17: Episode 17 – Wild Mushrooms

I have a shelf full of dried foraged mushrooms, you should too! Here we talk about how to safely forage for edible mushrooms.

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Wild Mushrooms

If the idea of foraging for mushrooms fills you with dread and fear, then you’re not alone. It’s quite common for people to categorize the idea of foraging for mushrooms as something completely unsafe. Well, I’m hopefully going to try and dispel that for you. I’m certainly not a mycologist. I’m not a mushroom expert. What I am is a proficient forager and I’m going to try and just work through the whole idea of foraging for mushrooms to hopefully give you the confidence to go out and start looking yourself. Well, of course, I have nothing but respect for mycologists and I rely heavily on the expertise of people who have spent years and years studying the field of fungi.

I’m not by any stretch trying to say that I am the authority on this subject. I’m not saying that I know better than anything you might have read in a book or anything like that. But what I am saying is, there are some steps you can take which should be able to demystify the subject and lift the veil of fear that a lot of people have around the subject because it really needn’t be that way.

Looking For Wild Mushrooms Out In Nature

There are over 10,000 known species of fungi of which we can see just by walking around in nature. That’s part of the reason why it becomes a bit of a minefield and very difficult for some people to get their heads around the idea of going out and looking for them. So, I’m going to try and break down a lot of the different areas that you might want to spend a bit more time researching. But also I’m going to leave you with some really clear pointers as to what you might want to look at next and also give you the confidence to go out and start having a look.

Availability Of Edible Mushrooms

Even though there are thousands upon thousands of different species, we can quite quickly just discount a large portion of that because over fifty per cent is going to be of no interest to the forager. What I suggest you do when you’re starting out is you pick a very narrow range of things that you’re going out and looking for. We’re going to talk about that range in a little bit, but I just want to talk about the actual proportions of mushrooms out there.

Once you’ve discounted well over 50 per cent, what you’re left with is about 1/5 that will make you sick to various degrees, about 1 per cent that are deadly and then 5 per cent which is delicious. Now, this isn’t in terms of the percentage of how readily you’ll find them. I’m talking about species. So It’s really important before we go any further to introduce the standard caveats, which are that make sure you use multiple sources to identify something. Don’t ever just rely on one source. Do your own research and homework and never ever eat anything
unless you can personally 100 per cent guarantee that it is what you think it is.

These are the caveats that you see on every mushroom foraging site and in every mushroom foraging book and they’re there for good reason. No one wants to be responsible for someone else’s mistake. Now, there are some good practice guidelines around this as well. So when you have identified a mushroom that you believe to be edible but have not eaten before, even if you’re a hundred per cent sure, the best practice is to only eat it once it’s cooked. Also, eat a small amount and keep some of the mushrooms in the fridge. The reason you keep some in the fridge is so that should you get it wrong, then a doctor or someone else is able to identify it and give you the antidote if one exists. Now when you’re first starting out, it can be very difficult to know where to start. There are a few things that I recommend and I’m going to go through them in order of preference.

Sources Of Information

Guidance From Mentor

The absolutely best way to learn how to forage for edible mushrooms is to have a mentor. A mentor can be someone you know, who’s willing to take you out on foraging walks. You can also pay to go on mushroom foraging courses, which I’ve been on and I find them incredibly useful to this day. So that’s certainly the best place to start. However, these things are not quite as easy in the current environment as they used to be with the coronavirus pandemic. We’re not as readily finding groups that we can go and meet nor should we undertake these activities right now.

Online Forums

So the next best thing is online groups and forums. There are some fantastic mushroom identification groups on Facebook and other places and they are a great place for you to post pictures of what you find and to ask for help identifying them. Again, you need to make sure that you find your information from a varied group of sources and never just trust one source. In my experience, they have a fantastic wealth of information.

