Adventures in Foraging: Mushrooms, Fiddlehead Ferns, Snakes, and Psychedelic Surprises

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I'm a couple months into my first Spring season of foraging for mushrooms and other wild edibles. I'm still alive and I'm not on a liver transplant waiting list so I figure I'm off to a good start. I've dabbled in foraging for wild mushrooms for the past two years and I've mostly been learning and observing, but this is the first year I've made a concerted effort to harvest and eat what I find. Go here for past posts about foraging. I'll offer some of what I'm learning in this post, but first please note that you should only harvest and eat wild edibles that you personally know are safe to eat. This is especially true when it comes to mushrooms. It's the responsibility of anyone who harvests wild mushrooms to use a reliable field guide to determine the variety. My rule of thumb is to always go out with people that have far more experience than I do and learn from them. As they say, when in doubt throw it out. The pictures on this blog are not intended to help you I.D. mushrooms in the field.

Here is some of what I'm learning:

Wild mushrooms have a bad rap: My go-to guide for mushrooms (All That the Rain Promises and More, which is the best all-around guide I've found) points out that Americans inherited our mushroom phobia from the Brits. The guide says that we would do well to learn from European and Asian cultures that see harvesting wild mushrooms as something akin to picking wild huckleberries, and I have to agree. Granted, huckleberries can't kill you if you pluck the wrong variety, but I've learned that the most coveted mushrooms are easy to identify once you know what to look for. For example, in my opinion so-called false morels look nothing like real morels. I think a fair comparison on the risk spectrum is with canning vegetables. If you are reckless with your canning practices and don't follow scientifically proven recipes you have the potential to kill off the whole family, but I rarely find someone who approaches a jar of homemade pickles in the fridge with the trepidation with which they approach wild mushrooms. Rhubarb leaves are poisonous and yet most of us have some growing in the back yard. We don't warn the children to not touch the rhubarb every time they wander into the garden.

image from www.morelmushroom.info One advantage European and Asian cultures have over us is that people grow up learning to distinguish the varieties so they are less likely to make mistakes in identifying. Our lack of a foraging food culture makes our mushroom phobia a self-fulfilling prophecy where our fears keep us from knowledge, therefore making our efforts to harvest more dangerous. For example, there have been a rash of poisonings in the Detroit area (10 incidences) from people eating "early morels" which are the variety more likely to be mistaken for a real morel. (Early morels, pictured to the right, have a cap that is unattached at the botton to the stem.)

The West Virginia poison control center has gone as far as to say, "The (WVPC) advises against picking and eating any wild mushrooms. If you or someone you know has consumed a wild mushroom, the ingestion should be reported immediately to the Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222." I guess you can report my recent ingestions if you want. I'm assuming that's a typo but it is informative of our fears. Instead of encouraging knowledge and wise practices in the way we engage our natural environment, we are told that nature is dangerous and we should stay away. 

Unlike the rare occurrence of mushroom poisonings, recent outbreaks of e. coli poisoning in Germany have killed dozens. Should we issue blanket warnings advising against the consumption of cucumbers which are the likely culprit? 

Mushroom hunting is fun for kids: I've gotten in the habit of taking the girls with me on outings and they love it. In case you're thinking of reporting me to Child Protective Services I make sure to tell them repeatedly that they are never to eat a mushroom without my supervision. It is a good excuse to take the kids out in the woods and hike and explore. It's a healthy way to encourage a love of nature instead of a fear of nature. I wonder if our forboding warnings about things like mushrooms are part of what contributes to our children's "nature-deficit disorder?" 

Morels and porcini are the best to eat and easiest to identify: If you want to keep mushroom hunting in the Northwest simple I would recommend focusing your efforts on looking for porcini (boletes) and morels. These are both easy to identify, once you know what you're looking for, and they are the best to eat. I recommend buttery garlicy pasta for morels and I really like the porcini in brothy soups like Tom Yum Goong (spicy Thai soup). Morels can be found in any wooded and wild area so I find they just take walking a lot of miles in the woods. Kind of like a door-to-door salesman who is told to play the percentages - if he knocks on enough doors he will get sales - the more miles you walk in the woods the more morels you will find.

Porcini on the other hand are more reliably targeted. Their mycelium have a symbiotic relationship with the roots of certain trees, actually wrapping themselves around the roots. These mycelium are long-lasting and will reliably send up mushrooms year after year in the same place with some variation in the volume of mushrooms depending on the weather. Porcini's don't have gills on the underside of the cap, but rather a sponge-like layer, so you don't need to worry about confusing a porcini with the most poisonous varieties which are gilled, although some mushrooms with sponge under the cap are poisonous. You'll have to do you're own work learning to identify, but one helpful thing to remember is that the best varieties of porcini don't have a slimy layer on the cap. The Slippery Jacks, as they are called, are seemingly everywhere, but the prized king and queen boletes are harder to find. 

Puffballs and fiddlehead ferns not so desirable: The ferns are tasty but it is a lot of work removing the brown, inedible scales. Lily and I came into a bunch of puffball mushrooms recently, but their texture, at least in the soup we prepped them in, was not desirable. Kind of like eating a puss-filled grape. 

Don't eat any wild mushrooms raw: A good rule of thumb is to always thoroughly cook your mushrooms.

Don't get so preoccupied looking for mushrooms that you miss seeing the big snake laying on the trail: A couple weeks ago at Liberty Lake I was so intent on finding mushrooms off the side of the trail that I nearly stepped on a four foot long snake that was draped across the trail right in front of me. I guess I'll have to get a guide book for snakes too. Next year you can expect a post about how snakes have a bad rap, and the vast majority are not poisonous.

Even if you don't like to eat mushrooms, learning to ID them is worthwhile and rewarding: Think of it like bird watching for fungus lovers. I now can identify the psychedelic varieties of mushrooms and I'm surprised at how prevalent they are. I would never ingest them but there is something fun about being able to ID them.