Beginners Guide to Mushroom Hunting
Mushroom foraging is an immensely exciting activity normally done for three reasons (or some combination of them).
- To engage those primitive, often under-used hunter-gatherer instincts in search of exotic forest edibles.
- To obtain commercial products that can sell at surprisingly high prices at local markets and restaurants.
- As a recreational hobby. Very similar to the reasons for cooking or playing an instrument, we do it for its own sake or as an enjoyable activity with others. In the process, mushrooming takes us through beautiful areas in search of a wide variety of these fantastic fungi that lends themselves well to scientific study, photography, and delicious eating.
Mushrooms can be found virtually everywhere around the world, and especially the Pacific Northwest. In general, they grow in climates that are mild to warm in temperature, high moisture content, and in the presence of trees and other foliage. Many are saprophytes, or natural decomposers, recycling dead organic matter on the forest floor while also commonly forming relationships with specific trees. This symbiotic relationship between fungi and trees are called mycorrhizae, where trees provide carbohydrates formed from photosynthesis and the fungi supply the roots water and other nutrients.
Some precautions before starting
There are some precautions to note when gathering mushrooms in the wild. For one, it is always important to know your surroundings. Perhaps the greatest hazards in mushroom foraging are not mushrooms themselves, but lack of preparedness for the conditions where mushrooms grow. Since many of the sought-after mushrooms grow in forests, it’s important to stay aware of potential threatening animals such as bears and cougars. Additionally, insects such as ticks, mosquitoes, and biting flies may cause an unpleasant foraging experience, so bringing along an insect propellant is a great idea.
Since mushroom season can often overlap with hunting season, be on the lookout for any hunting activity or signs of hunting in the area, and if you want to be cautious, wear a brightly colored outfit and bring along a whistle. Lastly, it is not too uncommon for mushroom hunters to get lost in the woods, so having a GPS (cell phone service usually doesn’t come through in the woods) can be handy alongside frequent surveying of your surroundings.
Basics to identify mushrooms
Knowing where a specific mushroom species grows and when can go a long way towards correctly identifying it.
Every mushroom has a unique preference for the type of substrate they live on, the moisture of their habitat, and the intensity of light that falls on them.
The two main habitats are woodland and grassland. Mushrooms can be found (and prefer) anything from hardwood forests, softwood forests, and mixed forests to pastures, parkland, and in some circumstances, the urban environment. Hardwood forests are often composed of beech, birch, and oak while softwood forests are mostly needle-bearing trees like pine or spruce.
In grassland, it is useful to note what type of substrate it prefers. Does it prefer grass, soil, woodchips, or dung?
If it is in woodland, what trees does it grow on, and where? Certain species prefer to live in association with certain trees. Is it in a clearing, does it grow on a living or dead tree? How about on fallen branches, twigs, or stumps? Chicken-of-the-woods prefers to be high up on the bark of living trees, Horn of plenty can be found among leaf-litter or moss, and Cauliflower fungus prefers tree stumps.
The main season for mushroom hunting starts from late summer through early winter, but many may grow as early as spring/summer. Others may last all year and into the winter. In general, the seasonal peak progresses from North to South, and a good mushroom season will have frequent rain and gloomy skies to supply ample moisture content for optimal fungal growth.
By far the most obvious part of the mushroom is the fruiting body, and will likely be the first part of the mushroom to attract your attention. The fruiting body is the part of the mushroom that grows out of the subterranean mycelial threads that can extend for acres and acres.
The shape, size, and color of the cap can show a lot of variation even within the same species, which makes mushroom identification difficult. Some have a central bump, or umbo, which is characteristic of specific species. The fruiting bodies have spore-producing tissue on the underside, which can be gills or tubular pores. These can attach to the stem (or not) in a variety of ways which can be helpful to nail an identification.
Stems can also vary widely, some have veils (remnants of the veil tissue) and some do not, and some have a vulval bag at the base which can aid in identification. This may require some digging to expose this area. Some stems will also change color quite significantly when they are removed from the ground, and that can be a helpful pointer towards identification.
