The rains are returning to The Cascades, and we’re eager to get foraging in the forests for our mushroom friends. My partner Bernard took me to a very special mycological place where we’ve found some of our best mushrooms and most diverse specimens. This area is special for many reasons; from the second growth established forest, to the sheer inaccessibility, make this area our special foraging spot and it has not disappointed yet!
We drove my truck over some very rough terrain and then hiked through soaking wet forest which left us feeling very sponge like in our hike to the wonderful mushroom paradise. This feeling of being utterly soaked was exactly what fungus thrives on, and we knew our timing was right to see some splendid things. Many are still mysteries we’re trying to unfold.
Our forest is a protected place, so the trees are growing large as the forest floor continued to rejuvenate its self after the clear cut over one hundred years ago. Here there are established duff layers and uninterrupted mycelium highways which encourage a healthy and diverse fungal family by providing mature woody food, an active biological landscape with vernal pools and seasonal streams carrying moisture and nutrients throughout the woods. These active wetlands in a maturing forest are what I dream my food forest will one day look like. You can see from the picture below that larger old trees are spaced out well and actually allow light through the canopy. Natural windblown trees create open pockets to the sky throughout this forest, letting a more diverse under-story thrive. The mushrooms love it here, and so do we.
Hiking around this woodland space was challenging at times, and we often found ourselves having to scale over huge fallen trucks or cross slick rock streams. The pay off is worth the effort. And let me be clear, through we are searching for edible species, we are also looking at all the diversity in our fungi, hoping to see one or two we’ve never seen. Usually, it happens.
Many of the species we saw, like the coral mushroom above, are saprotrophic, meaning they feed on dead and decaying matter, like leaf litter or mulch piles. This ability to help compost the forest is an important part of mushroom magic. These little fungi are breaking down huge amounts of material into nutrients for the whole forest. They really are keeping everything in the woods healthy and balanced.
Animals love to eat mushrooms too, and you’ll often find sign of this predation on the mushrooms of the forest. Remember, just because the slug is munching on fungi, does not make it safe for you! I’ve said this many times, and I’ll keep at it- don’t eat anything unless you are sure- you’re only sure if a trained mycologist has shown it to you in the field and called it a safe mushroom to identify and eat. Even then, if you are unsure, don’t eat it! Assumptions about mushrooms can and will get you killed. I’m not trying to scare people away from mycology, but I will say that thinking a book will tell you what is safe and not safe to eat in the mushroom world is a crock of ****.
That said, here in The Pacific Northwest, I find that the genus Boletus is a great gateway of relatively safe mushrooms to start paying more attention to in your foraging quests. Again, go out with a mycologist before you start picking for your kitchen. I love this picture above of a young bolete with some rhizome of mycelium coming off the bottom of this specimen. Though it was probably a safe mushroom, we did not keep it because it was too young to tell which species it was, and some are not that appetizing.
None of our edible species identified were found in mass quantity, but unique shapes abound, and this Boletus edulis above was a great find with a funny shape. I did harvest and cook up this wild edible verity. There were others far too mature to collect for eating, as maggots had already taken hold of the flesh and putrefied the flavor. It is never a good idea to eat older mushroom that are starting to decompose. Often, bacteria has begun to eat the mushroom and might damage you if you ingest, just like eating any spoiled food.
A first for me on this forage was the scaly chanterelle! I found them all over the place and wondered at the fact that this seemingly abundant mushroom was not one I had ever seen before. That’s part of the magic of mushrooms; they can happen any time, any kind, and you can’t really know where. Sure, you can go back to the same spot year after year and assume you’ll see some consistency, but timing in the fungi world is everything, and moisture content also plays a huge role in when a “bloom” might occur.
Note what kind of substrate the mushrooms in each of these pictures is growing out of. Some are hanging off logs, others pop right up out of the soil. Also know that the mushrooms you see “blooming” are like the fruit of a tree. The main living part of the fungus is within the substrate and continues to grow and expand unseen.
Some kinds of fungus are so strange, it’s hard to identify them correctly. The orange jelly fungus above is my guess on the genus based on a general understanding of physical characteristics, but mushrooms often look alike, and narrowing down to a specific species is sometimes impossible without sport print analysis -usually involving a microscope and some real know how I have yet to possess, but the knowledge is there, and I will be taking more classes soon to better hone my I.D. skills.
The bolete above is easy to identify from the unique velvet textured cap. Combine that with the spore shape of the “gill” and brown striping on the stipe (stem) leads to a confidant label and another edible mushroom into the basket. This mushroom is safe to eat, and ripe for harvest, being young and untouched by bugs. I know that in my area, this genus has no dangerous lookalikes unless the spores and flesh are red or purple. That’s such a strong marked difference, which is another reason for people in The Pacific Northwest to keep a sharp eye out for boletes. Note I keep saying my region, The Pacific Northwest, etc. Please be aware that if you are living in a different part of the country or world, your local mushrooms could be completely different than mine and therefore, each bio-region should be treated like a totally new mushrooming experience. DO NOT ASSUME!
The genus Russula is very different from Boletus, being are more likely to be unpalatable and even toxic to most people. There are a few choice species which are coveted, like Russula xerampelina, known as the shrimp russula. You cannot confidently identify this mushroom by looks alone. That’s where the complications start. In the picture above, you see a very young russula emerging from the ground, coated in a slimy film. This mushroom could look very different from its current form by the time it matures. Mushrooms can change everything about themselves from birth to death, and if you catch a fungus at the wrong time and assume, you might pick a tricky mystery that could make you sick. Stick to what you have been taught by the professionals and keep away from things with dangerous lookalikes.
There’s a type of mushroom I shy away from to this day. “LBM’s” or Little Brown Mushrooms have always challenged me. My limited knowledge on smaller verities of mushroom is already limited, stack on that the color brown and you have a huge diversity of species which are mostly toxic or completely unpalatable. Because of this I neglect these shrooms, but they are still great to photograph. My hope is that as I document them, I might begin to see subtle differences between certain genus and widen my awareness of fungi. Does this mean I might start eating some? No! But learning who is who in mushrooms is a fast track to finding more yummy things to eat.
Mycology is a vast discipline of such alien beings, yet compelling to the senses, and a study of unique fauna on this earth who deserve more attention. Next time you encounter a fungus, take a picture if you can, study the shape, color, placement, substrate, and size without even touching the specimen. Avoid taking samples from the field until you are more familiar with different species and how to properly take them from the wild. Mushrooms are endless fun. and some of the most amazing flavors to experience, but again, with good instruction and awareness, this hobby is not for the impulsive. To take steps towards becoming an informed mycologist, join a mushrooming club in your area or take a class at your local college or university. In the Seattle area check out Puget Sound Mycological Society. It’s a whole world waiting to be discovered!