Mushroom hunting or mushrooming is the activity of searching for mushrooms in the wild, typically for eating. It is popular in most of Europe, from the Nordic, Baltic and Slavic countries (see mushroom picking in Slavic culture) to western North America (particularly from the San Francisco Bay area northward along the Pacific Coast) and the Mediterranean Basin. Due to global warming, British enthusiasts today enjoy an extended average picking season of 75 days compared to just 33 in the 1950s.
To some it is a sport — one in which the mushrooms may actually have a chance of "winning" if the person eating does a poor job identifying the species. However, picking mushrooms and eating them is a safe occupation, provided one recognizes the toxic types, properly identifies the species, and stays with the most popular edible ones.
There is a large number of mushrooms species that are favored for eating by mushroom hunters. The king bolete is a popular delicacy. Sulphur shelf (also known as Chicken Mushroom or Chicken of the Woods) is often gathered because it occurs in bulk, recurs year after year, is easily identified, and has a wide variety of culinary uses. Chanterelles, morels, Shaggy Manes (in genus Coprinus), and Puffballs are among the most popular types of mushrooms to gather, most of these being relatively hard to misidentify by anyone with practice. Only experts, however, collect from dangerous groups, such as Amanita, which include some of the most toxic mushrooms in existence.
Identification is not the only element of mushroom hunting that takes practice — knowing where to search does as well. Most mushroom species require very specific conditions -- some will only grow at the base of a certain type of tree, for example. Finding a desired species that is known to grow in a certain region can be a challenge.
A variety of safety rules for mushroom hunting exist. Listed here are some of the most common in order of importance, from greatest to least:
- Never consume a mushroom for which a positive identification (to species, in most cases, though there are also several 'safe' genera) has not been made (see mushroom poisoning).
- Never try to convince anyone else to eat a mushroom that you have identified.
- Simplistic rules-of-thumb such as: "it's edible if it discolors when cut", or "if it doesn't stain a silver spoon" are often dangerously inaccurate. Species identification is a must.
- Characters to consider in the identification process should include size (though this does vary considerable among individual specimens of a given species), color, gill connectivity (i.e. are the gills attached to the stalk or free from it), habitat, a longitudinal section, bruising color, odor, spore print color, and any other details in the description of the target mushroom.
- In no case should you eat a mushroom when something about the mushroom contradicts available information about what one suspects the mushroom is.
- Be certain of the authoritativeness of any resources (books, etc.) used for identification.
- Be able to tell what distinguishes this mushroom from its closest dangerous 'look-alike' species.
- Learn what the Death Cap, Destroying Angel, Galerina species, small Lepiota species and the Deadly Webcap and some of their relatives look like in all stages of their development; those kinds cause the majority of deadly poisonings. Other species can cause permanent kidney failure or make you severely ill but do not often kill.
- Until you can be considered an expert, stay away from all difficult to identify groups, such as Amanita, Cortinarius, and "little brown mushrooms".
- Always identify each specimen during preparation. Deaths due to an inexperienced collector gathering a button-stage Amanita along with edible mushrooms have occurred, or when a group of collectors unwisely combines their mushrooms.
- Novices should start with more easily identifiable and less dangerous groups.
- Be careful to use information relevant to your area. Some mushrooms that are safe in Europe or southeast Asia, for example, have deadly lookalikes in North America.
- Only consume a small amount of the mushroom the first time. Like every other food that you taste for the first time, certain types of popular edible mushrooms, such as sulphur shelf, cause an allergic reaction in about half of the people who eat them. Some species, such as Paxillus involutus, can be eaten several times without ill effect and then cause severe distress when consumed again. Your first taste should be just a taste (to see if you actually care for it), and your second should be a modest serving. Space tastings far apart - poisoning from the highly deadly destroying angel doesn't even produce symptoms until 6 to 24 hours after consumption and can take over a week to kill its victim. In some cases it is necessary to taste a tiny bit of a raw specimen as part of the identification process; in such cases it is important to promptly spit out the sample.
