Mushroom foraging 101

After a dry spring in the Northeast that resulted in a disappointing morel harvest, mushroom foraging season is finally upon us.  The steady rains in June combined with early sightings of chicken of the woods, king boletes and chanterelles have gotten mushroom hunters excited to get into the woods to pick their first harvest.  Whether foraging for wild mushrooms is a new activity or an annual event, mushroom hunters should take the time to examine their gear, consult their identification books and review the forager’s code of conduct before heading into the woods to ensure that the experience is safe and enjoyable for all.

Hunting for mushrooms usually entails long hours in the woods hiking over uneven terrain in fluctuating temperatures and thus wearing the proper attire is essential.  Dressing in layers is important since one can work up a sweat hiking over steep topography then cool down when scouring the forest floor for fungi.  Sturdy hiking boots are a must and carrying waterproof gear is prudent in case of inclement weather.  It is also wise to carry plenty of water and have snacks on hand since foraging can be quite strenuous.

In addition to wearing the proper clothing and carrying food and water, mushroom hunters should have a foraging knife and harvesting basket.  There are a variety of mushroom knives to consider that typically have a brush on one end and a specialty blade on the other.  The brush helps to clean the mushroom on site and the blade prevents the mycelium from being damaged.  Terrafunga carries a full line of mushroom picking knives in all price ranges.

     Turkey Mtn. Knife closed Timber Ridge Knife

Mushrooms should be placed carefully in a well aerated basket, pack or bag.  This prevents the mushrooms from getting damaged and allows for spores to drop to the ground encouraging propagation.  Experienced hunters have a favorite harvesting vessel that range from hand-made Adirondack packs to picnic and African baskets, to creels and light mesh bags.   European foragers have some very sophisticated backpacks complete with wire frames, zip covers, screened bottoms and compartments to separate mushrooms by varieties.  Whatever ones preference, the container should be lightweight when empty and comfortable to carry over a long period of time.

  Italian backpackBlack trumpet August 2014 024_edited-1  Baskets Oysters 010 web

Many foragers also arm themselves with a walking stick which doubles as a digging tool that helps to gently uncover hidden fungi.  There is a variety of specialty walking sticks available on the market from adjustable aluminum hiking poles to intricate hand-carved wooden staffs.  The walking stick should be sturdy yet lightweight, feel comfortable when held and adjusted to an appropriate length.

Other recommended gear includes a compass (since it is easy to get disoriented in the woods) and a journal to jot down where mushrooms were found, time of year, weather conditions and any other observations made during harvest.  A whistle, bug repellent and a guidebook should also be brought along.

Audubon bookwalking stick    compass  Journal closed

Wild mushroom varieties have several counterparts that are poisonous (and some deadly), so proper identification is crucial.  When first starting out, it is best to be accompanied by an experienced forager and have your harvest properly identified by a mycologist.  One should never consume a mushroom that has not been positively identified.

There is a plethora of mushroom identification books on the market.  It is advisable to carry a small guide book into the woods and keep a few others at home for information and further identification.  There are several publications that specialize in fungi from particular regions, others that detail only specific varieties and some that focus solely on poisonous strains.  The following are staples in the Terrafunga “mycolibrary” and are a great resource:

  • National Audubon Society – Field Guide to Mushrooms (North America) – Gary Lincoff
  • Mushrooms of Northeastern North America – Bessette, Bessette, Fischer
  • Mushrooms Demystified – David Arora
  • Mushrooms and other Fungi of North America – Roger Phillips
  • Mushroom Picker’s Foolproof Field Guide – Peter Jordan
  • Mushrooms: An Introduction to Familiar North American Species – James Kavanagh
  • A Field Guide to Mushrooms – Kent H. McNight
  • North American Mushrooms: A Guide to edible and inedible fungi – Orson K. Miller
  • Mycelium running: How Mushrooms can help save the world – Paul Stamets 


Respect nature
Leave no trace behind
Pick only what you need
Identify properly and with certainty
Be prepared; track your route, pack properly, bring a companion  
Do not pick where prohibited
Educate yourself
Sample new varieties in small amounts
Always cook your mushrooms
Share your bounty and your knowledge

There are risks to consuming wild mushrooms and it is recommended that they not be eaten raw.  If wild mushrooms are purchased, be sure that they come from a reliable source.  Should you suspect that you may have eaten a poisonous mushroom, take the following action:

  • Call your local hospital or physician immediately.
  • If possible, bring a sample of the mushroom that you have consumed to your doctor or hospital.
  • Contact a local mycologist that can definitely identify the mushroom that you have ingested.
  • Contact your local poison control center 800/222-1222

Happy hunting!

DJ and Emilie with reishi  O  TKY Mtn Summer 2014 059a