With the increasing popularity of the maker and local foods movements, mushroom hunting (and foraging in general) have come into the spotlight. Everyone from small business entrepreneurs to hobbyists can not only find amazing herbs, vegetables, and fungi right in our backyards, but also better understand where we live while being a steward of the earth. Yet, many ambitious folks set out without a basic understanding of foraging or identification of plants. This is particularly dangerous with mushrooms. While we’re not experts in mushroom hunting, we have some experience and a few tips for beginner mushroom hunters.
If the idea of staring at a forest floor and wandering aimlessly for hours on end sounds like fun to you, you’re in the right place! Jokes aside, there are a lot of variables in mushroom hunting, but with some patience and the help of experts, anyone can enjoy going out foraging.
Please, don’t go out on a whim and pick the prettiest mushrooms that you find on the side of a trail. Or on your lawn. There are many very dangerous mushrooms that (unfortunately) look similar to the friendly ones. While this isn’t meant to totally scare you off, it’s good to have a bit of fear and respect for fungi. Some of these imposter ‘shrooms can fool the most experienced.
Be skeptical. When it doubt, throw it out (or don’t even pick it!) Consuming the wrong mushroom can cause annoying symptoms like gastric distress or lead to serious, permanent liver damage or death. A hospital visit is not something you want after a fun day of romping in the forest. The best thing you can do for yourself is some research and learning from the experts.
Workshops / Festivals
Out here in the Rocky Mountains, there are so many fantastic festivals that celebrate everything about Colorado life (seriously, everything). A few years ago we decided on a whim to attend the Telluride Mushroom Festival. Telluride is dreamy and just so annoyingly, over-the-top, spectacularly beautiful. It hosts its mushroom festival every year in mid-August and is attended by a fascinating mix of people who are there to celebrate the ‘shroom culture alongside those who are scientists / researchers in the field of mycology.
The main appeal of attending the Telluride Mushroom Festival was for the guided forays (forages). We learned so much over the course of the weekend. I was apprehensive about mushroom hunting knowing the horror stories, but after being able to ask questions and get help with identification from an expert, I felt much better about going out on our own. Plus, at the end of the day when everyone is back in town, they have a tent where folks lay out their haul. Super cool to see all the ‘shrooms grouped together and great for getting an eye on all the crazy varieties found in the area!
This year, we’re hoping to attend either Buena Vista’s King Boletus Mushroom Festival or Eagle’s Mushroom Festival (both held in August). It’s so hard to choose!
Find your community
There are so many other folks out there interested in the wonderful world of foraging. See if your area has any active gatherings on meetup.com or Facebook groups. The Colorado Mycological Society organizes many forays on the Front Range and out here on the Western Slope, there are many informal Facebook groups of locals that share tips & tricks, while also helping with identification. It’s important to note, though, that many experienced foragers won’t totally give away their favorite spots (understandable!) All the more reason to learn the traits of a good mushroom hunting spot so you can find them on your own.
If you can’t find a group and are interested in learning about mushroom hunting/foraging, try contacting your local library. Let them know you’re interested in some sort of workshop or club being started and ask how you can help. Chances are that the library will know who to connect you with or they might try hosting a program for the public. For example, the Mesa County Libraries in Grand Junction recently hosted a well-attended workshop.
Things to bring
We’ve made the mistake of bringing plastic grocery bags one too many times. This can cause the mushrooms to start sweating and get quite slimy. They need to breathe! A wicker basket, canvas bag, or any other structured fabric bag will do well.
There are handy brush / knife combinations that make it easy to cut the mushroom away and gently clean off the dirt. Get as much dirt off as possible before you throw them in your bag. Makes cooking much easier!
A reference book (see below) can be handy for tips on where to find certain types and to assist in identification, but don’t make decisions based solely on what’s in these books. Additionally, set aside some mushrooms to make spore prints. Some of the reference guide books will have remarks on the color of spores released to help in the identification process. And, most importantly, spore prints look so cool!
Recommended mushroom books
Your local library is your best friend. Hundreds (if not thousands) of books at your fingertips to help guide your foraging. My favorite book that we’ve taken with us on many hikes for reference is Vera Stucky Evenson’s Mushrooms of Colorado and the Southern Rocky Mountains. Having a reference book has been great when we’ve found a mushroom and are wondering what it could be or if it might be a false version of an edible. Other recommended reads:
- Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora
- The complete mushroom hunter: an illustrated guide to foraging, harvesting and enjoying wild mushrooms by Gary Lincoff
- Chanterelle dreams, amanita nightmares: the love, lore, and mystique of mushrooms by Greg Marley
- Mushrooming with confidence: positive identification of the most delicious common mushrooms by Alexander Schwab
Don’t pick everything
Don’t be that person. The one who sees the brownies and immediately devours them all without thinking outside your own desires. Be the person that is mindful that the mushrooms are part of the local ecosystem and are serving a purpose (besides being tasty). Leave the smallest mushrooms alone so they can continue to grow and release their spores. Mushrooms are an important part of a forest’s lifecycle and it’s important that we do not over harvest.
Stick with one or two
We can consistently identify Cantharellus cibarius (chanterelles) and Boletus edulis (King bolete / porcini) mushrooms, so that’s pretty much all we stick with! Sure, we may be missing out on other “choice” mushrooms, but we’re confident in our ability to find and consume these safely (and they’re delicious with bacon). Since we’re still beginner mushroom hunters, we’re focusing on improving our ability to find good hunting spots because we do strike out quite often. This means that when we do find mushrooms, we’re observing the surroundings: other plant life growing nearby, what direction the slope is facing, elevation, shady/sunny, et cetera. Knowing these variables helps us figure out where else we should look.
Beware the LBMs!
On the guided foray we attended, many people would constantly stop and ask the guide to identify brown, gilled mushrooms. His answer was simple: “it’s a little brown mushroom. As an amateur, stay away from those as they are difficult to differentiate and fully identify!”
Observe & enjoy
This is what I do the most. I love meandering through beautiful, forested areas. You get lost in your thoughts a bit, particularly when you’re in a remote area surrounded by the sounds of the forest and the crunch of your steps. There are many amazing mushrooms to be spotted, photographed, and then left alone. I love seeing the bright red Amanita muscaria against the earthy tones of the forest floor.
Someday, we’d love to get better at finding/identifying morels (we’ve found lots of false morels in the past), but for now, we’re happy looking for the beloved chanterelles and boletes while appreciating being able to wander aimlessly in the mountains of Colorado with good friends.