reliable identification. Also, you could take your mushrooms to a local identifier. The Puget Sound Mycological Society (check under contacts at www.psms.org) could provide you with a phone number of an ID person to consult, be it near your home or work place. If you should live in Kirkland, Kenmore, Bothell or Woodinville, PSMS would probably provide you with my phone number.
Shaggy Mane (Coprinus comatus)
Princes galore! A basket full of Agaricus augustus, Kirkland WA, September 2004 © Daniel Winkler
Under certain circumstances all these approaches and resources listed above might neither meet your specific needs nor your schedule.
You might like to have a private mushroom prefer to
- Set your own time
- Receive a personal introduction to mushroom hunting
- Give a mushroom hunt as a birthday gift
- Find a specific culinary mushroom
- Be out in the woods with a mushroom expert
- Select your favorite habitat or search your own property
Talking about habitat, you might have mushrooms on your property, be it forested acreage or a regular backyard; Or you keep seeing all these mushrooms where you usually go for a walk and you would love to have someone with you that can identify these mushrooms and inform you if they are edible, worthless or poisonous.
If you are interested in soliciting my mushroom guiding services, please send me an email so we can discuss details.
A Short Fungal Résumé:
Daniel grew up in Munich, Bavaria, and started hunting Steinpilz (Boletus edulis) with his family at age 3. In his early years Daniel was glad to supply his parents with the chanterelles, hedgehogs and boletes that they treasured so much. Finding mushrooms was just as exciting as finding Easter eggs, an excitement that is still to be had each time hunting for mushrooms. Eating wild mushrooms became a joy after discovering the rich aroma of parasols. Later Daniel studied geography, ecology and botany (including some disappointingly boring mycology lectures) in order to work on environmental issues in the Himalayas and Tibet, where he has been researching and consulting for twenty years. As part of his research Daniel has been focusing on medicinal and edible mushrooms in Tibet for many years and has published many scientific papers (professional resume). Besides this Daniel has been writing articles on mushrooms for a range of popular magazines and provided his photos for many publications.
In 1996, Daniel moved to Seattle and upon his first visit to PSMS' annual wild mushroom exhibit joined the Puget Sound Mycological Society. Being part of PSMS enticed him to take his life-long love for mushrooms to a whole new level. Daniel trained to become a mushroom identifier for the club and teaches classes.
Fueled by fungal bliss, Daniel seized the opportunity to direct his career to develop an expertise on wild edible and medicinal mushrooms in Tibet, where Daniel discovered that Yartsa gunbu (Caterpillar fungus - Cordyceps sinensis) is the most important source of rural cash income, but matsutake, morels and other mushrooms are also of economic importance. Daniel has collected edible mushrooms on three continents and is an organizer of mushroom tours [www.MushRoaming.com]. He keeps venturing out into new and old habitats and cultures to feed his curiosity and his family, along the way capturing images and gathering stories to share in his writings and presentations.
Daniel bubbled over with information and passion for all things fungal. On a crisp fall Saturday the three of us went on an off-trail adventure in the woods as a gift for Elly's birthday and learned about the basics of mushrooming (but just let me say that the data Daniel has at his fingertips is far from basic even if he manages to rattle it off in a quick-witted and easy going style). We learned about both medicinal and edible mushrooms. And, to top it off, we returned laden with chanterelles complete with Daniel's recipe suggestions. We tried the chanterelles in a mustard cream sauce and it was fantastic.
We are big fans now!
Elly & Doane, Seattle WA, Oct. 2009
Thank you very much for teaching your mushroom class for the Saint Edward Environmental Learning Center. My husband, Scott, attended your class and loved it. He came home excited about mushrooms and the new knowledge he had gained. I'm sorry I missed your class but was glad my husband could attend.
Bothel WA, October 2009
Thank you so much for that very enjoyable afternoon hiking through the forest mushroom hunting. We will have to have you back out in the spring to look for different varieties!
Shannon Henery, Ames Lake WA, Nov. 2008
Mushroom Books that cover the Pacific North West Sorted by Regional Relevance
Trudell, Steve & Joe Ammirati 2009. Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest, Timber Press Field Guide, Portland, 349p.
McKenny, M.; Stuntz, D.E.; Ammirati, J.F. 1987. The new savory wild mushroom. Western Producer Prairie Books, Saskatoon. 250 pp.
Arora, David 1986. Mushrooms Demystified. Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA. 959p.
Arora, David 1991. All That the Rain Promises, and More. A Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms. Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA. 259p.
Schalkwijk-Barendsen, Helene 1991. Mushrooms of Western Canada. Lone Pine Pub., Edmonton, Canada. 414p.
Miller, O. K. Jr. & Miller, H. H. (2006). North American Mushrooms: A Field Guide to Edible and Inedible Fungi. Guilford, CT: FalconGuide. 584 pp
Great webpages for mushroom images or identifying