It’s that time again here in The Pacific Northwest, the time when it’s wet and cool enough for fungus to abound. The woods are fruiting with a ground treasure like no other, so get out there and start looking around. Many mushrooms are edible, but few are easy to identify, so safety is a number one concern. Don’t pick what you don’t know- a brave mushroomer is a dead one. With that in mind, have a look at some wild friends, edible or not, that I’ve been finding in my local forests.
Chantrelles are the most widely known edible mushroom here in Western Washington, with good reason- there are few look a likes to confuse it with, and the taste is excellent. Chantrelles are golden yellow, and have veins rather than gills. They come out in the fall (mostly) and grow on mossy soil under Douglas fir stands. A great place to go hunting is forest land with 30-60 year old stands. Look on the north facing slopes, where salal and Oregon grape thrive. Keep a sharp eye out in the green mosses, and look carefully, sometimes the golden treasures are partially buried by the thick duff.
When you harvest chantrelles, please cut them at the stem or tear them from their base, keeping the bottom part in the ground with the mycelium to prevent disruption of the shroom cycle. If you pull out the “root” of the chantrelle with the fruit, you take away future blooms and upset the delicate lace of hyphae (little white hairs) in the soil. I’ve seen great flushes disappear in areas where the ground is severely disturbed by bad pickers who rush. If you are a beginner and not sure of how to harvest sustainably, seek guidance from a veteran picker.
Medicinal mushrooms are also a great find in the woods. Our native Reishi is a Ganoderma verity which has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries. They are very rare, so when I found this perfect specimen, I left it. It’s often better to leave a mushroom untouched, especially the woody ones growing on logs. The red belted conch is another great example of polypore fungus which should be left alone. These mushrooms can be very medicinal, but it takes special preparation to ensure the medicine comes out, and most people do not know the proper steps. It takes a long time for many of these wood eating species to establish, so let them be.
Sometimes I’ll find a new species I’ve not identified before and get excited. I make sure there are several of them around before I pick one- if it’s the only one, I leave it alone to reproduce. If it’s one of a crowd, I’ll select a medium sized one to study, and take a few pictures. Often, I never follow through at home with my field guides, but sometimes, especially when I am writing these blogs, I’ll pull out the books and get cracking. This is the best way to explore new species, and rather than experimenting with a fork, it is best to use field guides or find an expert- someone who is an established mycologist with a lot of experience. (I am not one)
This specimen is a Lactarius of some kind. I can guess L. rubrilactus, but without closer inspection (spore print) and a lot more study, this mushroom will remain a mystery for now. Sorting into a family is sometimes more than enough to get a basic understanding. Families are diverse, and in the mushroom kingdom, families are often changing and evolving as we learn more about the DNA structure of mushrooms. You’ll often hear me in the woods talking about “nice looking Russulas”. This is a HUGE family with many species, most of which are not edible, but the general family is easy to recognize with a few key characteristics.
- Russula are chalky, and shatter like safety glass when you throw them against a tree trunk.
- The russula are generally spicy on the tongue, warning of their inedible nature.
Now, should you go out and put all mushrooms on your tongue to test for spicy flavor? No! And without an expert to show you, don’t taste any mushroom you don’t know. However- if you put a little mushroom on your tongue and then spit it out, you are not going to die. BUT- don’t test mushrooms outside the russula family and don’t test at all if you are unclear on russulas. See why most mushroomers are hesitant to share info and broadly discuss mushrooming? It can be a nightmare of what ifs. So, unless you are out with an expert- someone who had been mushrooming a long time and hopefully has a degree in mycology, don’t get brave and start assuming, you will end up very sick or dead in the long run by experimenting on your own.
Sometimes I run across a real beauty and fall in love. This Cortinarius violaceus is a rare find in any woods across North America. The purple color is so striking on the forest floor, and the texture of that cap is mesmerizing. There were two in this forest, and I picked one only because I really wanted to get the full understanding of its profile. I chose the more mature of the two because it was open and after picking it, I could lay the open cap back down on the ground to keep putting out spores. Next time I see this guy in the woods, I can look and know without having to pick. That’s the great learning journey. Later, on a walk with a qualified mycologist, I was informed that this species is also edible, but I have not had a chance to find more to try. Next year for sure!
Remember that all mushrooms have something to teach you, and there is an endless verity out on the landscape to find and enjoy. I recommend picking to identify, then putting all your samples into the compost, or better yet, back onto the landscape where you found them. If you are hunting for food and medicine, go with an expert and learn safely. I have a great passion for mycology, but I only eat a few species from the wild. These species have been carefully studied, and have been shown to me by professionals first. If I am unsure, I DO NOT EAT. Remember to wash you hands after handling mushrooms too. Having a healthy fear of fungus is not a bad thing, but also appreciate and enjoy the vast diversity of this amazing forest friend and learn what you can.
On a personal note, I found my first lobster mushroom (Hypomyces lactifluorum) this Fall. It was a great triumph, because lobsters are rare, and short lived. I have been shown older specimens in the past, but they were mushy and worm ridden. What’s so special about lactifluorum? Well, the lobster mushroom is not a mushroom at all, but a different kind of parasitic fungi from the family Ascomycota. The lobster grew over another mushroom, consuming it. In Western Washington, lactifluorum does not “borrow” any toxic species, but might in other regions so learn locally. On this day, the lobster was a loner, hidden well under needles and ferns. The flesh was hard, like an actual lobster shell, with little worm sign. I was elated, and able to carry this treasured find to a dinner that evening with good friends. It’s always a pleasure to share such special forest prizes with others. Gratitude for the forest and all it’s bounty- and thank you fungi!