Finally, some more experienced mushroom hunters like to taste the mushrooms to help identification. Take a small piece of the cap and hold it on your tongue for a few seconds, and then spit it out (don’t swallow!). Some mushrooms will be very bitter, such as Russula emetica, which can be helpful to note.
Here are some questions that are useful to jot down in a notebook when working on identifying the mushroom.
- What are the size and shape? Is it small or big? Flat, round, domed, or ovate? Above is a comprehensive illustration of the various cap types.
- What color is it? Does it change color when bruised, scratched, or sliced into?
- Surface texture and appearance. Does it have any specific textures, striations, or markings? Mushrooms can have a wide range of surface textures, such as smooth, slimy, velvety, hairy, scaly, or patchy.
- Does it have a specific odor? Mushrooms can smell as sweet as nectar or as foul as rotting meat.
- What is the edge of the cap like? They can be wavy, split, curving inward, striated, curve outwards, etc.
Below the cap
- What does the underside of the cap look like? Are there gills (blade-like flesh)? If so, what color are they and what is the spacing? If there aren’t gills, are there spines, spikes, or a hard pore surface or spongy pore layer? This is formed from the end of tubes that exist within the cap.
- Gill attachment. If there are gills, how do they attach to the stem, if at all? There are two main categories of gill attachment, free and attached. If the gills are barely attached, they are adnexed. If they run straight into the stem, they are adnate. If the gills run down the stem for a little way, they are de-current. Sometimes, gills get short like they want to be free, but near the stem they are de-current, and these are called notched gills. These are shown in the diagram above.
- What are the size and shape? Is it long and skinny or thick and short?
- Is it the same color as the cap? Are there streaks of color? Does the color change or does it ooze fluid when broken or pinched?
- Is the stem woody and fibrous or crumbly and delicate? Is it sticky or dry?
- Is there a ring on the stalk, from the leftover veil tissue? What is the size of the ring?
- What is the base of the stem like? What does the stem attach to? Does it have a sack or vulva? Does the base extend below the surface like a root? (i.e. is it rooting or with rhizoids?)
- When cut, is the stem solid, hollow, or chambered?
The color of the spores is a very helpful feature of gilled mushrooms, and so spore prints are usually one of the key steps to successful identification. As the mushroom sits on the print, it will discharge spores from the gills and collect on the paper, which will appear as a pattern of radiating lines that correspond to the spaces between the gills. Like a thumbprint, spore prints are unique to the mushroom and may range in color from white to black. Spore prints may be done at home once foraging is complete, or even in the field by setting up the spore print card as described below and maintaining the setup below flat in your basket.
- Cut the cap off the mature but fresh mushroom leaving a short stump for support
- Place it gills-down on a piece of heavy white paper or card stock, such as index cards
- Cover with a glass or bowl to prevent drying and reduce air movement
- Instead of removing the cap, can also cut a hole in the card, and pass the stipe through the hole, then support the card on the rim of the glass.
- Leave the set-up in a cool place for several hours or overnight
General Foraging Guidelines
- Collect mushrooms that are in good condition. Collecting mushrooms that are way past their prime can be hard to identify. Use the same criteria you would when selecting fruits at the supermarket
- Collect several mushrooms to show the variation within one species. Developmental changes are helpful clues to identification.
- Bring a notebook along. Notebooks are useful to jot down detailed notes such as the time and place of gathering, the weather, the environment in which it grows (such as soil, wood, mosses, etc), the trees or other mushrooms nearby, natural spore prints, and all the features of the mushroom to make a tentative ID. Features such as bruising and odor don’t last long after picking so these are especially good to note in a logbook upon discovery.
- Collect in moderation. This helps to keep the species thriving and avoids waste. Identification can be a time-consuming process. Be wary if the area you are foraging in requires a permit. Do not collect in a protected habitat, some national parks have regulations on mushroom collecting.
- If at all in doubt, do not eat it! This or any other internet source does not contain an exhaustive list of the characteristics sometimes needed to make a correct identification. Consult a mycologist, professional guide book, or mycology community to confirm your identification. Never eat one you are not sure of, as it can cause severe stomach distress or be lethal. If you do have a positive ID on an edible mushroom, only eat a little bit of it and wait 24-48 hours to see how you react to it.
