Credit...Ian C. Bates for The New York Times
By Lauren Sloss
In case you haven’t heard, it’s been a wet winter on the West Coast. While the deluge was devastating for many residents, some have welcomed the rain: fungi, and the foragers who love them.
“Mushrooms love rain,” said Iso Rabins, the founder of Forage SF, a Bay Area-based company that offers classes on foraging mushrooms, wild plants and seaweed. “There will be a ton of mushrooms in the coming weeks and months,” he said.
This season’s boom in mushrooms dovetails with increasing numbers of people interested in plucking them out of the ground.
Chelsea Heffner, the founder of WildCraft Studio School in Portland, Ore., said that while mushroom foraging classes were always popular at her school, she has noticed a surge of interest in recent years. This may be in part because of a need for pandemic-safe outdoor activities, coupled with people wanting to better understand their environments, she said.
“There’s a real depth of connection that comes from an activity like mushroom foraging,” said Ms. Heffner, whose school offers classes in crafts and Native arts, as well as foraging.
Mr. Rabins agrees that challenging times have people longing for a deeper kind of connection. He started his business in 2008, another period of crisis.
“People start to re-examine their lives,” he said. “Let’s do something we can wrap our hands around. Knowing how to go into the woods and find a mushroom that you can take home and cook for dinner feels like something solid, or tangible.”
It’s also a whole lot of fun, and a fine reason to plan a trip. Here’s how to get started on a foraging adventure of your own.
Find an expert
Connecting with experienced mushroom hunters is a must for those new to foraging.
“You need to hold the species in your hands. You need to look at them from all angles. You need to see what they look like in their natural habitat,” said Langdon Cook, a Seattle-based writer and teacher who focuses on wild foods. “The best way to do that is with someone you trust.”
Both Forage SF and WildCraft offer guided foraging walks in the woods. Signing up for one can be a good anchor for a trip to California or the Pacific Northwest (classes tend to sell out quickly; Mr. Rabins recommends signing up for Forage SF’s email list to know when to book). Relish Culinary and Walk in the Woods are also worth checking out for classes and guided forays in California.
Online classes can also be a great option in the winter. Rebecca Lexa, a master naturalist based in Long Beach, Wash., teaches a wide variety of classes, both in-person (which include guided outings) and online, on nature identification and natural history. Her online classes took off during the pandemic, and are still popular for people with less flexible schedules.
“Not everyone’s going to be able to follow me around in the woods for a few hours,” she said. “I give people the skills and tools they can use, not just in the Pacific Northwest, to figure out how to identify what they’re finding.”
Joining a mycological society in the area you’re exploring is a good way to connect with the local foraging community, too (membership rates tend to be very affordable). Societies often host events and forays which, in addition to allowing you to get tips from seasoned mushroom hunters, can help you figure out where to go, and when.
Understand your seasons
Winter offers ample mushroom-foraging opportunities in California, and there are still some mushrooms to be found in coastal Oregon and Washington (much of the Cascades is covered in snow until spring).
The cold season is prime time for black trumpet and candy cap mushrooms in California. Provided temperatures stay relatively temperate, lucky foragers may find scattered patches of mushrooms along Oregon’s and Washington’s coastline, including yellowfoot, hedgehog and oyster mushrooms (all of which are more prolific in the fall). Winter is also an excellent time to branch out into other foraging avenues, including wild plants and shellfish.
“You’re getting really good oysters and clams in the winter,” said Mr. Cook, who leads classes during which students gather shellfish and cook a meal on the beach.
There is also spring foraging to look forward to.
“After what seems like an endless cold, gray winter in the Pacific Northwest, there is nothing like the explosion of flowering trees and blooms and the promise of finding a few morels out in the forest,” said Ms. Heffner of WildCraft.
Morel mushrooms, honeycomb-esque fungi that are prized for their nutty flavor and meaty texture, often grow in spring in areas burned by wildfires in previous years.
Morels, which appear in southern Oregon’s lower elevations in late March and early April, and move north and up in elevation through July, are just one of the foraging opportunities that the Blizzards look forward to in the spring.
“In May, spring porcini come up in Northern California, Oregon and Washington, and continue into June,” Mr. Blizzard said.
Get to know your environment
Understanding the intricacies of the ecosystem you’re exploring is key for finding the mushrooms you desire.
“Are you about to step on a dandelion, or a Calypso orchid, which is endemic to the Pacific Northwest and an indicator for morels in the spring?” Ms. Heffner said. She suggests newcomers bring a regional plant identification book into the field and “spend time noticing what’s around you, referencing your field guide to build connections.”
