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Mushroom Foraging for Beginners
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it an animal? Is it a plant? No, it's a mushroom! Welcome to this very basic introduction to mushroom foraging for beginners! I am going to provide you with a bit of guidance on how you can get into mushroom hunting.
Until approximately 12,000 years ago, all humans practised hunting-gathering. Anthropologists have even discovered evidence of this practice of hunter-gatherer culture by modern humans, AKA Homo Sapiens, and their distant ancestors dating as far back as 2 million years ago!
Despite this quite literally being the oldest practice known to man, we have lost nearly all of our hunter-gathering skills due to advanced civilizations and the evolution of technology. We are officially disconnecting from our oldest of roots thanks to the age of technology… Good ol’ technology dependence! Anyway, let me get you back in touch with the past as we go over how to forage mushrooms.
First things first, let’s talk safety. As we all know, mushroom foraging has its risks. Although only roughly 70-80 species of poisonous mushrooms are actually fatal when consumed, many of these deadly fungi have an unfortunate resemblance to edible species. That being said, be really careful and don’t be cocky about it! Let’s look over a few safety precautions and steps you will want to consider if you are looking to consume the mushrooms you forage.
- Only positively identified mushrooms should be eaten.
- Identify your mushrooms a second or third time before cooking.
- When picking mushrooms in an unfamiliar region, e.g. in a foreign country or an area of considerable distance from one's usual foraging sites, exercise great caution even with mushrooms that are positively identified as edible based on prior experience. All mushroom guides explaining local species should be studied thoroughly before heading to the forest.
- Don't gather mushrooms that are difficult to identify, especially if you are new to mushroom hunting. This applies especially to the mushrooms of the genus Amanita and Cortinarius and "little brown mushrooms".
- Only consume small amounts when you bring home a new batch. People react differently to different mushrooms, and all mushroom species can cause an adverse reaction in a few individuals, even the common champignon.
- I can highly suggest mushroom hunting with a guide or others who have a lot of experience in foraging before going solo as there is a surprising amount of things to consider when identifying a mushroom and incorrect identification happens all the time.
How to harvest medicinal mushroom
In regards to medicinal mushrooms identification, there are a few things you must look at first. These physical aspects need to be taken into consideration during medicinal mushroom identification:
- Colour of stem, gills, cap and flesh
- Absence of presence of a veil
It helps a lot if you find a baby mushroom and watch it over a few days. Mushrooms are extremely complex! Watching them grow from small to full-grown will give you a higher success rate of correct identification. Some mushrooms will look exactly the same throughout almost all of their different growth stages but slightly different during one stage. Watching them grow up will help you identify with great accuracy.
Below, I go into more detail about specific aspects to observe for medicinal mushroom identification.
Environment: Another thing to consider is location. Taking note of the location (eg, North America or Western Europe) is essential. You will also want to take note of what the mushroom is growing on and/or around. For example, some fungi have mycorrhizal associations with particular tree species while others typically colonize rotting logs. Also, make sure you log the climate in which the mushroom is growing for further accuracy during identification.
Flesh: You can view the flesh of a mushroom by picking it, cutting it perfectly in half (from the bottom of the stem all the way up through the gills and to the top of the cap) and exposing the inside. Pay close attention during your slice as to whether the flesh changes colour after it is bruised as that may provide a clue toward identity.
Spores: Perhaps one of the most important features to identify is the mushroom’s spores. Some have distinctly coloured spores, which can be seen by making something called a spore print. Making spore prints is very straightforward and fun. Simply choose a mushroom that appears to be mature as an underdeveloped mushroom will not leave a print. Cut off the stem so you are left with the cap. Place the cap (with the gills facing down) on a piece of glass or Plexiglas and cover it with a cup or glass placed upside down over the cap to prevent air currents from distributing the spores.
Leave your spore to do its thing overnight and check the spore print in the morning against light or dark paper as needed to see the spore colour. Spores can be viewed under a microscope to check size, shape and colour. Spores are tiny and can be measured in microns (25,000 to an inch). Your spore print should tell you everything you need to know about the spores, therefore, making your identification more accurate.
Mushroom hunting can be very daunting as there is a lot to know and some scary risks involved. As long as you are very patient with yourself and don’t rush identification, it should be a very rewarding and exciting hobby! Make sure you do a lot of identifications before you ever bring any mushrooms home to cook and consume.
Of course, always be careful and remember that safety comes above everything. Do as much research as possible and work with a guide to get you started. Read books, listen to podcasts, spend time in nature, observe thoroughly and never stop learning!
The world of mushroom foraging is a vast one. Look at it as a life-long journey and you will likely do just fine.
I wish you mush luck and happy hunting!