The Top 5 Beginner Species to Hunt for
1. Chicken of the woods
Chicken-of-the-woods is one of the most easily identifiable fungi found throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. It emerges from either standing or downed trees in clusters and produces large, yellow-orange fruiting bodies. The immature Chicken-of-the-woods is delicate and edible, and then becomes woody and leathery as it ages. They can be spotted high up in living hardwood trees like oak in the early summer to autumn. Here is a video showing Chicken-of-the-woods identification and lookalikes.
2. Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus)
Also known as the pom-pom mushroom because of their characteristic icicle-like spines, lion’s mane is one of the most unique-looking mushrooms and hard to misidentify as a beginner. They can be found throughout North America, Europe, and Asia during late summer on fallen hardwoods like American beech. They are white-cream in color (yellower when order), about 3-10” wide, and have white spores. They are well-known as a culinary delicacy, with a succulent crab-like texture. Here is a video showing the details of Lion’s Mane hunting and identification.
3. Puffballs (Langermannia gigantea)
Puffballs are one of the best-known edible fungi and are quite versatile when cooking with when young. It’s fruiting bodies can reach the size of volleyballs and can weigh above nine pounds. Puffballs can be found on lawns, parks, hedgerows, woodland edges, and disturbed soil. They are common in the United Kingdom, Europe, and parts of eastern America. They have a mild smell, no stem, white or cream bodies, and olive-brown spores. Here is a video showing the details of puffball identification.
Morels are one of the most prized edible mushrooms in the world, selling up to forty dollars a pound. They appear in late spring to early summer around dead ash, elm, and other hardwood trees. They have very characteristic deep pits and sharp ridges on their caps. While they are fairly easy to identify, morels can be sometimes confused with the poisonous false morels, which are not hollow from stem to cap and have waves and ridges rather than pits. Here is a video showing in-detail how to identify morels versus false morels.
5. Oyster Mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus)
Oysters are a very popular mushroom for mushroom hunters and commercial buyers alike. Oysters grow in fan-like clusters in the wild from winter to summer, in places such as hardwood logs, stumps, and standing dead trees. The cap is normally 3-8” in length shaped like an oyster, with wavy edges. They can range in color from white, cream, or grayish-brown. Here is a video showing a detailed identification.
Of the 10,000 or so larger fungi of North America, fewer than 100 are considered dangerously poisonous, while on the other hand, fewer than 100 are distinctly good edibles.
While mushroom foraging has a reputation for being inherently risky business, the data suggests otherwise. Data from the North American Mycological Association suggests that about 1 in 100 mushroom poisonings results in death, and less than 1 in 200 poisonings called into the Center for Poison Control are due to mushrooms. However, most mild poisonings do not get reported, so this may be overestimated. About 70 well-documented reports of human poisonings and 30 cases of animal poisonings occur per year from throughout North America. In 95% of cases, poisoning is a result of misidentification of the poisonous mushroom as an edible one.
Particularly vulnerable individuals to mushroom poisoning are young children (who have a tendency to explore things with their mouth), the elderly, and the mycologically naive, who may assume edibility in something poisonous, are looking for the more magical varieties of the Psilocybe genus, or are misled by those who claim to know the species that they are considering to eat.
Contrary to popular belief, toxic mushrooms are only poisonous if you ingest them. While it is always a good idea to wash your hands when dealing with poisonous mushrooms (a small number of species can cause contact dermatitis), you can safely handle them and even chew on them and spit them out.
A poisonous mushroom can share many of the characteristics of many edible ones, so special precautions must be taken to avoid being a poisoning statistic.
Some common poisonous varieties
1. Amanita spp.
Amanitas are large and conspicuous mushrooms. Some are brightly colored (like the widely recognized Amanita muscaria). These mushrooms occur in a variety of forested and urban habitats, open areas with scattered trees and shrubs, and alpine and arctic habitats. They are usually characterized by white spores, free or nearly free gills, and a partial veil that often leaves a ring, and a bulbous vulva. Several species of poisonous amanitas contain amatoxins, which account for >90% of deaths related to mushroom poisonings worldwide.
