But for most Americans the words “wild mushrooms” and “poisonous mushrooms” are synonyms, and that fear sometimes goes as far as rejecting any cultivated mushroom that is not a Cremini or a Portabella.
Don’t get me wrong, the risks of mushroom poisoning are real and they vary from mild stomach discomfort to liver failure and death. This is why my favorite analogy to foraging is driving: if you take out a car in the road without knowing what you are doing or being reckless, is extremely dangerous. But if you have the knowledge and follow the rules is not only safe but a lot of fun.
Becoming an expert mycologist takes years of study, field work, and spore printing . Thankfully, for the rest of us that only want to enjoy a good meal or take advantage of Nature’s medicine cabinet, there is an easier way. So here are our “anyone can do it” tips:
1. Get a Mushroom Identification Guide. Before going hunting, study it in the comfort of your home and get familiar with the edible and/or medicinal species that grow in your area and their look a likes. For New Englanders our favorite book is Edible and Medicinal Mushroom of New England and Eastern Canada which by omission, helps you eliminate the need of identifying every single mushroom you encounter. Once you know what to look for by shape, color and location, it will be easier to spot the right mushrooms.
2. Stay away from any gilled mushroom that grows in the ground until you become a skilled forager. The most dangerous mushrooms, including the Amanitas belong to this group, so by avoiding it completely, you eliminate most of the risk of serious poisoning.
3. Don’t pick young or very old specimens. Baby mushrooms with a closed cap can easily be misidentified. Mushrooms that are past their prime can be buggy and won’t taste good, so it is better to let them sporulate.
4. When in doubt, throw it out. Use more than one method of identification, including spore printing. If there is a characteristic that doesn’t agree with your guide, leave it behind. It is helpful to belong to a social media identification group (Facebook has several), so you can post pictures of your findings and get a confirmation by more experienced foragers. When asking for advice, it is important to provide a picture of the top and bottom of the mushrooms and where, when and what kind of substrate it’s growing on.
5. Eat just a little when trying a mushroom for the first time, and save the rest for the next day. Besides the risk of poisoning, some people can be allergic to a particular mushroom. Also, cook your mushrooms thoroughly. All raw mushrooms are indigestible and some are mildly poisonous uncooked (including the button mushroom!), but great when cooked. At the same time, cooking wild mushrooms will kill any bacteria present in the environment.
6. Respect the environment. What we call mushrooms are the fruiting body of the the species, like the apple on the tree; taking all the fruits doesn’t hurt the tree and the same is true with the mushroom; the main organism (mycelium) will keep growing underground or in wood and will fruit again when the time is right. What does hurt the mushroom is to disturb its environment by littering, going off path in mud season or destroying the plants or trees that coexist with it.
7. Sign up for foraging tour! Even if you know the basics there is always new things you can learn from others that share the same passion. MoTown Mushrooms offers “mycowalks” which in addition to basic foraging will teach you about applied mycology (A.K.A how to grow your own mushrooms). Check our calendar for upcoming events. Private tours and consultations are also available upon request.