What Is It/Can I Eat It? Mushroom Forays for Novices

Editor’s Note:

Well, it’s (more or less) morel season here in North Carolina, and so it’s soon time for our local black morels (Morchella angusticeps) and yellow morels (Morchella esculentoides, Morchella diminutiva, and my personal favorite North Carolina morel, Morchella virginiana), to make an appearance in the woodlands around the NC Research Triangle. As such, mycophiles like me are busy adding mushroom forays to the calendar.

Morel mushrooms
A morning’s worth of North Carolina morel mushrooms, Morchella virginiana. Photo by (and shadow of) Anna McHugh.

Dearest reader, if you are in the North Carolina Piedmont and wish to participate in some mushroom foray action in these coming weeks, I offer up the following options for getting your fix of wild mushroom hunting action!

  1. The North Carolina Piedmont Mycological Society is having a mushroom foray (i.e. “mycoblitz”) on April 11th near Durham, NC. The habitat we will visit is good for morels and loads of other species, so hopefully during the mushroom foray we will score some great mushrooms! Visit the Meetup group to join and sign up for the mushroom foray!
  2. If you prefer a more guided foraging experience, I will be leading a wild mushroom foray at Pickards Mountain Eco Institute in Carrboro, North Carolina (just outside Chapel Hill) on April 18. Click here to register!

Of course, this list of mushroom forays is not exhaustive, and as the season progresses, additional guided mushroom walks and mushroom forays with morels on the brain will no doubt be scheduled. The issue is that weather conditions have prevented the morel season starting in earnest here in North Carolina, if anecdotal information is to be believed..what I am saying is that nobody around the North Carolina Piedmont has found any morels yet…unless they’ve decided to keep that information to themselves!

Despite the recent cool-off, I have no doubt that things will turn around shortly for the morels and our other beautiful spring fungi! Stay tuned for more mushroom forays as the weather turns in the right direction for morels and other dainties!

Yours in Fungal Fancy,

Mushroom Anna

Mushroom Foray Basics: What to Expect

Curt Haney in his mushroom swag
Curt Haney in his mushroom foray attire. Just prior to the Telluride Mushroom Festival parade. Photo by Anna McHugh.

Mushroom forays come in all different shapes and sizes. Some are short walks in the woods with a couple other people who have varying degrees of expertise about wild mushrooms. Other mushroom forays are far more structured, with expert mycologists at the helm, guiding people through a habitat and taking time to discuss different specimens that the group encounters. Some forays are full-blown, multi-day festivals that feature mushroom walks, lectures, parties, and late-night campfires. The Telluride Mushroom Festival in Colorado is one such mushroom foray blow-out, and it encompasses everything from mushroom cooking competitions, lectures and workshops all over the town of Telluride, a massive identification table where all the weekend’s mushrooms are sorted and identified, and even a parade featuring the legendary Mushroom-Mobile and Art Goodtimes, long-time festival organizer, poet, Santa Claus lookalike, all-around stellar human being (he’s known as ‘Shroompa among his mushroom foray friends).

I guess what I am saying here is that all mushroom forays are different. For instance, one of the more unusual and delightful experiences I have had at a mushroom foray took place at the Sonoma County Mycological Association’s wintertime gathering outside Occidental, California. In addition to three days of programming, excellent feasts, microscopy workshops, and mushroom cultivation seminars, we put on a mushroom play! Gary Lincoff, one of the eminent scholars and writers within the mycological community, adapted a script from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, in which two would-be lovers were paired up to go mushroom hunting together, in an effort orchestrated by their friends to solidify what they thought was an ideal romantic match. Mr. Lincoff being himself, and thus a bit of a mischievous cad, cast himself in the romantic lead opposite a very pretty young woman who was in attendance at the mushroom foray. Needless to say, having a dramatic presentation at the mushroom foray was a blast, and added some levity to the proceedings that was appreciated by all.

Art Goodtimes' Mushroom Mobile
Art Goodtimes’ Mushroom Mobile, all ready for the parade at the Telluride Mushroom Festival! Photo by Anna McHugh

Mushroom Forays for Beginners: How to Get the Most Out of Guided Foraging Walks

One thing that I have encountered many times at mushroom forays is a bit of puzzlement (and sometimes outright frustration) from novice mushroom hunters who come to the gathering because they want to collect edible wild mushrooms. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, but sometimes a bit of tension arises when culinary-minded beginners head out on a walk and pick each fungus they find, approach the mushroom foray leader, and ask the following two questions:

What is this/What’s this mushroom called?
 
Can I eat it/Is it edible?

