Foraging for food in the wild can prove bountiful and sustainable, however one must always be cautious in identifying what may be safe for human consumption or toxic. In the kingdom of fungi, take nothing for granted; while the majority of mushrooms are safe and satisfying to eat, many poisonous imitators can appear similar to their harmless counterparts.
Mushrooms are the fruit part of a fungus, not necessarily the whole thing. They generally grow at certain times of the year or after rainfall, above or underground, and their purpose is to distribute spores. Unless you know how to track down underground mushrooms, above-ground mushrooms usually contain four parts:
- The Cap (umbrella or ball-shaped dome at the top of the mushroom).
- Gills, spines or tubes are the parts which release spores, located on the underside of the cap.
- The Stalk is the stem/trunk of the mushroom, which holds up the cap.
- The root of the mushroom is the Mycelium, which could be smaller than the mushroom itself or larger than you.
When it comes to identifying mushrooms that you can eat, you must first consider that mushrooms vary greatly from region to region, and that mushrooms in one part of the world that are safe to eat may greatly resemble mushrooms from another part of the world that are in fact dangerous. Even if only 10% of wild mushrooms prove toxic to humans, one should never chance the odds. There are many genus varieties of fungi that contain both safe and toxic examples. The very best thing you can do is to consult a regional foraging or mushroom guide, or find an expert. Even then consider that foragers including experts get poisoned by mushrooms all the time, and you only have to make an incorrect assumption once.
The adverse effects of toxic mushrooms can include anything from extreme sickness to organ failure, psychoactive hallucinations, neurological damage, death and even cancer. Sometimes the best case scenario after surviving the consumption of poisonous mushrooms can be requiring a liver transplant, so this is just not something to mess around with.
As mentioned, a regional field guide to mushrooms will prove invaluable if you find yourself in a position searching for wild mushrooms in order to survive or even for recreational purposes. These manuals contain detailed information about the varieties of safe and unsafe mushrooms, and how to tell them apart.
If you find yourself in a situation where you need to eat and mushrooms are the only things you seem to be finding, we can provide you with a few basic rules of thumb that may save your life if you can’t get your hands on a regional guide to fungi.
- If you are not 100% certain that you are able to identify a mushroom as edible, don’t eat it.
- Don’t pig out. Even if you feel certain that you have identified a safe mushroom, only eat a small amount in case it contains toxins. It could mean the difference between being sick and being dead.
- Never assume that a mushroom is safe for human consumption just because you have seen animals eat it. Many animals have toxic resistances which we may not share.
- For the same reason mentioned in the previous point (as well as for ethical reasons) do not feed mushrooms to other animals in order to ascertain whether or not they are toxic for consumption.
- Don’t be afraid to touch mushrooms with your hands, even if they are toxic; poisonous fungi are only harmful to people when consumed.
- Be very careful if you are foraging for mushrooms with a pet dog; toxic mushrooms statistically kill more of man’s best friend than man himself.
- While some poisonous mushrooms can be made safe for consumption through preparation and processing, never assume that cooking fungi will be sufficient in neutralizing toxins if you don’t know 100% what you are dealing with.
- Learn to identify lookalikes in your area; many safe mushrooms will have a harmful twin lurking nearby.
- Never consume mushrooms that have grown near pollution or industry in general. Fungi are adept at absorbing foreign toxins, heavy metals and other harmful contaminants.
Learn to take a spore print; cut off the cap (top) of a mushroom and place it on a sheet of paper (gills down) for at least three hours (best to wait a full day). When you lift the cap off of the surface you will notice that it has left behind a powder of spores; the color and consistency of which can be measured and referenced in a guide to determine what fungus you are dealing with. One of the most common ways to determine the difference between an edible mushroom and an impostor mushroom can be the difference in spore print color.
There are literally thousands of varieties of fungi, but of those there are four distinct mushrooms which are universally toxin-free, which is why they are referred to as the foolproof four. That being said there are also a few varieties, as well as features, which are nearly always poisonous with the exception of a few (sometimes delicious) examples which are safe for consumption.