Books And The Internet

The third place to get your information is books and the internet. There’s a wide variety of information that conflicts in books as well. Mushrooms and fungi are a field that is constantly changing and adapting as mycologists discover more about them.
So the Latin names for mushrooms can quite often change and there are also several mushrooms that you can find from varying sources that tell you a mushroom is edible or inedible as science changes. So it’s always worth checking multiple sources.

Easy-to-identify Mushrooms

I’m going to now suggest that you start by finding, whatever source of information you use, very few types of mushrooms that are easy to identify and specifically cannot be confused with anything poisonous. I’m going to run through a shortlist of those now.

Giant Puffballs

The first one is the giant puffball which is the easiest mushroom for anyone to identify. If you find a giant white ball that’s clear all the way through, white rather all the way through, firm and large, then it can’t be anything other than the giant puffball. Only when these are very small can they be mistaken for some dangerous mushrooms. Those are mushrooms that are still within their egg sac and ultimately won’t go on to look like a giant puffball, but when they’re very small the giant puffball can look similar to the poisonous species. So once it’s over a few inches across, then you really won’t have a problem.

Beefsteak Fungus

The next one is the beefsteak fungus. The beefsteak fungus grows as a bracket on trees and from a few searches online or from your books, you’re going to be able to identify that readily. It’s another mushroom that cannot be mistaken for anything poisonous. A few others are wood ears. So once you find an illustrative reference source, once you find a mushroom that looks like that growing in the right habitat, it can’t really be anything else.

Hedgehog Fungus

Finally, Hedgehog fungus is one of my personal favourites to eat as well. It’s one that you can readily familiarize yourself with and it’s gonna be very difficult for you to confuse that with anything else. So those are four or five that I think you should definitely get under your belt
for ones that you’re happy to go out and identify.

Parts Of Mushroom

When it comes to identifying mushrooms, you need to be familiar with the different parts of the mushroom particularly if you’re asking for help with identification from someone else because they might mention parts of the mushroom as a specific feature that you can use for your identification. So if we picture a typical mushroom that you might see on a game of Super Mario Brothers or in the supermarket, what we have is the stem of the mushroom and then a domed cap. So we’re going to work from the top down. So that domed cap is indeed referred to as a cap. On the underside of that, you will find gills or pores and these are very important for identification. So if you are taking photos of a mushroom to show someone else for identification, it’s really important that you get a picture of the underside as well as from the top.

Working down, we’ve got the stem which is called a stipe and then on the stem, we might see a ring. This ring is formed when the cap of the mushroom that was attached to the stem gradually comes away. So this can also leave remnants of that veil around the outside of the cap. These are all key identifying features for different mushrooms. At the bottom of the stem, you may see what’s called a volva which is an egg sac. Some mushrooms start life in what looks like a little egg and then they gradually break free of it and that egg sac is remaining at the bottom. So the cap and the volva are all connected up in a ball and then as the mushroom grows, they come apart and the vulva is left at the base. Those are all the basic parts that shape a mushroom, Then, of course, you have another fungus that doesn’t necessarily have the stem particularly growing on trees. You’ll have the bracket fungus which is attached to the tree and come out like a shelf or a bracket.

Legality Of Foraging Mushrooms

With regards to the legality of foraging effectively, check your own legislation where you live and see that you are allowed to forage for mushrooms for personal use on basically any way you’re allowed to go. So if you’re on a piece of public land, then you are allowed to harvest mushrooms
for personal use. What you’re not allowed to do is commercially harvest mushrooms. You’re not allowed to harvest all the mushrooms in the new forest and sell them to restaurants. That would be a commercial foraging venture and that would be illegal. When you’re first starting out wherever you’re going to forage for mushrooms, it’s really important to manage your expectations as well because I spent probably six months or more before I found the first edible mushrooms that I could identify.