Of course, sometimes the answers to these questions is simple. For instance, if the specimen in question is a lobster mushroom, shaggy parasol mushroom, a hedgehog mushroom, or one of the host of wild mushrooms that are edible and choice, the answers are pretty straightforward. However, trouble comes knocking when the mushroom is something a little more esoteric. For instance, a lot of mushroom field guides have certain Latin names in print that have recently changed due to phylogenetic/DNA analysis, and so a good mushroom foray leader might be forced to reply with something along the lines of…

This mushroom used to be called Helvella lacunosa, but we’re pretty sure that Helvella lacunosa does not occur in North America. Anyway, it’s probably Helvella dryophila or Helvella vespertina. The common name is elfin saddle.

Helvella vespertina, the elfin saddle
Elfin saddles, likely Helvella vespertina. In the not-so-distant past I would have ID’d this mushroom as Helvella lacunosa at a mushroom foray, but people now believe that H. lacunosa doesn’t occur in North America. Always learning! Photo by Anna McHugh.
 
Is it edible? Well…some people eat them, but it’s possible that this mushroom has some toxic compounds in it that also occur in Gyromitra mushrooms. I would probably not eat it AGAIN, but I’ve tried it a few times. It’s not that great.

…or even worse…

Er…well…this one doesn’t have a name yet. 
 
Is it edible? Well, EVERY mushroom is edible…once.
 

At this point, it’s possible that a novice mushroom foray attendee may throw up his or her hands in dismay, or will not retain the information that was just shared. This is simply a matter of differing levels of expertise sometimes making the water muddy. Although the mushroom foray leader is sharing good information, the person on the receiving end may well be confused, lack enough contextual knowledge for the information to stick, or otherwise be unable to make heads or tails of what they just heard.

I point this out because I frequently hear complaints from both sides of this interaction. Beginners say they’re confused and did not get an answer that they found useful, and mushroom foray leaders sometimes say they are frustrated that people are only interested in the mushrooms they can eat.

I think the best approach is for everyone to think about their personal wild mushroom identification goals before attending a mushroom foray and adapt one’s behavior according to what you know and what you wish to learn at that particular event. When I was just starting out, I resolved to learn how to identify a couple mushrooms that were interesting to me for one reason or another (it’s an edible, choice, and easily identified mushroom, or it’s a mushroom I don’t know but see all the time, for example) at each mushroom foray I attended.

Mushroom foray ID table
One of the ID tables at a mushroom foray. Photo by Anna McHugh.

When it came to learning the more challenging species, I usually wait until the end of the mushroom foray, visit the identification table, and then examine them, snap some pictures, and keep those pictures handy for future study. Perhaps this is a function of how I learn, and it may not work for everybody. If I am walking around in the woods and someone shows me a mushroom and rattles off a Latin binomial, there is a fighting chance that information will go in one ear and out the other, even if I am paying close attention. Side note: paying attention is super-hard for me in the woods because when I am in nature, the sensory input is such that my intuitive/holistic sensibilities are 100% engaged, which can in turn switch my “logic/Latin button” into the off position.

However, looking at a mushroom and being able to read its name, take its picture, feel it, smell it, and look at it very closely (and then go back to my pictures in the future to reinforce the lesson) has rendered better results for me personally. This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an appeal to novice mushroom hunters not to ask questions during mushroom forays, but just a note that might help you, as a beginner, be prepared for the possible eventuality that you ask a question and the answer is…well…a little arcane.

The (Probable) Identity of Your Friendly Mushroom Foray Leader

When attending a mushroom foray, it is quite possible that your foray leader will be what’s known as a “splitter,” meaning a mycophile who spends a good bit of time following the ever-increasing complexity of our understanding of mushroom species. Mycology moves along at a pretty fast clip these days, after all, because molecular genetic analysis of mushroom species is revealing that there are a LOT more mushroom species than we initially assumed, and in some instances, mushrooms that look and act alike are not the same species at all!

If you find yourself feeling a bit overwhelmed, the important thing is to not worry about it and remember what you can. For my part, I try really hard to remember the genus of completely unfamiliar species that I find on a mushroom foray. This helps me grow my knowledge, and I endeavor to build upon that insight in the future with further study.

Also, when it comes to the edible specimens we find on mushroom forays, I not only look at the mushroom closely so I can identify it successfully in the future, but I also study the heck out of the surrounding habitat/ecological conditions. For example, I learned the association between huckleberry bushes and hedgehog mushrooms at a foray, as well as the propensity for morels to grow in the depressions left behind by felled trees.

Catathelasma sp. mushroom
A mushroom of the genus Catathelasma. When I found this on an ID table at a mushroom foray, I set about remembering the genus, because it was completely unfamiliar. Photo by Anna McHugh.

Another thing I would recommend for novice mushroom foray attendees is to remember that the question “Can I eat it?” is sometimes going to be answered with a “Yes,” (and sometimes an elated and resounding “OH HELL YES!!), but more often than not it will be a “Eh, nah…wouldn’t…” which might make the whole enterprise seem pointless. I think it’s a good idea to bear in mind that if “Can I eat this?” is a question applied to every specimen found on a mushroom foray, the majority of answers will be “No,” because there are so many fungi out there, it’s very likely that a large group of people foraging together are going to turn up a lot of things that are inedible, poisonous, or “edibility unknown,” especially when it comes to little brown mushrooms (LBMs), which most mushroom hunters eschew.

