Emma and I arrived in North Carolina about two months ago, right around the height of morel season, and that was the buzz. Morels are a very popular springtime mushroom around these parts and others in the US, but they have the reputation of being a bit elusive, difficult to find even for those who know what they are (and aren’t) looking for. As for us, other than eating them from time to time, and in particular abundance when we lived in South Korea, mushrooms are something relatively new.
Having spent much of our permaculture lives in Central America, where mushroom production isn’t a huge part of what’s going on, we’ve not been hugely exposed. We’ve investigated cultivating oyster mushrooms and often rejoiced at seeing unidentified fungi showing up in garden beds. We’ve eaten mushrooms that friends have found and shared. However, we’ve never much been around mushroom cultivators or foragers.
Things, though, have changed. In North Carolina, we immediately found ourselves in the company of folks who forage from the forest quite regularly, and we, too, began having our eyes glued to the forest floor in search of chickweed, trout lily, and wood sorrel. The next inevitable step seems to be into mushrooms, but despite the fact that there are plenty of poisonous plants, foraging for mushrooms undoubtedly feels a bit more daunting. Growing up as we did, we both have a healthy (perhaps unhealthy, I’m not sure) fear of wild mushrooms.
Consequently, we’ve been working on easing ourselves into the game.
The Forager’s Creed
For the most part, those whom we’ve met that forage seem to go about it with nonchalance that, for us as beginners, feels a bit baffling. They amble through the landscape with fingers ablaze, pointing out what seems like every other plant as something that can be eaten or used for medicine, yet within that ease, there is an obvious knowledge and caution about which plants are food. The golden rule seems to be that, when in doubt, don’t eat it.
The same rule holds true for mushrooms. As we’ve begun to research our way into this new endeavor, our online guides and YouTube! mentors repeat this tenet, all the while remaining encouraging about the potential of foraging for mushrooms. And, it seems, suddenly, we have also begun running into folks who know something about it: a friend of a friend who grows shitake, a vendor at the farmers’ market, a guy having a yard sale.
As with foraging plants, we are taking safety and ease into consideration here at the beginning. Consequently, we are looking for varieties of mushroom that are readily identifiable, with few and obvious lookalikes, and we are only after those which can be found fairly regularly. There’s no point in unsuccessfully looking for morels while passing up a dozen mushrooms that might have made it into the basket.
With that in mind, we’ve managed to amass a starting point, several routes from which to begin our life as mushroom foragers.
Seven Wild Mushrooms
People are quite wild for mushrooms, and those who forage them are quite into what they are doing; thus, finding a list of good beginner mushrooms proved relatively easy, as did finding descriptions of, photos of, and even videos about them. And, though we aren’t necessarily the experts in this case, it always feels right to share these beginning steps with other potential beginners who might be interested in, possibly timid about, doing the same.
While I’ll provide some information about and photos of the seven mushrooms that seemed most feasible to us, I absolutely recommend (insist, really) that anyone about to go foraging visit a more knowledgeable source before proceeding. Luckily, I’ve done the legwork for you. Here are two great sources that I found: Foraging Guide and Wild Food UK, and all of the following mushrooms have full write-ups on these sites, which I’ll link to below.
Agaricus campestris: Field mushrooms were actually familiar to Emma, as her family used to forage them during camping trips to France when she was young. They are a quintessential mushroom with the expected white caps, brown gills, and short stems. They, obviously, are found in fields and pastures, and this is most likely to occur in late summer/early fall. For more information, including what to look for and what to look out for, check out this article and/or this article.
Boletus edulis: Porcini mushrooms are familiar to most of us, even those who have never dreamed of foraging. They are readily found in supermarkets, so we already know how they look and taste. In the foraging world, they seem more often referred to by the name of penny bun boletes. These are woodland mushrooms that are available from mid-summer to late autumn. For more information, including what to look for and what to look out for, check out this article and/or this article.
Calocybe gambosum: St. Georges mushrooms are a springtime mushroom, which means they might provide an easy catch on the hunt for morels. They have a rather run-of-the-mill mushroom-like appearance: cream-colored cap, white gills, and matching stem. They can be found in pastures, as well as at the edge of forests. For more information, including a what to look for and what to look out for, check out this article and/or this article.
Cantharellus cibarius: Chanterelle mushrooms are very highly regarded mushrooms, familiar to most fungi-loving cooks. They have a beautiful golden color, firm texture, and nice aroma. They are more of the wild look, with wavy edges along an almost convex cap. They like acidic soil at the base of either coniferous or deciduous trees and grow in troops, which is a looser version of a cluster (to be imprecise). For more information, including what to look for and what to look out for, check out this article and/or this article.
Coprinus comatus: Shaggy inkcap mushrooms are easily identified by having relatively tall caps with fibrous scales covering the outside of them. The appearance has also garnered them the name, lawyers wig. They are only to be eaten when young, while their gills are still pale, and they can be found in early-to-mid-autumn in grasses, especially along paths or roads. For more information, including what to look for and what to look out for, check out this article and/or this article.
Hydnum repandum: Wood urchins or hedgehog mushrooms are not particularly familiar, other than their namesakes, but they are supposedly quite common when it comes to mushroom foraging. They tend to be pinkish, and though they aren’t particularly flavorful, they are beloved for having a firm texture. They grow in troops at the base of coniferous and deciduous trees from late summer through the fall. For more information, including what to look for and what to look out for, check out this article and/or this article.
Macrolepiota procera: Parasol mushrooms are named thusly because they behave like parasols: they are bunched up as they grow and then snap open like tiny umbrellas. Amongst this list, these are notable because of a spongy texture rather than firm. They like pastures or open woodlands, and they have the tendency to grow in a ring formation. They can be found from mid-summer to mid-autumn. For more information, including what to look for and what to look out for, check out this article and/or this article.
Cultivating mushrooms has always had a spot at our eventual homestead, and without a doubt, this aspiration remains. While we love the notion of foraging mushrooms from the forest, we can’t escape the desire to have them much more regularly and as part of our food forest production. Shitake and oyster seem to be the most common amongst the small-scale, forest cultivated varieties, and we’ve also recently discovered Stropharia rugosa annulata, or wine caps, from a fantastic book: The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach by Ben Falk) as another option.
In the meantime, however, it’s great to know that we can soon head out into the forest with the potential of coming home with some wild mushrooms to enjoy. As one last precaution, in addition to using the two websites above, we plan to utilize Facebook—posting pictures of what we find—as a final means of checking ourselves, and we plan to further investigate spore prints, which is said to be the most accurate way to id mushrooms. Please feel free to add sources and insights in the comment section below.
Header Image: Wild Mushrooms (Courtesy of darren price)