Mushroom Foraging 101

Have you ever wanted to pick wild mushrooms but didn’t know where to start? It’s understandable—foraging is far from the easiest activity, requiring skill and extensive knowledge of the environment to be done safely and productively. Learning from an experienced forager is the best way to go about becoming familiar with it, and we are not looking to replace that. Instead, this guide will outline the first steps you should take on your mushroom-hunting journey.

Pack Your Gear

First off, here’s a checklist of your foraging essentials:

  • A foraging bag or basket. We advise you to choose a container that has a permeable bottom. This way, it’ll shake out the forest litter and allow the mushrooms to release their spores as you forage.
  • A sharp knife. It plays a major role in mushroom identification—a lengthwise cut through the fruiting body will show you how its gills are attached, if there’s a stem and if it’s hollow or not, the color of its flesh and whether it changes on exposure to air, and more. Additionally, you’ll use it to gather edible bracket and shelf fungi, though not so much terrestrial mushrooms, as you can simply twist them out of the soil.
  • A mushroom identification guide. Physical copies are the most reliable since they have no battery to run out of and don’t require an internet connection.
  • Tick-proof clothing. Cover yourself in impermeable clothing from head to toe. Prevent ticks from crawling under your clothes—for example, by tucking your sleeves into your gloves and your pants into your socks. Apply a generous amount of tick repellent or acaricide onto your clothes. If you have pets, change into non-treated clothing before entering your home to avoid poisoning them. Do a full body check when you return from foraging and keep a pair of tick tweezers on hand in case one does latch onto you.
  • A GPS tracker. You can use mobile apps for offline maps or purchase a handheld GPS unit for satellite tracking. As an added bonus, you’ll be able to mark down the exact locations of productive foraging spots for the future.

Learn Your Theory

Now that we’re done with the physical items, here are the things you’ll need to keep in mind to forage productively:

  • Mushroom seasons. Learning the seasonality of edible mushrooms can save you some major heartbreak down the line. Don’t get lured in by the promise of “outliers” either! Although mushrooms can sometimes fruit outside of their established season, it’s more likely that you’ll come across their lookalikes instead.
  • Mushroom localities. Check out your local mushroom observation maps to see which fungi you might expect to find in your area and where to find them. Some mushrooms have limited distribution due to how their spores spread, and you might not be able to come across them otherwise.
  • Mushroom weather. The prime time to go out mushroom hunting is during a warm spell soon after it rains. Fungi treat this combination as a signal to begin fruiting, and you’d better be prepared for it—on average, mushrooms only last a few days to a week before starting to decompose.
  • Mushroom trees. Certain fungi can only grow on or with select woody plants, be they living or dead. Knowing the kind of tree that a mushroom associates with can help you tell an edible one from a potentially dangerous lookalike.
  • Mushroom recipes. Indeed, it’s best to know what you’ll do with your harvest in advance to avoid waste and disappointment. Fresh mushrooms are a short-lived treat—either put them to use soon after picking or preserve them by drying, freezing, pickling, or canning.

Keep Yourself Safe

Unfortunately, it can’t all be sunshine and rainbows when it comes to mushroom hunting. Here are the things you should definitely not do on your foraging trip:

  • Don’t put unidentified fungi in your basket. If you aren’t 100% certain that a mushroom is edible, just leave it behind. Alternatively, you can cut off the cap and place it in a different bag to take a spore print later—it might mean the difference in your ID.
  • Don’t forage in polluted areas. Fungi can efficiently accumulate pollutants in both their mycelium and fruiting bodies. Ensure that they stay out of your meal by avoiding places like roads and highways, landfills, factories, areas with heavy pesticide use, etc.
  • Don’t go hunting for beginner-unfriendly fungi. Some mushroom species can vary in appearance to the point of confounding expert mycologists. When you’re just starting out in foraging, it’s best to stick to the most easily recognisable mushrooms to stay safe even if it results in a smaller harvest.

Honor Nature Back

Finally, a crucial principle of foraging is to respect the environment that brought you the mushrooms in the first place:

  • Take only as much as you can use. Mushrooms play a vital role in supporting ecosystems. Picking every single fruiting body in sight leaves nothing for the wildlife and may harm the fungal population in the future.
  • Leave unidentified and poisonous mushrooms alone. As mentioned above, forest inhabitants rely on fungi for their survival. The species that are inedible or poisonous to humans can be perfectly fine for them, so don’t go ripping them out to make the environment “safer” or “better for edible mushrooms”.
  • Eat the invasives. If your legislation marks any edible mushroom species as invasive, prioritize them over the native ones. This way, you’ll help to preserve the local biodiversity while still getting to have a delicious shroomy feast.
  • Treat the forest with care. Don’t leave it in worse condition than it was when you came in—pick up any garbage you might produce, avoid damaging any plants or fungi, and be kind to nature in general as you forage.

Now that you’re caught up on the basics, it might be time to join a local mushroom hunting group. Have fun, be safe, and happy foraging!

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