Mushroom Foraging Makes for Fascinating Forays into Forests - But Caution is the Edible Watchword
Updated: May 9, 2021
This article also ran in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star newspaper.
I spent much of early autumn hunting. Instead of a gun, I carried game shears, a pocketknife and a bag. The fungi bug bit me – as in foraging for wild, edible mushrooms.
My newfound interest was inspired by two things: first, the ongoing covid-19 limitations, which made me feel a bit mushroom-y anyway and, second, as part of coordinating an awards program for the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers, I read a first-place entry by Minnesotan Roy Heilman (neveragoosechase.com) about foraging. Seeing his stories and photos had me realizing I likely walk past countless edibles during my spring and autumn forest forays.
Before you munch wild shrooms, please know one important thing. Many will make you incredibly ill. A few can kill you. These have sinister names such as “Destroying Angel” or Death Cap.” I have seen them around Virginia. Some edible mushrooms have dangerous lookalikes.
Heilman is self-taught, using books and reputable internet sources to identify mushrooms.
“There's a lot of chatter out there by people who don't know what they're talking about…they'll steer you wrong,” Heilman said. He also pointed to the plethora of phone apps some people are using to identify mushrooms, calling them a “terrible idea,” and noting grave reliability concerns.
Caution is his watchword with any wild edible. “My wife, who is in health care, wouldn't have it any other way. Eating mushrooms is no joke, and that also goes for every time a person tries a new-to-them mushroom,” Heilman said. Heilman and many guidebooks recommend eating a small piece of cooked mushroom at first and then waiting a day or two to see if you had any ill effects. Even then, you don’t want to sit down and eat a bowlful of cooked wild mushrooms. And some varieties react unfavorably with alcohol.
I quickly found three, maybe four, suspected edible varieties in mid-September. The first was a large, meaty mushroom called a “hedgehog,” hydnum repandum in Latin taxonomy. Hedgehogs don’t have gills. Instead, they have dense, small spines or teeth growing straight down from the cap. I shared photos with expert friends via email and on Facebook, inviting identification. I also scoured the internet for images and cross-reference information.
Satisfied they were safe to try, I sauteed some with butter, salt, pepper and a little thyme. They were excellent and later added to egg dishes, soups and stir fry. Heilman said hedgehogs are near the top of his list of favorites. “They have a great flavor, a nice firm texture that makes them versatile in the kitchen. This summer, I put them in scrambled eggs, quesadillas and a pasta dish,” he said.
I also found a couple patches of what looked like, after crosschecking multiple references, golden chanterelles, another choice edible. Yet, when one person expressed doubt after I posted photos on a Mushroom Identification & Mycology Myths Facebook page, I tossed the whole lot without so much as a nibble. I wish I could have had an in-person, professional second opinion. The photos are below if anyone wants to reach out with second opinions.
Next came lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus), which resembles a shaggy, white growth hanging on a tree or log. It has reputed medicinal properties. Caroline County realtor Tom Smith got the mushroom bug right around the time I did. He also found some lion’s mane, noting it tastes like lobster. Jason Nelson of Fairfax, a longtime mushroom hunter, compares the taste to crab meat. There are many recipes for making mock crab cakes out of lion’s mane. We made some, but I got a curious, slightly worrisome tingling in my lip after eating one full “crab cake.”
Other favorites, largely because they taste good and don’t have any dangerous lookalikes are hen of the woods (often called maitake) and chicken of the woods, both of the “polypore family.” A neighbor used to have a prime hen grow at an oak tree’s base every year. I found both varieties this year: a small, new hen and three chickens, two well past their prime. The chickens are distinctive and easy to spot with their bright orange and white layered lobes growing on or at the base of a tree. We sliced and cooked chicken lobes in a squirrel recipe.
While several edible varieties exist, Heilman advises not sampling the whole buffet.
“I see a lot of people on Facebook groups who are going about it the hard way. They're going out in the woods, collecting everything, then trying to identify it all. That's a total mess - and a good way to get poisoned. Instead, I recommend learning about what grows in your area, when it grows, and how to identify it,” he said. He also cautions about the need to learn about each edible mushroom's poisonous lookalikes and how to tell them apart. Once you are comfortable with a couple varieties, then look just for those you can positively identify. Add to your repertoire as you gain more experience.
“Start with easy mushrooms, like chicken of the woods, that don't have poisonous lookalikes,” he advises. “Honestly, there are some people out there who are not cut out for it. I don't know if they don't have the patience to do it right, or if they have no aptitude for differentiating between species. It's better to find another hobby than to be in the position where you have to find a new liver.”
Smith agrees. “Right now, I only stick to the obvious edible groups,” he said. And, still lion’s mane and hen of the woods upset his stomach when he ate too much as side dishes to steak.
Nelson first learned about foraging in Montana, taught by an uncle before beginning his own research. “I wouldn't eat a mushroom I couldn't 100% identify,” he declared.
The North American Mycological Association's website is a good resource for understanding the most dangerous mushrooms, as well as what poisoning is all about. There are also several excellent, well-illustrated books that can guide you. Of course, multiple Facebook groups exist, but as Heilman notes, be cautious since you really don’t know who is giving you advice. You can also search online for classes and field trips in your area. There is also the Mycological Association of Washington, D.C.
Mushroom foraging is fun and can give you another excuse to get outdoors. Learn all you can and never eat any mushroom unless you are completely certain it is safe.