A large part of the reason for that is because I wasn’t really doing the things I’m going to teach you to do and I wasn’t really looking in the right place and the right things. I went out with my mushroom books and basically started looking for as many mushrooms as I can find and identify all the ones and then I’ll know which are the edible ones. This is not the right way for starting out. Once you have become familiar with a range of edible mushrooms, then you can start diving a bit deeper into mycology. I strongly recommend that way of doing things. So once you’re familiar with a few species that you can readily identify all year-round and you’re looking to increase your knowledge, you need to start looking into mushroom families and how you can start putting things into groups of mushrooms. That’s going to increase your ability to readily identify things but also critically increase your ability to discount a lot of mushrooms as you go around foraging. This is really crucial if you’re going to spend the time trying to identify unknown mushrooms and you want to make sure you’re not wasting that time on big groups of families that you can discount as being uninteresting to the forager.

Foraging Mushrooms All Year-Round

I live in the UK and the climate is different in different parts of the world where you’re living. So at the start of the year when it’s still very cold in January, we’ve got oyster mushrooms and velvet shank. Oyster mushrooms are really easy to identify particularly once they get to a decent size and velvet shank mushrooms likewise. The only poisonous mushroom look-alike of velvet shanks is the funeral bell. We also have wood ears right through the depths of winter through February and through March which you find growing on Elder or downed Elder tree. It can’t really be anything else. So that’s another great easy to identify edible mushroom that’s available all through winter.

Then as we come into March, April and May into the spring, we have St. George’s mushrooms. These mushrooms are grassland mushrooms. So if you want to go out looking for them, my only advice really is to just put the steps in and keep your eyes open. They are a mushroom that looks similar in shape to our portobello mushrooms, but they’re a bit creamier and one of the key identifiers for those mushrooms is actually the smell. They smell melee or flowery. There are also Morels. Morels have completely different habitats. They tend to grow on wood chip and they are a highly sought-after mushroom. They’re quite easy to identify, but they’re not as easy to find.

Then towards the end of spring and into the start of summer, we have chicken of the woods and dryad’s saddle that grow on trees. Continuing into the summer, fairy ring champignons are fantastically edible. We also have charcoal burners, common puffballs and shaggy ink caps coming out towards the end of summer. So it’s also important to bear in mind that nature doesn’t share our diary and it’s quite apt at changing its mind on when it might do something in any given year. Towards the end of summer and as we roll into autumn, we have our parasols, wood blewits and cepes. Going into winter, we are back to our oysters and velvet Shanks. So that’s illustrative to show you that there are mushrooms that you can forage

Final Thoughts

The last thing I have on this subject is really possibly the most important one in is how you can go from someone wandering aimlessly in the wilderness to someone who is really focusing their search. You have to start with two things: season and location. So you start with the season and find two or three most common edible mushrooms available that season. Suppose, they are St. George’s mushrooms, morels and chicken of the woods so we know that we’re not going to reduce our chance of finding them to zero by looking at them the wrong time of the year.

The next thing is the habitat. Spend the time to make sure that you are familiar with the type of habitat and that the mushroom you’re looking for grows in again. It’s about reducing the chance of us wasting our time. Once you’ve done those things, your chances of success are going to go through the roof. It might take you a little while before you find your first edible mushroom. You might not be a hundred per cent confident with it and it takes you a bit longer to find someone who can ratify what you believe to be the truth. Then it might still take you longer to go back out find them again, bring them home and be a hundred per cent sure to eat them.

Eventually, it’s going to take you less time to go through that process with the next lot of mushrooms that you’re looking for and you’ll move through the environment much quicker and be able to discount things because you won’t be in that mindset of needing to identify every single type of fungi that you find. I’m not an expert and certainly not a mycologist. I’m just talking from the point of view of a forager someone who’s self-taught, someone who’s quite confident to be able to go out and identify maybe 25 30 different types of mushrooms in a year, someone who has jars of dried foraged mushrooms at home and never has the buyer mushroom in a shop. I’m trying to share what’s worked for me and hopefully, it works for you as well.