If identifying every plant in the forest seems overwhelming, start with the trees.
“Most wild mushrooms that you’ll see on restaurant menus — porcinis, chanterelles, black trumpets — are mycorrhizal, meaning they have a symbiotic relationship with trees,” Mr. Cook said. Once you’ve learned the tree species that hosts that type of mushroom, it makes it a lot easier to find.”
For example, in the West, most species of chanterelle mushrooms are found in coniferous forests populated by Douglas fir or pine trees (though one species found in California is partial to oaks). When foraging in that environment, look out for the chanterelle’s distinctive yellow hue.
Be a responsible forager
“Tread lightly, and use your ‘leave no trace’ principles that you’d use hiking or camping,” Ms. Lexa said.
In general, it’s best practice to take no more than a quarter of the mushrooms you find, or really, only as much as you will eat. Some locations have limits on the amount of mushrooms you’re allowed to take.
Research the permit requirements for the area ahead of time. Some parks require picking up permits in person, and are only open at certain hours (check online, or call the local branch of the National Forest Service, or the agency in charge).
Don’t assume that any public land is fair game. California, in particular, has very limited public land access for foraging. Classes, such as those offered by Mr. Rabins, can sometimes get you access to private lands. Ignoring permit requirements and regulations can lead to fines and, in extreme cases, jail time.
What to bring
Mushroom foraging is a wilderness activity, and preparing properly — as you would for hiking or camping — is important.
Wear appropriate footwear, and bring layers and plenty of water and snacks. Outfit yourself with navigational tools like a Garmin satellite, a map and a compass (don’t solely rely on your phone’s GPS). It’s especially easy to get turned around when you’re walking through the woods with your eyes on the ground.
Bring a bag or basket to collect your mushrooms: Something mesh, or a basket with holes, is ideal since the mushrooms will drop spores, creating opportunities for future growth as you walk. Some foragers bring a knife to cut mushrooms off at the stalk.
As for preserving your mushrooms: A small cooler will keep your finds fresh for up to five days (keep them as dry as possible). On the road or at home, dehydrating your mushrooms will preserve your bounty for even longer.
About those poisonous mushrooms …
“The forager’s golden rule is that you never eat anything without 100 percent certainty of identification,” said Mr. Cook. “And yes, there are a couple of species that are poisonous; it’s smart to learn those species first.”
Some of the deadly poisonous species in the United States that Mr. Cook listed: the well-named death cap (Amanita phalloides), the destroying angel (Amanita ocreata in the West, and the closely related Amanita bisporigera in the East) and the deadly galerina (Galerina marginata), which can be mistaken for wild “magic” mushrooms.
Ms. Lexa emphasized that picking up a poisonous mushroom will not hurt you; you need to eat and digest it to feel the effects. If there is any question about the edibility of a certain species, she just skips it. And if you’re trying a type of wild, edible mushroom — that you have identified with absolute certainty — for the first time, she recommends cooking and eating a small amount to start and waiting 24 hours to make sure that you don’t have a reaction. She also suggests keeping a whole specimen, uncut and undamaged, in the fridge.
“If you get sick enough that you need to go to the hospital, or need to call poison control, they can help you figure out what you ate,” she said.
Mr. Rabins encouraged beginners not to let fear get in their way, particularly with the backing of a book or an experienced guide.
“You don’t have to have a masters in botany to figure out what mushrooms are good to eat and which ones aren’t,” he said. “Can you tell the difference between a cabbage and a head of iceberg lettuce? Then you can tell the difference between a false chanterelle and a chanterelle.”
Do your own research
Diving into the world of mushroom foraging can start in the comfort of your living room. Mushroom books and identification guides are abundant, and range from the general to the regionally specific.
For West Coast resources, Ms. Blizzard recommends All That the Rain Promises and More (as beloved for its pocket-size as for its wonderfully zany cover), Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast, Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest and California Mushrooms. Mr. Rabins is partial to the Bay Area-specific Flavors of Home, and Ms. Heffner is a fan of Mushrooms of Cascadia.
Of course, there is an overwhelming number of online resources, from Facebook groups to Reddit forums (these tend to be hyper-regional and specific). iNaturalist is a particularly good identification app, but experts caution strongly against solely relying on apps for identification.
“Apps are a great initial tool to narrow down judgments of what you found,” Ms. Lexa said. “But always go back and check with your books. Check with your websites. The more websites you can use, the better.”
No matter where you are mushroom hunting — whether on the West Coast or beyond — the experts interviewed encouraged new foragers to tap into the landscape where they live.
“I really encourage my students to think locally,” said Mr. Cook. “Think about your habitat and what’s there.”
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