Amanita phalloides. Widely distributed in Europe, but can be increasingly found in North America, South America, and Australia. The death cap can be found in the fall near a variety of trees, including oak and natural forested areas. It usually has a greenish yellow or yellowish brown to bronze cap, sometimes with dark streaks and with no striations. Amanita phalloides contains alpha-amanitin, which is responsible for its lethal liver and kidney toxicity in humans.
Amanita bisporigera, Amanita ocreata, found in Western and Eastern North America.
Amanita virosa and Amanita verna, found in Europe.
The destroying angel varieties can be commonly found in mixed woods with oak, hazel, and cottonwood. They have fleshy medium-sized to large fruiting bodies, non-striate cap margins, white gills (attached or free), and a membranous outer veil with a sac-like vulva on the enlarged stipe. Sometimes, they have a patchy cap and partial veil that forms a ring.
Spores are all white amyloid. Apart from the colorful varieties, the amanitas to look out for are all-white but can have pinkish-tan overtones. Like the death cap, the destroying angel group contains amatoxins.
2. Helvella, Gyromitra, and Verpa sp.
These mushrooms are known as the “False Morels” because of their wrinkled, brain-like appearance similar to the highly sought-after edible morel mushroom. The caps can range from tan-yellow to dark-brown, with many reddish shades in between. Compared to true morels, false morels are not hollow and do not have the deep pits on the cap, but are instead more ridge-like and wavy.
When eaten raw, the toxicity is mainly due to the presence of gyromitrin which metabolizes into monomethylhydrazine that can affect the brain, kidneys, and liver, sometimes fatally.
3. Omphalotus sp.
Omphalotus olearius, or the Jack-O’Lantern, is an important mushroom to be aware of as a beginner forager because of their similarity to chanterelles. It grows in wood clusters and urban settings around dead trees or stumps, commonly in North America east of the Rocky Mountains. West of the Rocky mountains, O. olearius is replaced by O. olivascens which has olive shades mixed in with the orange. The other species, Omphalotus illudens, is found commonly in Europe.
They have a bright orange color with gills (that are supposedly bioluminescent) running down the stem. The spore print is white to pale yellow, and when sliced open, the flesh is orange. Chanterelles do not grow in clusters like these mushrooms. The Jack-O-Lanterns contain toxic compounds called illudins, which aren’t lethal but can cause severe cramping, upset stomach, and diarrhea.
4. False Parasol
Also known as the green-spored lepiota, Chlorophyllum molybdites is one of the most commonly consumed poisonous mushrooms in North America, frequently confused with shaggy’s mane. It is a large mushroom with a flattened cap, smooth stipes, and a distinct ring. The gills are free and greenish when mature, and the spores are green. They are frequently found in areas like parks, edges of woods, and compost heaps. They are most common in central and southern California and other warm parts of the United States. Chlorophyllum used to be included in the genus Lepiota. It is best to avoid all small Lepiotas because these mushrooms, such as Lepiota subincarnata, contain fatal amatoxins.
5. Little Brown Mushrooms
Mycologists refer to hundreds of species of small to medium brownish mushrooms as LBMs, or “Little Brown Mushrooms”. These are found everywhere in all seasons and habitats. Many are poisonous and will cause nausea or gastric distress. One of the most poisonous to be aware of is the deadly Galerina genus, which contains amatoxins like the death cap.
Sometimes confused with the honey mushroom or the hallucinogenic psilocybe cubensis, they have yellowish to brownish convex caps with brownish or tan gills underneath. There is often a ring on the stem and the spore print is brown.
Storage containers for your hunt
Storage containers should provide physical support to prevent crushing or bruising. Also choose one that retains moisture while still letting the mushrooms breathe, as the cells remain alive sometime after you pick them. Your best bet is a light, wide-bottomed basket. These four are great options too:
- Waxed paper
- waxed-paper bags
- aluminum foil
- plastic tackle or utility boxes with divided compartments.
