Friday, 19 July 2013

Finding Wild Mushrooms: Tips from Experienced Foragers

Interested in mushroom picking? Not sure how to get started? You are in the right place. In the next series of blog posts, mushroom foragers from different areas of the world have kindly agreed to share their tips. Our first contributor, Abe Lloyd from the Pacific Northwest, provides four of his key harvesting rules and shares an intriguing shrimp mushroom recipe. If you have any questions for him, please write them in the comments section at the end of this post. 

I am an ethnobotanist and the director of Salal, the Cascadian Food Institute in NW Washington. We do plant related contracts for Native American tribes and affiliated non-government organizations as well as research and writing that promotes indigenous food. I also teach college courses in ethnobotany, wild foods, and natural history. I have been studying plants and collecting wild foods for over 20 years and completed a master’s degree in ethnobotany in 2011. Mushrooming is a more recent passion that I took up seriously in 2007. You can read about my foraging adventures and wild food experiments on my Wild Harvest blog.

1. Can you describe the process of selecting the right mushroom foraging spot?

The best way to learn how to identify and find mushrooms is to hunt for them with experts. Most areas have local mushroom societies with regular field trips and guest speakers. 

The first time I went Chanterelle picking I got a tip from my professor about a good spot and went out on my own. I spent an hour walking through the woods before I spotted one, and then I started asking myself why it was growing where it was, and where else the conditions might be similar. At the same time that I was tuning my site criteria, I was also developing a search image for what the Chanterelles looked like, and then it became a real treasure hunt because I started seeing them everywhere! I went home with a basket full of golden Chanterelles and I was hooked. After that, I just tried to find other forest patches with similar aged trees of the same species and I have always done pretty well. I often drive 30-60 minutes out of town and into forest-land for my mushroom picking adventures.

Chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius) Victoria

2. Many people tell me they are afraid to go picking because they don't know how to properly ID edible wild mushrooms. How did you learn to ID edibles?

I mainly learned mushrooms by studying David Arora’s books “All that the Rain Promises” and “Mushrooms Demystified.” While this approach isn’t great for everyone, my experience identifying plants by using dichotomous keys, reading descriptive accounts, and studying photographs transferred easily to mushrooms. However, I held fast by a few simple rules including

a) Never eating a mushroom the first time I identified it.

b) Only eating a mushroom after I am absolutely confident of my identification

c) Limiting my first taste to a small piece that is cooked (but plain) and spitting it out if it tastes bad.

d) Never feeding a mushroom to anyone else until I have tried it myself several times.

I think the best way to learn mushrooms is from a knowledgeable teacher, starting slow and focusing on developing a high level of confidence with a few mushrooms before gradually expanding. While I won’t recommend the internet as a replacement to a good field guide, there are a few websites with features that allow you to submit photographs to a network of mushroom experts who will identify the photograph (provided it is clear enough).

3. Are there certain mushroom families/species you don't pick because ID'ing them is too tough? 

I still don’t eat Amanitas because that group contains some of the deadliest mushrooms and I don’t see enough variety to develop more confidence in my Amanita identification.

4. What kind of rules or permits exist for wild mushroom picking in your area? 

I have compiled a list of rules related to foraging mushrooms (and other edibles) in all the major land management jurisdictions throughout the Pacific Northwest on my blog. Usually mushroom societies have a hand out or webpage with mushroom picking rules.

5. Not many people forage for their own food, can you describe some of your motivations to do so?  

Primarily I forage because it is a great way to be outside. When you are harvesting mushrooms or berries your senses are alive and you experience nature in a deeper way than the casual walker. I’ve never seen a mushroom picker wearing headphones! Eating wild foods is also about the healthiest and most sustainable thing you can do (provided that you don’t have to drive too far to harvest them). Wild foods generally have twice the micronutrients of their cultivated analogues and they grow in polycultures of native plants that require little in the way of inputs and little to no soil disturbance. Our grain based industrial agricultural economy on the other hand is totally the opposite and can be linked with all the major environmental problems.

6. Can you describe some of the unique tastes of the wild mushrooms you pick? 

Like the name suggests, the Shrimp Russula (Russula xerampelina) has a shrimp or crab-like flavor and nice firm texture that works well in omelets. 

  Shrimp Mushroom (Russula xeramperlina) Chucanut Mt.


  1. Abe,

    You've inspired me to go find some mushrooms.

    What kind of land uses do you think are necessary to ensure wild mushroom foraging can persist as an activity? I suppose what I mean is, you need natural areas to be conserved so that mushrooms can be harvested, but these natural areas need to permit extraction, so...what kind of land is available for that?

    Second, how many mushroom foragers can harvest a given area without running out of 'shrooms? Is it important to go where nobody else knows about?

    Thanks for the post.

  2. You can pick mushrooms on most land managed by the National Forest Service for personal consumption (although sometimes you need a permit). Visit your local ranger station to find out. If you live in the Pacific Northwest, I have compiled a list of mushroom foraging rules for all federal, state, and provincial jurisdictions on my blog (or google "rules for foraging on public land.") In general, mushrooms are the fruiting body of much larger underground organisms much like apples on an apple tree. I am not aware of any studies that have shown that mushrooms can be over-harvested, although I think it is good practice to leave a few. Some mushrooms grow quickly, abundantly, and flush often. Combine that with the difficulty in actually finding them, and a keen eye can almost always go home with a few mushrooms even in well traveled areas.

  3. This is great and I just love mushrooms! One of nature's best foods..