The Foolproof Four
Of all mushroom varieties, four stand apart as being unique safe to eat; Chanterelle, Morel, Maitake (Hen of the Woods) and Puffball. With the exception of only a couple of lookalikes (Morels have False Morels, Chanterelles have Jack O’ Lanterns), these four types of mushroom are the kind that you can pig out on to your heart’s desire.
Morel mushrooms are characterized by their brown, wavy, honeycomb caps which have holes and gaps throughout. They can resemble a bit of a brain with folds, but so long as these folds are actual gaps and not like a shriveled bag in appearance; you got yourself a morel (otherwise a false morel). There are no noticeable gills and the cap is round and often oval in shape, protruding upwards. They are found in damp places and often in soil or fallen leaves. Expect to find morels around springtime and look for them to be anywhere from 1 to 12 inches tall.
Chanterelle mushrooms are orange and yellow in color. They have irregular wavy, curly edged caps which form a bit of a cup or trumpet shape. Their gills can be smooth or wrinkled, also orange or yellow in color, and they leave a yellow spore print. If the mushroom appears similar to a Chanterelle in color and shape, but has jagged gills, it is a poisonous Jack O’ Lantern. If you aren’t sure whether the gills are jagged or not, don’t risk it. Chanterelles are found on the surface floor between autumn and early spring.
Puffball mushrooms are hard to miss; they are big, puffy white-to-brownish balls. Round or slightly oblong, they do not have a stalk and just sit on the ground growing up to 12 inches in diameter. Spores can be found in sacks inside, and the skin is thick and textured. So long as you don’t mistake it for a young parasol mushroom (before it blooms), there simply aren’t any other fungi like it that will harm you. If it has turned green or yellow in color, it might give you an upset stomach, and cut it open before cooking to inspect for parasites and again to ensure it is not a young parasol containing a stalk. If it truly is a big, puffy ball; you can totally eat it. Puffballs tend to grow anywhere from grassy lawns to fields and hills, but they really enjoy a good decaying log. Expect to see them in the later parts of summer and throughout the autumn.
The mushroom known as “Maitake” in Asia and “Hen of the Woods” in the west, looks like a group of stacked, overlapped, wrinkled shelves that grows on trees. If you use your imagination, it looks like a flustered chicken with brown, orange or yellow ruffled feathers, and this is where the western name comes from. The stalk is barely noticeable in that it simply connects the mushroom to the wood of the tree, and it has a white spore print from small yellow pores/gills. Maitakes are damp and rubbery when fresh, while hard and woody with lighter color when old. They can be enormous; reaching diameters beyond 20 inches and weights in excess of 100lbs. If you encounter a giant Hen of the Woods, just break off what you need. Expect to see this variety between summer and autumn, and remember that it has no dangerous lookalikes, so enjoy!
What to Avoid
Just as important as identifying safe mushrooms is the ability to identify poisonous mushrooms and what not to do with wild mushrooms in general. Avoid any mushroom with a parasol cap, or a skirt (annulus) beneath the cap on the stalk. White gills or a bulbous volva (bulb at base of the stalk) are also common danger signs of deadly Amanita mushrooms, like the Death Cap. Also avoid red coloration on the cap or stalk. By drawing a line in the sand and refraining from foraging mushrooms with any of the aforementioned qualities, you will be missing out on some excellent varieties but most importantly you won’t be picking any that will severely harm you.
Try to avoid eating wild mushrooms in the raw. They are often difficult for us to digest properly and some need to be cooked regardless in order to neutralize mild toxins. Mushrooms can be prepared in a variety of ways, and mushroom recipe books can be as common as identification guides. Absolutely avoid eating old mushrooms, rotting mushrooms or mushrooms that appear to have been partially eaten already by insects (or anything else for that matter).
If you are going to be picking wild mushrooms for consumption, make sure they are whole, firm and fresh. Mushrooms can also be dried and preserved using other methods such as canning. We can teach you about preserving mushrooms here, and introduce you to cultivating mushrooms as well in case you come across a safe, edible species that you thoroughly enjoy.
Finally, some regions have laws which prohibit or regulate the foraging of wild mushrooms. Make sure that if you are not breaking any rules by picking up any mushrooms.