When wrapping in waxed paper or foil, carry packets in a light, rigid, shallow container to allow for easy access. Mushroom baskets such as this one are available online for purchase.
It is a good idea to also bring along a cooler or ice chest in the car to keep the mushrooms cool once you’ve returned. Leaving the mushrooms in these conditions can quickly lead to spoilage.
At home, keep mushrooms refrigerated just like if you bought them at the store. Tackle boxes work well here to keep them compartmentalized.
Knives can be useful
A knife can be useful when you’re cutting the mushrooms away from tree trunks and scraping them clean before adding to the storage container. They make specially designed knives for mushroom hunting like this one that has a curved blade, folds like a pocket knife, and has a little useful brush at the end of the handle for cleaning debris.
Mushroom hunting attire
Since a lot of areas that are searched are densely forested in the fall, it is a good idea to bring along appropriate rain gear, such as waterproof boots and a light raincoat. A walking stick can be useful for navigating the terrain but also clearing away debris where mushrooms can be hiding. Lastly, a light day-pack with food, snacks, a flashlight, a compass/map, or GPS are all strongly recommended.
Microscope, is it necessary?
It can be very difficult to identify many mushrooms with absolute certainty without checking their characteristics under a microscope. If you want to get a species-specific name on every mushroom, a microscope will be very useful. If you want to see larger microscopic features of the mushrooms, an oil immersion lens with a 1000x magnification will be required, and run for somewhere in the 400 dollar range. They can give you access to a whole new world of features – spore shapes, sizes, colors, to name a few. This is a great comprehensive resource to learn the basics of mushroom microscopy.
What to do with the mushrooms you found
Once you harvest the mushrooms, there are numerous ways to store them. Before deciding how to store your harvest, it’s important to choose the best-looking mushrooms. Make sure they are not too old, and are thoroughly cleaned from any bugs or debris. If you want to eat them fresh, clean them when you are ready to use and, before that, store them in brown paper bags to soak up the moisture they will emit over time. They can be enjoyed 2-3 days after harvesting, and many will last upwards of one week.
Wild mushrooms can also be dehydrated and stored in air-tight containers, or ground up to be used later in soups or stocks. To dry in warm climates, slice the mushrooms and lay on muslin trays in the sun or hang them on strings . Dehydrators also work well and prevent the whole room from being pervaded by a mushroomy smell.
Another option is to freeze the mushrooms (after cooking them), but this isn’t recommended for many varieties. The better choice is to make up the mushroom dish fresh and then freeze it. Finally, salting mushrooms works well to preserve fresh, clean mushrooms. All you need is one part salt to three parts mushrooms, layering and salting the mushrooms in a sterilized jar. Mushrooms can also be pickled in either oil or good vinegar in a good-sealed jar.
Mushroom hunting is an immensely exciting activity that can be very beginner friendly when you have a specific, easily identifiable mushroom in mind as well as the environment in which it grows. Being aware of the poisonous varieties can keep you safe and ensure peace of mind when foraging.
The best time to go mushroom hunting is in the morning time. You have more daylight when you start early and mushrooms that sprung up overnight will be more likely to be intact. When you do find a mushroom, always compare your mushroom and notes to additional descriptions from well-trusted guidebooks and/or the internet.
When you have a confirmed ID, there are a variety of ways to enjoy the culinary mushrooms, either fresh sauteéd, roasted, grilled, pan-fried, or deep-fried. You can learn more about how to store, prepare, and eat gourmet mushrooms from this post.
Finally, learning the art of mushroom hunting can be vastly accelerated in group settings. Mushroom clubs are available throughout the United States, where they have regular walks and learning sessions, and makes walking through dense forests much more safe.
Del Conte, A. and Laesse, T. The Edible Mushroom Book: A guide to foraging and cooking. New York, NY. DK; 1996.
Trudell, Steve, and Ammirati, Joe. Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest. Portland, Oregon. Timber Press Field Guide; 2009.
Jordan, P. The Mushroom Guide and Identifier. London, England; 2000.