NOURISH | 20 Rules for Safe Mushroom Foraging
In Edible and Medicinal Mushrooms of New England and Eastern Canada, David L. Spahr provides specific, easy-to-understand information on finding, collecting, identifying, and preparing the safer and more common edible and medicinal mushroom species of the region. However, the rules for safe foraging are universal, and Spahr offers a special caution to foragers: “There is risk in consuming wild mushrooms; this is a learning process that can take a lifetime. One should not go right out and pick! First, read a comprehensive field guide, find an experienced teacher or a club, learn the rules for collecting, and be very careful.” So, if you’re cultivating a new-found culinary hobby, or if you’d like to consume mushrooms for their healing properties and you’re up for the challenge of finding them yourself, be sure to remember the following 20 rules for wild mushroom collecting (from Spahr’s book)—they will help keep you safe on your journey.
Be sure to purchase a authoritative field guide, such as National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms. Refer to more than one book.
1. Make a positive identification using more than one source wherever possible. Do not eat mushrooms with any features that contradict the description. Contact a mushroom expert or club if you are not sure. If you are still unsure, heed the advice: “When in doubt, throw it out!”
2. Only pick specimens with opened caps because mushrooms can easily be misidentified in the button stage.
3. Keep your known edibles separate from unknown specimens. Any unknown mushroom is possibly dangerous.
4. Take notes on all of the important aspects of the environment, including types of trees, plants, other fungi, soil, forest or land characteristics, and any other unusual aspects of the location. It is best to write it down and keep your notes with your specimens.
5. Use every aspect of the mushroom’s physical structure for identification, including a spore print. Spore prints should be made on black or white paper or glass.
6. Be able to distinguish a mushroom species from its close relatives and unrelated look-alikes.
7. Learn what deadly species look like and the symptoms of poisoning.
8. Avoid picking any little brown mushrooms and difficult to identify or poisonous species, such genera as Amanita, Galerina, Entoloma, and Cortinarius. Beginners should also avoid mushrooms from the Lepiota, Lactarius, and Russula genera. Learn the basic characteristics of these genera so that you can avoid them.
9. Never eat any bulbous-based gilled mushroom growing from a sac or cup. Those are likely to be Amanitas—many species of which are deadly.
10. Avoid Boletes with red or orange pores that stain blue. Mushrooms that stain blue when cut or bruised should always raise a caution flag, although a few can be eaten. For beginners, mushrooms that stain black are best avoided, too.
11. For beginners, it is safer to start by collecting mushrooms with pores, teeth, and ridges rather than gilled mushrooms.
12. Avoid polluted, treated, or sprayed areas. Weed-less lawns should be avoided. Fruit tree orchards should be avoided unless you know for sure they have not been sprayed. Pesticide residues can remain in the soil for many years—possibly decades. Lead arsenate remains in the soil even longer than the DDT that succeeded it.
13. Do not pick next to busy paved roadways. There could still be lead in the soil from leaded gasoline we used to burn and cadmium from rubber-tire dust. On busy roadways, pollution spreads from cars in a way similar to the dust cloud behind a cattle stampede.
14. Realize that there are no simple rules of thumb about edibility, such as “if it stains a silver spoon . . .” or other generalizations.
15. Do not damage the environment. Avoid picking or knocking over mushrooms that you do not intend to keep. Fill any holes in the dirt or duff so the underlying mycelium does not dry out or become damaged. It is best not to use a rake for finding Matsutake. A good mushroom hunter leaves few traces behind.
16. Always cook your mushrooms thoroughly. There are bacteria in the outdoors and you could become ill from something entirely unrelated to the mushroom.
17. Only consume fresh specimens. Older specimens may be spoiled.
18. Chew them well and eat only a small quantity.
19. Try one new species at a time, eating only a small amount at first and retaining a sample of the new species in case of poisoning or allergic reaction. Just as some people cannot eat nuts, strawberries, shellfish, or other foods, allergic responses to some mushrooms are certainly possible.
20. When fall rolls around and the hunting seasons begin, wear hunter orange in the woods at all times.
As with all rules and descriptions there are always exceptions. Size of mushrooms in particular can be quite variable. I have been puzzled on quite a number of occasions by mushrooms that were much larger than descriptions indicate. Every once in a while you will find twelve-inch or larger Boletes, Horse Mushrooms, Oyster Mushrooms, or others. I have learned that a ten-inch Blewit is definitely possible. Because 2006 was a wet year, Chanterelles commonly had four- to six-inch caps. Size can be confusing, so understand that size can be much greater than field guide parameters suggest. Even very experienced collectors can sometimes have trouble with identification. Mushrooms can have very different looks at different stages. Factors, like sun and moisture, can greatly affect the look of an easy-to-identify mushroom.