It’s the most wonderful time of the year! For the mycologically inclined, that is. With the onset of new rains and cooler weather here in the Pacific Northwest, that only means one thing: we’re fast approaching mushroom foraging season! In this blog post, we’ll be talking about the makings of a successful “foray,” or foraging trip: what to bring, what to look for, and how to be safe, responsible, and sustainable.
Make sure you’re well prepared.
If this is one of your first times on a foray, make sure you have the right equipment. You won’t need much, but what you do need is quite important. If you have a friend who is an experienced forager, all the better! However, if you and your group are all relatively new to mushroom hunting, make sure you have a good mushroom identification book with you. We recommend Wild Edible Mushrooms of British Columbia for Vancouverites, but any local mushroom book will do.
Besides a good field guide or expert forager, you’ll also need a sharp knife, a basket or a porous bag, a whistle, some good hiking boots, bright waterproof clothing, and plenty of water and snacks.
Forays usually start with people splitting up into pairs or small groups to go through the trails, with one person in each group whistling or calling when they find a good patch of mushrooms. When you’ve got your eyes peeled on the ground, you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to get lost. Whistles and bright clothing help you find your group easily when this happens.
Plan your trip around the weather and know your trees.
It’s been a hot, dry summer here in the Pacific Northwest. Luckily, we’re due for some rain as we’re transitioning into the fall season. Most species of wild mushrooms such as chanterelles need a considerable amount of moisture to be able to fruit. A good tip is to have a look at your weather forecast and plan your foray after there has been a considerable amount of rain--we promise you you’ll see more mushroom hunting success this way!
Many of the species of mushrooms you’ll find when foraging are mycorrhizal, which means they grow from their symbiotic relationship with the roots of specific trees and are found on the forest floor. Chanterelles, for instance, cannot survive without Douglas Fir or Hemlock tree roots. Boletes (porcinis) are less discerning and can grow from spruce, pine, birch, and oak trees. You will find Chanterelles and Boletes poking their heads on the forest floor around the perimeter of these trees, either directly under or quite close to the trunks. Lobster mushrooms (which are actually two fungi: the bright orange Hypomyces lactifluorum fungus parasitizing the White Russula or Peppery Milky mushroom) can be found under a variety of conifer trees but are concealed under the forest floor--you might be able to spot a bright orange colour characteristic of Hypomyces lactifluorum and need to go digging to find the fruiting body buried underground.
Other types of mushrooms are saprophytic, meaning rather than tree roots they feed off hardwood trees such as oak, cherry, or beech. Saprophytic fungi can be found hanging on logs, working hard at breaking down the wood. Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus) and Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus) are two easily identifiable mushrooms that can be found fruiting off decaying logs rather than protruding from the soil.
Be 100% certain about what you pick.
There are over 30,000 species of basidiomycota (mushroom-producing) fungi and only 3% of these varieties are poisonous. However, it’s important to be 100% sure of what you are picking regardless. There’s a saying that there are old mycologists and there are bold mycologists but there are no old, bold mycologists!
Many of the edible mushrooms growing in British Columbia (and across North America) have distinct appearances that are hard to mistake. Chicken of the Woods and Oyster mushrooms, for instance, are unique in fruiting body shape, gill formation, and colour. However, it’s important to have a seasoned forager confirm your identification. Never eat anything if you are uncertain about it.
Fungi are crucial to preserving the biodiversity and natural balances of our ecosystems. Much of the work they do remains unseen to us: they’re under the forest floor between neighboring trees, feeding carbon dioxide back into the soil to nourish tree roots and delivering various nutrients through vast mycelial networks. Sustainable mushroom foraging means understanding that fungi play a crucial role in our ecosystem and being both precise and mindful when foraging to preserve biodiversity.
Literature is inconclusive when it comes to revealing the effects of mushroom foraging on local fungi populations. A Swedish study found that long-term, systemic harvesting did not have a measurable impact on subsequent flushes and biodiversity (Egli et al., 2006). Another study found that plucking the entire stem of the mushroom rather than cutting the stem with a sharp knife resulted in a small but measurable yield, and harvesting mushrooms did not harm the underlying mycelium (Norvell et al., 2006). However, if the mushroom’s role for the entire fungus is to act as a reproductive organ and distribute spores across the forest floor to continue its life cycle, it’s important that we forage conscientiously with this knowledge.
There are a few things we can do to ensure we mushroom hunt sustainably. The first is to restrict our mushroom harvesting to mature fruiting bodies. By picking mature mushrooms, we’re ensuring that they have already sporulated and served their reproductive purpose. Picking younger mushrooms that have yet to sporulate may limit the biodiversity of our ecosystems. In Mycelium Running, Paul Stamets details how he and his team would rub the underside of mushroom gills (of younger mushrooms) onto their clothing and hats so that as they walked throughout the forest, the wind would carry the spores from their clothing all across the forest.
Another tip is to limit your picking of mycorrhizal species. It is much easier to reinstall saprophytic fungi (Oysters, Chicken of the Woods) back into the ecosystems than it is to do so for mycorrhizal--mycologists are currently discerning if it’s even possible to inoculate tree roots, as it’s proving much more complicated than inoculating logs in the forest. Trees and mycorrhizal fungi have a symbiotic relationship and neither can survive without the other, so it is crucial that we maintain the success and proliferation of these species especially in our ecosystems.
Mushrooms are also a food source for bugs, slugs, and even mammals such as squirrels and deer. Don’t get too ahead of yourself and make sure there are still some fruiting bodies left in our forest for our wildlife, too!
Moving forward, find your local mycological community.
If you’ve successfully foraged sustainably this season and are keen to share your knowledge with other mycophiles (“mushroom lovers”), there is a fungi-fanatic community in every region! For locals, we recommend the Vancouver Mycological Society, which offers events every month and a superb list of people in the area to get in touch with to go foraging or talk about mushroom cultivation. Each mycological society has its own list of mycoremediation and cultivation projects you can get involved with--we recommend you get out there and keep in touch with your local clubs!
Norvell, Lorelei & Roger, Judy. (2016). The Oregon Cantharellus Study Project: Pacific Golden Chanterelle preliminary observations and productivity data (1986-1997).
Egli, Simon & Peter, Martina & Buser, Christoph & Stahel, Werner & Ayer, François. (2006). Mushroom picking does not impair future harvests - Results of a long-term study in Switzerland. Biological Conservation. 129. 271-276. 10.1016/j.biocon.2005.10.042.