I began foraging while living in a log cabin in Western Michigan at 19 and working in the woods full time. I was stuck with no real money and a copy of the Audubon Field Guide to Mushrooms and hunting mushrooms was what I did in my spare time. You don’t need to live in a log cabin to become an excellent forager and to put new foods on your table, but you do need to follow a few rules; don’t eat anything unless you know what it is – there are more poisonous plants than there are poisonous mushrooms, knowing exactly what you’re eating is important.
The best way to start out is to go with someone who knows their stuff, and experienced mushroom hunter will not only explain the biomes, how and when the mushrooms you’re looking for fruit, but also give you some hints and tricks. If you don’t currently have friends that are mushroomers you can join your local Mycological Society, or find a paid mushroom guide. Most areas have a Mushroom Festival to attend with a grand championship foray, you can usually tag along with someone, it’s a great opportunity to meet many folks.
Some of the things to remember: Dress appropriately, ticks and mosquitoes can ruin your otherwise wonderful hike so a bug spray with DEET might be a good companion. A net bag or a basket allow you to collect and still allow spores to fall. I usually carry a few folded paper shopping bags in case I come across a honey spot, and I always have a small backpack with water, a small snack and an extra knife or scissors.
Some quick things to know for beginners; The Foolproof Four are four excellent species to begin with. Their characteristics are easily identified, and easy to remember. The Foolproof Four are Morels, Chicken Mushroom, Chanterelles, and Puffballs. I usually add Oysters and Hen of the Woods. Get two good field guides, before you go out learn how to use them and read through them to familiarize yourself with their use.
Some highly recommended field guides:
David Arora’s Mushrooms Demystified, it’s West Coast centric, but an excellent read. The personal style of writing is perfect for those late winter evenings of reading when you just really want to be in the woods.
Many folks use the Audubon Field Guide, edited by Gary Lincolff, it is easy to use and full color, definitely one of the first field guides most people buy.
My favorite field to kitchen guide is David Fischer and Allan Bissett’s Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America: A Field-to-kitchen Guide . The one fault with it is that as soon as your friends see it they’ll take it on loan.
Greg Mueller and Joe McFarland’s beautifully illustrated with high resolution photographs is almost a coffee table book in the finest sense. Edible Wild Mushrooms of Illinois and Surrounding States: A Field-to-Kitchen Guide
Bradford Angier’s Edible Wild Plants is well used and one my bookshelf and nicely hand illustrated in color.
The Forager’s Harvest has color photographs and and is quite well written, includes picture of plants in various seasons as well as storage information.
“Wildman” Steve Brill has been urban foraging for many years. After getting arrested for foraging Central Park he plead the arrest in the media so well that he was quickly offered a job with the NYC Parks Department. His Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants is pen and ink illustrated is organized seasonally and is a wealth of information. His website has interesting recipes and amusing stories.
Euell Gibbons wrote Stalking the Wild Asparagus series in spawns the early 1960′s to the early ’70′s, While some of the information is dated it’s definitely something to look out for, especially in the original printings in used book stores. Gibbons is the father of wild food foraging and I recall his regular Johnny Carson appearances, with Johnny regularly making the same tired jokes about eating tree bark. Contrary to popular myth Gibbons died of a heart failure due to a genetic disease, and not poisoning from his foraging.
Your public library is an excellent place to start to, especially for older, out of print and hyper local field guides. It’s important to remember that libraries using the Dewey Decimal system will put field guides in more than one place. There are classics you should keep your eyes peeled for, these out of print field guides and books are a wealth of knowledge, often specific to a species or to a small region. I was at my library and found a guide to Northern Illinois mushrooms from 1911. In it, in pencil, was written notes from 1932, 1933 and 1934. Each year detailed forays and hauls with specific locations – we can learn a lot from old mushroom hunters. One of my favorites is the 1965 Some Common Mushrooms of Michigan’s Parks and Recreation Areas. by A.H Smith and H. V. Smith, put out by Michigan Botanical Club.
Now that you’ve picked up a few field guides it’s time to look up the Foolproof Four Plus Two
Commonly 1 – 12 inches. Cap is grey, brown to yellow, with deep ridges, almost honeycombed – cap is attached at least halfway up the stalk. Stalk is hollow (stalk must be hollow, if filled with fluff see Verpa sp.) without a base. In the Midwest found for a short time in spring as ground temperature warms to the mid 50′s.
Often called the Sulphur Shelf or Chicken Mushroom this bright orange to yellow polypore is one of the easiest to distinguish and can often be seen from hundreds of feet away. Usually in a shelf like appearance sometimes it will fruit in finger shaped masses. Fruiting from mid-summer through late fall remember where you’ve found it, it will often fruit for several years from the same log. Often fruits from living trees high in the juncture between branches or in wounds in the tree. The perfect harvest time is when it’s moist and somewhat rubbery, if it’s hard and woody it’s a little too old, though some people harvest the margins or use it only for soup stock. The similar L. cincinnatus grows from the root ball. Avoid this polypore growing on Hemlock as some people are sensitive.
A large Puffball may be confused for a sleeping lamb at pasture. This mushroom distributes its spores not through gills or pores but waits until it dries and distributes them on the wind or the splashing rain. Found in fields, in gullies, under light brush this mushroom is often the size of a basketball and several five to ten pound mushrooms may be fruiting in a line.
Chanterelles fruit in early summer, in rich forest floor soil. This yellow to orange mushroom is usually distinctive, when you see one you’ll see more nearby. The cap has upturned and wavy edges, though young specimens may have a flat top. The gills, actually veins to distribute the spores, are interconnected and run down the stalk.
The Oyster Mushroom is a tertiary decomposer, growing on dead wood. Its bright white color is distinctive. Often growing in clusters like shelf fungus gills that run its near lack of stalk, when fruiting in fall and winter the cap may be brownish to grey, its spores are white to lilac.
Various common names describe this incredible edible mushroom; Sheepshead, Ram’s Head, Signorina, Maitake, and Dancing Mushroom. You’ll soon learn why it’s called the dancing mushroom. This often large multi-capped (fronds) polypore grows under Oak Trees and sometimes other hardwoods, it’s distinctive fronds make it particularly easy to identify. It is slightly parasitic on Oak but becomes saprobic when the tree dies, often you’ll see 20 – 40 pound specimens on Oaks that have died within the previous two years.
Once you know characteristics of these mushrooms, can easily look them up, you’ve got the right gear on, and you’ve got a netted bag or basket you’re ready to go. Go find those woods you’ve explored, or go find new woods, get out there and have fun!
Remember; some mushrooms are poisonous, you are responsible for correctly identifying any mushrooms you consume. Use double or even triple checking in good field guides, all characteristics must match with the specimen you’ve harvested.
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