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The joys of mushroom foraging for beginners

By Anna Herber

When you become interested in ecosystems, wildlife, and everything natural around you – mushroom foraging is a very exciting way to eat from the ground for free. If you proceed with respect and caution, and take time to research advice from the experts – mushroom foraging rapidly helps you develop your knowledge of nature, and enjoy some tasty fungal home cooking. 

WARNING: the number 1 rule of mushroom picking and eating is:

“If in doubt, leave it out”.

NEVER eat a mushroom you cannot identify with 100% certainty. It’s really not worth toxic poisoning – or even death – eating a mushroom you are not absolutely sure about. There are a lot of different ways you can positively identify a mushroom – and also some methods that I’ll go into in this article so you can develop your mushroom identifying skills. There are also a wealth of books, nature walks and mushroom experts to learn from – so you can boost your mushroom identification methods and enjoy the thrill of foraging.

In the autumn of 2019 I become enamoured with the very basics of mycology, and count myself now as a beginner mushroom forager. This blog piece is about giving yourself access to mushroom foraging in a way that’s safe and respectful to nature. 

The first mushrooms I ever picked and ate were in September in the Peak District. With the support and encouragement of my outdoor expert friend, we picked amethyst deceivers, common funnels, yellow russulas and even a few porcinis. 

As a city dweller on a journey towards getting back to the land, connection to nature and learning about ecosystems – I’d never even thought it possible that I would ever be able to pick mushrooms off the forest floor and put them in a delicious risotto later at home. The level of wonder I felt about nature’s bounty had me in a state of giddy excitement, skipping through beech trees looking for the next crop of vivid purple Amethysts.

There’s an old Czech saying roughly translated as “every mushroom is edible, but some only once”. Of course, caution and respect for your own health is always advised – but there is something of an intense fear around mushroom hunting in UK culture that is a bit infantilising and disempowering. If you always follow the rule of being 100% sure that you know what you’re eating, then the risk of accidentally eating the wrong mushroom and being sick or worse is very low. There are over 15’000 species of wild mushroom in the UK – only a few hundred of these are toxic. Many are edible, and some are even delicious.

There are so many skills essential to restoring ecosystems and deepening connection to nature that ask us to use our common sense, to learn from experts, and to have a sense of initiative and adventure. Mushroom foraging is certainly one of these skills, and personally I’ve found it very empowering to learn the safety basics from others and then develop my own knowledge. If you take responsibility for doing the research and trust your instincts, it’s very much possible to develop a sense of independence and a true passion for these fascinating organisms. 

Here are my top tips for beginner mushroom hunters hoping to make a foraging expedition of their own soon:

1. When in the forest…. Look down

The forest simply becomes a different place when you start looking down on your walks, and notice the life springing up from the mycelium underneath the forest floor. We spot dozens of mushroom species even on non-foraging walks that I wouldn’t have noticed before. Getting in the habit of noticing the mushroom life around you is such a potent way of building your knowledge of ecosystems and the way everything grows together.

2. Beech and birch trees are your friends

Mushrooms seem to absolutely adore growing near beech and birch trees, especially on damp hillsides covered in mulchy leaves. They also love growing in piles of dead wood on the forest floor. 

3. Head out with an expert

People who know about mushrooms love to share their knowledge – and I’d always recommend being out in nature with an expert first to show you the identification procedure in person. Find out if you have any friends (or friends of friends) who are something of a mushroom expert – or join a local mushroom hunter tour. These organised tours can be found in many countryside places and protected forests – you’ll learn a lot from an expert and be pretty much guaranteed to find some mushrooms you can eat at home.

4. Take a book with you, double check it with an app

These books have been recommended to me, although they’re not perfect and you should always double check across multiple sources:

Fungi Forays https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/15956792-fungi-forays

Food For Free https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1421964.Food_for_Free

I used an app called Mushroom ID to triple check what I was picking when I was foraging alone for the first time. It’s an AI-supported database, and it gives you a percentage metric of how certain it is. I used it to just 100% verify that I’d found common puffballs. Again you need to use your common sense and not just rely on an app. You can use this app for a 3 day free trial, then it’s £36.99 for a year. 

5. Be aware of lookalikes

The most dangerous part about mushroom hunting is the lookalike mushrooms. If you use your book/internet to research the lookalike mushrooms related to the mushroom you’re hoping you’ve found, then you’ll find the distinguishing features – and in most cases be able to tell the lookalikes apart. Some lookalikes are incredibly similar and take a real expert to be able to identify them, which is why you should start with beginner mushrooms and leave the trickier ones to the mycology experts. 

6. Take a cloth bag and scissors/knife

A cloth bag is pretty nice for mushrooms, it keeps them aerated. Daniel Butler of ‘Fungi Forays’ recommends snipping them off at the stem with scissors or a sharp knife, as it avoids getting mycelium and forest floor all in your mushrooms that you’ll have to clean off later. You can also just pull them out carefully – I try to leave the mycelium behind at the bottom for future growth, and so it doesn’t get stuck in the gills of the mushrooms you’ve already picked.

7. Fill your boots but don’t be greedy

When you find a species that’s safe to forage and take home, they are usually plentiful. You can take enough home to cook without decimating the forest floor – there have been problems with commercial gangs of mushroom hunters picking the forest floors clean, so you don’t want to add to that.

8. Say thanks to nature

It’s a wonderful habit to be grateful to nature for everything provided to use, and demonstrate gratitude for what you get to take home and eat. It’s also a nice way to really soak up your time in the forest or out in nature.

Easy & safe mushrooms to start off with

These are the mushrooms I started off with that I feel 100% confident about picking and eating by myself. 

Amethyst Deceivers

We found these vivid, intensely purple mushrooms growing in Stanage Edge in the Peak District. They’re a great beginner mushroom, as no other mushrooms look this purple at all. They taste pretty decent but not outstanding. They grow under beech trees.

Common Puffball 

I absolutely love these rotund meaty little mushrooms. These were the first mushrooms I felt confident identifying and picking when I was alone in a forest. They look exactly like a ‘puffball’ – just check the inside and check it’s all white flesh. There is a lookalike mushroom that is toxic called an ‘earth ball’ – they are black on the inside so it’s easy to check if you just open them up. 

You also want to pick these when they’re white on top – if they have black nips on top like in this picture they might be ready to spore and be filled with black gunk. Give them a firm tap on top to check before picking. I found hundreds of these in Epping Forest in October.

Giant puffballs are also easy to identify (they grow on fields) and apparently if you find one you’ll be eating it over the course of several meals!

Porcini/King Bolete

Porcinis are kind of a big deal – they’re extremely tasty with a gourmet flavour. Also known as Ceps or Penny Buns. Check these ones carefully for maggots before eating – if you’re lucky enough to find any. Younger and smaller specimens are less likely to have been infiltrated. Keep a look out in autumn.

Other beginner mushrooms to look into: chanterelles, oyster mushrooms, beefsteak fungus, wood ears, morels. 

Helpful links:

Acquaint yourself with mushroom biology and lingo here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mushroom_hunting

https://www.wildfooduk.com/mushroom-guide/

https://www.wildfooduk.com/articles/wild-mushrooms-for-beginners/

If you’re interested in extending your foraging knowledge, the Woodland Trust have a great month-by-month foraging article here.

https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/things-to-do/foraging/

Please comment below with your mushroom finds and foraging tips! More people than ever are getting back to nature and reclaiming their knowledge of ecosystems.

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