A first-time forager’s guide
Let’s try a little mind experiment. Imagine you and some friends are on a hike in the Maine woods. It’s fall and you’ve gotten turned around on the trail. There’s no cell service, you didn’t bring any maps or a compass, the sun is sinking, and your Cliff bars ran out a few hours ago. Knowing better (hopefully) than to wander around in the dark, you decide to hunker down for the night, or perhaps several, until you are found. The big question that will soon make its presence known is: where can you find water and second: what are you going to eat? Barring having a field guide or Navy Seal among you who can trap a squirrel, your options will quickly become extremely limited.
This was the thought-problem I posed to myself as I ruminated on the food-procurement challenges our species faces under the coming environmental collapse—being the newbie-prepper urbanite that I am (as you will have guessed if you read my last article here on Survival Gardening). I imagined I could subsist for a while on a foraged harvest of wild greens, berries, and mushrooms. The first two I am comfortable I could identify as edible (dandelion greens, wild sorrel, and blueberries/blackberries, for instance) but mushrooms? Those fleshy, spore-bearing, psychedelic colored toadstools? Cue Jefferson Airplane’s song “White Rabbit” and a primordial inner quaking.
Even though I know mushrooms are very nutritious, chock-full of fiber, B vitamins, essential minerals like copper, phosphorous, and selenium that might keep all of us alive someday, they freak me—and I’m guessing a number of you—out. This aversion has to be a survival mechanism honed in our DNA from a millennia of eating the wrong kind, even though a full 50% of varieties are considered “functional” food, which means they have nutritious or healing qualities (some varieties are being studied for their potential to fight cancer, Alzheimer’s, infections, and boost immunity). Nonetheless, for me and many others, their spongey texture, weird shapes, and bright colors are off-putting, and, well, alien.
I’ve heard some wild claims that the more than 100,000 species of fungi known to us (including mushrooms, molds, and yeasts) are actually a form of advanced life that hitchhiked to our planet on a meteorite and colonized us. The latter part is definitely true. More than 90% of species in the forest and meadows around us are in a symbiotic relationship with a vast, branching fungal network, called the mycelium, most of which you can’t see because it’s underground.
The mushrooms you DO see are the fruiting spores of the mycelium. Through the mycelium, trees and plants derive energy from decomposed organic material, exchanging nutrients and water, and, scientists are discovering, using it to communicate with one another via a transfer of chemicals. Sort of like the internet for plants.
Picking a mushroom off the mycelium is similar to picking fruit from a tree, and its purpose is the same: to propagate the mycelium via spores or animal droppings. The variety of mushroom that sprouts has everything to do with the surrounding habitat.
Flora and some fauna have a symbiotic relationship with the mycelium, so certain trees cultivate certain mushroom varieties. Learning which mushrooms are good to eat also means learning about their hosts and their native habitat. This is a good thing. For example, the very tasty and recognizable overlapping shingles and rosettes of Chicken of the Woods, Laetiporus sulphureus, which grows from August through October in Maine, prefers hardwoods like oak, cherry, and beech and not pine (like the white, capped matsutake, which is also called the pine mushroom). If you learn to identify trees (and come on, beech is easy), chances are you can keep an eye out for certain mushrooms.
There is a plethora of wild edible mushrooms growing in Maine between late June and early November, such as chanterelles, black trumpets, King Bolete, puffballs, shaggy mane, horse mushrooms, meadow mushrooms, oyster, and the above-mentioned matsutake and Chicken of the Woods, but unless you know what you are doing, do NOT eat them unless you are foraging with an expert. There’s a lot to learn before you begin to forage for yourself so I’m going to spell out some basics with the hope that if it interests you, you will take it further on your own.
Some mushrooms want to be eaten, others do not—our job as homo sapiens is to figure it out, the sooner the better. We need to acquaint ourselves with the fungus among us BEFORE hunger and disaster strike. And there is no time like the present, as fall is perfect mushroom-hunting season in Maine.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
- Obtain a responsible field guide, such as National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms by Gary H. Lincoff and Foraging Mushrooms Maine: Finding, Identifying, and Preparing Edible Wild Mushrooms by Tom Seymour. Get acquainted with online mushroom identifying sites before you take to the woods.
- Visit your local farmers’ market and join a mycological club, such as the Maine Mycological Association (mainelymushrooms.org) and attend the sessions. Talk to expert mushroom foragers in your area and look for mycological lectures. Acquaint yourself with what edible varieties are native to your region and, if possible, go into the woods with an expert. Do not be surprised if people get a little cagey about where they find their wild mushrooms. Foragers are protective of their hunting grounds, but ask them to show you examples of edible varieties and describe the kind of host environment they prefer.
- Talk to local mushroom farmers. Many began by foraging and started growing their own. You might want to try growing a few varieties before you look for them in the wild. The farmers at North Spore are a great resource: northspore.com
- Don’t go rogue and start picking mushrooms in your backyard and woods willy-nilly. Take one specimen to show the experts, and then take pictures of the rest and the surrounding habitat.