- Do not mix known edibles with other species while gathering. Keep them in separate containers to avoid confusion.
- Do not allow young children to gather mushrooms for consumption. If they hunt with you, keep any mushrooms they find separate and identify them yourself. As always, if in doubt, throw it out.
- Be aware of pollution; some mushrooms heavily concentrate pollutants such inorganic compounds that are used in pesticides and herbicides, heavy metals, etc. Avoid areas near crop fields, utility rights-of-way, roadsides, railroads, golf course, chemically treated lawns, etc. In Europe there is also significant evidence for concentration by mushrooms of radioactive isotopes . More specifically, radioactive fallout spreads unevenly and can be very concentrated in certain areas, this even at great distances from the source of the pollution (see Chernobyl disaster effects).
- If you do eat your mushrooms, unless there is absolutely no doubt about its identification, remember to keep a piece or even better a mushroom for each specimen you have picked. If you have misidentified the fungus and are poisoned by it, this can help expert mycologists make a proper identification and diagnosis.
- Only consume specimens that are freshly picked (or properly preserved) and not too old. Once an edible mushroom loses its freshness, bacterial colonies will form and stomach upsets or worse symptoms can be expected if such specimens are ingested.
Hunting mushrooms is a fascinating pastime, requiring sharp eyes and a keen mind. There are many thousands of species, each beautiful in its own way. It is usual for a particular fungus to produce a visible fruiting body only under a precise combination of conditions, including geographic location, elevation, temperature, humidity, light level, and surrounding flora, so you may only see a particular species very rarely -- similar to bird-watching. Unlike bird-watching, however, when you find a choice edible you can gather it and make dinner with it, knowing that its mycelium lives on and will likely produce another crop the following season. Gathering wild mushrooms is similar to berry-picking in this way.
If possible, your first few forays into the forest should be with a knowledgeable and experienced mushroom hunter. Check for a mycological society in your area; while its members may not be generous with information about their favorite spots, they commonly offer classes and field trips with trained mycologists on hand who can identify the fungi you collect. Exercise caution, however, for not everyone who talks like an expert truly is one. There is no substitute for examining many different types of fungi and observing their differences, in order to develop your own skills in identification. Also, acquire a mushroom identification book with color pictures and a key to identifying specific species, and take it with you to the field.
When collecting a species for identification, gather more than one specimen and take the entire fruiting body, including the base and even some of the surrounding material or substrate. This will enhance your ability to make a positive identification. Some things to note: shape, color, size, odor, presence and layout of gills or tubes under the cap; differences between immature vs. mature specimens, surface features, interior features when cut, and changes in response to cutting or bruising. Some species can only be positively identified with a spore print, chemical tests, and/or microscopic examination of the spores.
Learn to recognize one or a few species that are common in your area, and be absolutely certain of your identification. The first few times you collect a species that is new to you, resist the urge to collect and eat it in quantity. Instead, gather a few representative specimens, carry out as many field tests as possible (such as dividing lengthwise with a knife to observe interior features and color changes), then preserve everything carefully in a separate paper bag or aluminum foil wrap. Repeated examination will help you mentally categorize the identifiable features and help you distinguish it again in the future.
When to hunt: just after a period of rain in the spring or fall is usually best, but mushrooms can be found almost any time in some locations. Try to go when the light is good, because mushrooms tend to blend with their surroundings and are usually hard to spot.
Where to hunt: almost anywhere, but avoid private property, public parks and nature preserves unless you know that mushroom hunting is permitted.
What to do:
- Know what species are protected. In many countries several (or even most) species of wild mushrooms are protected and removing them a criminal offense. People end up with hefty fines and/or jailtime every year because of mushroom poaching.
- Take a sturdy knife.
- Take a paper bag or wicker basket that will allow air to circulate; plastic bags tend to make mushrooms soggy and warm, which is never good for them. You may get them home only to find that you have to throw most of them away.