The Difference Between “Edible” and “Choice” Wild Mushrooms

Lots and lots of wild mushrooms are edible. However, there is a HUGE difference between “edible” and “choice,” so again the question, “Can I eat it?” can be confounded. When evaluating your goals and learning your mushrooms, I find it to be extremely helpful to pick a few local species that are delicious, easy to identify, and place those front and center when it comes to hunting possible goods for the table.

Stropharia ambigua
The ambiguous stropharia, Stropharia ambigua, is edible but NOT choice. Photo by Madjack74. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

On a mushroom foray, the edibility of different specimens might become a matter of some debate, because the difference between “edible” and “choice” is important. For example, the deer mushroom, Pluteus cervinus, is edible, but it tastes like decomposing leaves to me. The same exact issue applies to the ambiguous stropharia, Stropharia ambigua…sure, it is ostensibly edible, but it definitely isn’t something your mushroom foray leader would recommend for the table.

In addition, there are mushrooms that some people RAVE about that I personally find disgusting. Eggs of the basket stinkhorn, Clathrus rubercan be consumed and some mycophiles I know (who shall remain unnamed because I value their dignity) think they’re the bees knees. My opinion is a little different…as in, “Freaking YUCK!!”…And that’s not just because I know they blossom into a web of brightly colored stench-evil that you can smell at 10 yards.

Another issue that affects edibility is the condition of the mushroom. There was an adorable (and slightly cranky) old lady who attended a mushroom foray I led quite some time ago, and from the jump I knew it was possible that she would find the exercise of hunting and identifying mushrooms to be frustrating, because when we did a little go-around to explain why we had decided to attend a mushroom foray, she said:

I want to learn to find mushrooms I can eat, because I want to save money.

This, of course, made me wonder how big of a bite store-bought mushrooms were taking out of her budget, and whether or not she had considered taking other measures to save money on groceries, but nonetheless she was so darn cute (in the cantankerous way) that I was sort of charmed.

At the end of the mushroom foray, she approached me with a big basket full of mushrooms, some edible, others decidedly less so. She went through them one by one asking “Is this edible?” about each one. If the answer was “No,” she promptly threw them away with a disgusted look on her face.

Then we got to a fish cap lactarius mushroom, Lactarius volemus.

“Is this edible?” she asked and handed it to me. As soon as I touched the mushroom, it fell apart in my fingers. The entire inside of the cap and stem had been completely eaten by bugs.

With a pained expression on my face, I replied, “This would have been edible and quite good, but it’s way past its prime…sorry, but if you look at it closely, you’ll see that it’s a burnt orange color, and it’s got brown stains where the gills have been damaged, and it bleeds a whitish latex when the gills are cut…plus it smells like fish…see?”

She looked even more disgusted than ever at this point, heaved a huge sigh, and threw the mushroom on the ground. I felt badly for her because I knew her goal was to find some tasty treats at the mushroom foray, and she clearly felt cheated by the bugs (and possibly me) on this occasion.

The reason I share this anecdote is to illustrate that sometimes the mushroom IS edible and choice, but due to the impermanent, transitory nature of fungal fruiting bodies (here today, gone tomorrow!), what you find on a mushroom foray might only serve you insofar as giving you an opportunity to see a specimen of an edible species that you might find in better condition in the future.

Concluding Thoughts on Mushroom Forays

Curt and Alvaro with Colorado chanterelles
Two of my favorite mushroom people, Curt Haney and Alvaro Carjaval with their haul of little Colorado chanterelles. If I didn’t attend forays, I wouldn’t have met these two jokers, and that’d be a bad outcome. Photo by Anna McHugh.

One thing I have come to understand about wild mushroom hunting and identification is the complexity of the task at hand. Mushroom forays, either informal or organized, offer me an opportunity to grow my knowledge base, connect with fellow mushroom hunters, and get out into nature with a mission in mind: find a bunch of wild mushrooms and learn (some of) their names!

Whether or not I come home with a basket of tasty loot is up to the fungus-gods. Anytime I go on a mushroom foray, I try to remember that my best option is to focus on building my knowledge for the future, so that when I go it alone and head out to the forest for a mushroom hunt, I am prepared to do my own identification work with as much confidence and aplomb as possible.

Please understand, I am in no way passing judgement on anyone who attends mushroom forays for any purpose. I am simply sharing my observations in the hopes that you will attend a mushroom foray and get the most out of the experience! Going to a mushroom foray is one of the best possible ways to learn about wild mushrooms, because it’s an opportunity to go forth and form relationships with fungi in person alongside other enthusiasts, rather than relying on books, forums, and other support networks to learn how to forage for wild mushrooms on your own. Plus, it’s a great place to find mushroom hunting buddies!


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