- Learn how to do a spore print and be patient as your knowledge grows. More time at this stage will pay off later.
HOW TO DO A SPORE PRINT
Making a spore print of a wild mushroom is relatively easy, and, in concert with your field guide books and on-line identification resources, can help you figure out if that mushroom patch in the backwoods is edible or not. All mushrooms contain microscopic spores, which are the “seeds” of the mycelium. The entire point of the existence of mushrooms is to spore, so every variety drops them. However, capped mushrooms (the traditional toadstool kind) are the easiest varieties to begin making prints with when you are a new forager.
- Have on hand a strip of white paper (an index card or other will do) and, preferably, a strip of darker paper (say, from a brown paper bag). Line these up side by side.
- Pick your mushroom sample and cut or slice off the cap at the top of the stem. The edges of the cap should be facing down (like an umbrella). If the cap is flat or turned upward at the edges, it is an older mushroom and will already have dropped its spores.
- Place the stemless cap gill-side down on the papers. Place a drop of water on the top of the mushroom to stimulate spore drop. Cover with a bowl and leave for 24-hours.
- When you lift the bowl and the cap, the spore print should appear on the papers. Compare the print with descriptions in your guides. Do not judge by color alone.
PROCEED WITH CAUTION
If, after thoroughly educating yourself, you decide to collect and sample a few wild mushrooms, here are some important safety guidelines from Greg Marley of the Maine Mycological Association, who recently published an illustrated online guide to toxic lookalikes that you can access through their website.
- Start slowly. Focus on finding and identifying the most common wild edible varieties such as chanterelles, puffballs, shaggy manes, and oyster mushrooms. Avoid touching or collecting species that have close resemblances to toxic varieties.
- Collect younger specimens, and leave the older mushrooms to spore.
- Collect all parts of the mushroom, and make a spore print to aid in identification.
- 4Avoid foraging along roadways, golf courses, lawns, construction sites, and any other potentially toxic habitats. Mushrooms are like sponges; they absorb toxins in the soil.
- NEVER pick or eat a mushroom you can’t identify as benign. In the words of the mushroom Maineiac David Spahr, mushroom-collecting.com, from his wonderful book Edible and Medicinal Mushrooms of New England and Eastern Canada, “Make a positive identification using more than one source whenever possible. Do not eat mushrooms with any features that contradict the description. If you are still unsure, heed the advice ‘When in doubt, throw it out!’”.
If you have identified the variety via several sources and are thoroughly convinced the wild mushrooms you have collected are edible:
EAT SPARINGLY AND SAFELY
- Mushrooms taste better when cooked and are safer. Only cook and eat a small part of the mushroom at first. If you have ANY symptoms of poisoning, call local poison control.
- Do not eat raw or undercooked mushrooms.
- Keep a few of the raw mushrooms on the side to show a doctor if you have any problems.
- Do not eat a new mushroom if you have not collected the species many times before and have confirmed identification. This is no time to get experimental.
- Be considerate of other creatures and don’t harvest all the mushrooms you find. Leave more than you take.
- Once you start, you will find that hunting for wild mushrooms can be addictive, whether or not you eat them. Once you tune your attention to the bounty sprouting along every nook, cranny, stone, and tree, a natural treasure hunt begins to unfold and a huge community awaits. As you familiarize yourself with sporing grounds of our local fungi and their host habitats, you will find yourself more at home in nature, able to read the forest in a different way, and aligned more closely with the subtle rhythms of nature and her offerings. Like Alice falling into Wonderland, embarking on the search for edible wild mushrooms opens a portal leading to an ancient wisdom that, if we pay attention, will benefit us now, and—most assuredly —if we get lost in the woods and enter the insecure future.
Wild mushrooms tend to cluster around hardwood groves, fallen trees, in mossy, moist areas, or in fields and meadows (depending on the variety). Fall is a terrific season to begin identifying them, as 90% of our native species can be found now. PLEASE REMEMBER: When in doubt, throw it out. If you eat the wrong kind of mushroom, a belly ache or a mind-bending experience may be the best outcome. I found a beautiful yellow-white chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius) recently, but it could also be the poisonous look-alike jack o’lantern (Omphalotus illudens) so I just took pictures to show an expert.
Top edible mushrooms in Maine (toxic look-alikes in parentheses)
Bear’s head tooth
Chanterelle (jack o’ lantern)
Chicken of the Woods
King bolete (lilac-brown bolete)
Oyster mushroom, c
Puffball (pigskin puffball)
Wine cap stropharia
Yellow morel (false morel)
There is a lethal mushroom that grows in Maine called the destroying angel, Amanita ocreata. It is a tall, white and—as its name suggests—glowing mushroom with a flat, circular cap and with a white-frilled ring around its thin stalk. Don’t touch it or eat it. If you touch it, do not put your fingers near your mouth. Bioactive compounds in its flesh will shut down your liver.
Genevieve Morgan is a Maine-based writer and editor and host of the Spectrum Cable TV show, “The Writer’s Zone." She is also an author, most recently of The Kinfolk (Islandport Press/2016), book three of The Five Stones Trilogy.