- Some interesting and edible species grow on trees; keep your eyes out for mushrooms both on the ground and on trees and logs.
- Bring your collection home and process as soon as possible. You will find organisms such as fly larvae, slugs, etc. fairly often in some climates. Section the mushrooms and throw out any parts containing undesirable denizens before you poach/fry/dry/freeze the rest. If you wait a day before doing this, you may find your entire collection deteriorated and useless.
Additionally, some other things that you should generally keep in mind:
- If you find a single mushroom, take a closer look around. Where there is one there is probably another. If you find two, there are probably five.
- If you want a more "mushroomy" taste, dry mushrooms before use. This is also the best long-term storage option for most mushrooms.
- Some mushrooms must be used quickly after harvest, such as the inky cap which rapidly decomposes into a soggy mess even under the most favorable conditions.
Poisonous mushrooms commonly confused for edible ones
Any good mushroom guidebook will call attention to similarities between species, especially if an edible species is similar to or commonly confused with one that is potentially harmful.
- False chanterelles (Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca) can look like real chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius) to the inexperienced eye. The latter do not have sharp gills, but rather blunt veins on the underside. A mistake here would, however, not be very serious, since false chanterelles are also edible, just not tasty. The Jack O'Lantern Mushroom, on the other hand, is often mistaken for a chanterelle, and it is potently toxic.
- True morels are distinguished from false morels (Gyromitra esculenta and Verpa bohemica). The impostors have caps attached at the top of the stalk, while true morels have a honeycombed cap and a single, continuous hollow chamber within.
- Immature Chlorophyllum molybdites can be confused with edibile Agaricus mushrooms.
- Immature puffballs are generally edible, but care must be taken to avoid species such as Scleroderma citrinum and immature Amanitas. These can be identified by cutting a puffball in half and looking for a dark reticulated gleba or the articulated, nonhomogenous structures of a gilled mushroom, respectively.
- Conocybe filaris, and some Galerina species can look like, and grow next to, Psilocybe which is not deadly but contains the alkaloids psilocybin and psilocin, hence it is often sought for illegal use as a recreational psychedelic drug.
Eating poisonous species
There are treatments to reduce or eliminate the toxicity of certain (but not all) poisonous species to the point where they may be edible.
"Little brown mushrooms"
A "little brown mushroom" or LBM refers to any of a large number of small, dull-colored agaric species, with few macromorphological characters that readily distinguish one species from another. As a result, LBMs are typically difficult to impossible for mushroom hunters to identify. Experienced mushroomers may discern more subtle identifying traits that will help narrow the mushroom down to a particular genus or group of species, but exact identification of LBMs often requires close examination of microscopic characteristics plus a certain degree of familiarity or specialization in that particular group.
For mycologists, LBMs are the equivalent of LGBs ("little gray birds") and DYCs ("damn yellow composites") that are the bane of ornithologists and botanists, respectively.
The acronym BWM, "big white mushroom" is also sometimes used to describe groups of difficult to identify larger and paler agarics, many of which are in the genus Clitocybe.
- Gange, A.C., E.G. Gange, T.H. Sparks & L. Boddy. (2007) "Rapid and recent changes in fungal fruiting patterns" Science 317: 71.
- Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America: A Field-to-kitchen Guide (1992) ISBN 0-292-72080-0
- Mushrooms of Northeastern North America (1997) ISBN 0-8156-0388-6
- All That the Rain Promises, and More (1991) ISBN 0-89815-388-3
- Mushrooms Demystified: A Comprehensive Guide to the Fleshy Fungi (1986) ISBN 0-89815-169-4
- David Fischer's AmericanMushrooms.com
- Mushroom descriptive fields
- List of North American Mycological Societies
- Fungi of Kaluga region — Site of Russian mushroom hunter with a lot of photos (with titles in English)
- Mushroom-collecting.com — A Maine and New England Edible and Medicinal Mushroom Resource
- A finnish amateur site with photos (partly in English)
- A mushroom and fungi identification site; mainly for the Southern part of the UK.