Would you like to become a mushroom forager? To know where wild mushrooms grow and which ones are edible? Let’s examine the process of learning it.
How to become a mushroom forager
You need to learn mushrooms from the most recognizable safest ones, build your mushrooming portfolio, consult a field guide and mushroom experts to confirm your mushroom IDs. A basket and a knife are must-haves. Be patient, study, and practice. You have to put in the hours.
And now, let’s go through it more thoroughly.
What mushroom foragers do
An advanced or expert mushroom forager knows the seasons of the most delicious mushrooms and where to find them, how to recognize them with 100% certainty, how to cook and preserve them. They can also forage inedible medicinal mushrooms to use in teas or tinctures.
Advantages of mushroom foraging
With the ability to obtain free nutritious food at any time of the year (indeed, you can forage mushrooms even during winter), mushroom foraging is a very useful hobby. Since it mostly involves forest walks, it is also quite healthy.
And, since foraging was probably the main source of food for early humans, we are all genetically programmed to feel thrilled when we find a delicious mushroom. Indeed, in terms of satisfaction, mushroom foraging is very similar to hunting and fishing.
Is mushroom foraging dangerous?
According to the National Poison Data system, there were 5700 people poisoned in 2019, resulting in just 2 deaths. You can make foraging 100% safe by never eating any mushroom that you are unsure about and only consume properly identified edibles, there is no way to poison yourself.
Read more about the topic in my other post This is how you forage mushrooms safely.
How long does it take to become a mushroom forager?
Learning the most significant species for various seasons will usually take about 2 years, provided that you can put in the hours. During the first year, you will learn to recognize the most significant species of each season. During the second year, you will reinforce the knowledge use it more practically.
But you don’t have to stop there. Studying mushrooms can become an everlasting journey. Even the top mycologists (mushroom scientists) always have more knowledge to discover; so deep is the world of mushrooms.
After decades of practical foraging, I consider myself an advanced forager at best. So large is the world of mushrooms.
How to start learning mushrooms
As a beginner, you will be leaving many edible mushrooms behind. Don’t worry about it; you will learn to recognize many of them later. In fact, you can take photos of them for now and have them identified.
Start learning mushrooms from the most recognizable ones that are also the safest to forage because they have no poisonous look-alikes. I always recommend starting with puffballs, chicken of the woods, wood ear, and morels, all of which have a unique look and are super-hard to mismatch.
From there, you can move on to porcini and chanterelle, which are just slightly harder to identify. Once you master these few species, you will already have enough knowledge to move on to the intermediate mushrooms and expand your foraging portfolio.
Put in the hours
There are thousands of mushrooms that you will encounter, and you could forage hundreds of those for food. To learn at least a few dozen of them, you will need time. Read mushroom guides and mushrooming blogs. Spend time in mushroom identification groups and forums.
You will find Facebook mycology groups where experts identify mushrooms as especially useful. Look for the large one that is relevant to your area. In fact, find and join it right now. I’ll wait.
In mushroom identification groups, people post ID requests, and mycologists help them. Thanks to this, you see what edible species are in season, how they can look at various conditions, and what look-alikes they have. But the main benefit of joining such a group is that you can have your own mushrooms identified.
I am willing to help identify some mushrooms myself, as long as I have the capacity. Being a practical forager, I know most mushrooms that you might need to identify. Send them to me via email or on Instagram, and I’ll usually reply quite fast.
Practice, practice, practice
Once you have a good idea of what mushrooms you might be looking for and in what areas, go to the forest and look for them. Make sure to confirm your IDs with an expert. Do this again and again, and in time you will be able to identify those mushroom species with 100% certainty. Once you are, move on to the next species.
I guarantee that you will learn several dozen species during the year if you do this every season as much as possible. And next year, you will always know a dozen or more mushrooms that are in season.
With experience, you will also learn a lot of useful information that would be overwhelming to you as a novice. All the possible smells, textures, ways that gills connect to the stalk… That’s not stuff that you could memorize or understand in a day or a week, but as bonus knowledge in a year-long practical mushrooming class, this knowledge is easily absorbable.
Stuff you will need for mushroom foraging
1. A basket or an airy bag
A basket is the best solution to the challenges of mushroom transportation. The wicker walls allow air access, which is key because, without air access, the mushrooms could go putrid and cause food poisoning. Also, a basket is more gentle to fragile mushrooms that tend to break.
The best baskets for foraging are shallow and wide because they ensure that the mushrooms don’t pressure each other and have the most air.
2. A knife
A knife is an important tool for the mushroom forager. To identify mushrooms, you often need to cut them in half. Also, as mushrooms grow from the soil, you will often need to clean them. With a knife, you can cut off or scratch off the dirt. Special foraging knives with a brush make cleaning even easier.
Sometimes it happens that I forget, lose, or can’t find my forager knife. In that case, any pocket knife or even a small kitchen knife will suffice. If you have a knife that you can’t close, you can put it in your basket. For safety, make sure that it can’t pass through the wicker walls and harm you or anyone else.
If you do use a knife without a brush, consider taking a brush with you as well. It is not necessary, but very practical. Once you come home from mushroom hunting and find soil on mushrooms that were clean when you pocked them up but got dirty from other ones, you will see why.
3. A mushroom guide
With the rise of internet mushroom guides, you may no longer need a book to study various mushroom species. You would still benefit from a specialized one that focuses on your concrete region. However, if you don’t want to buy it or until you do, a smartphone with internet access will suffice for a time.
A paper mushroom guide book has several advantages:
- It shows the families and relations of mushrooms much better, allowing you to learn faster and understand the mushroom world better than many long-term foragers.
- There are many myths about mushrooms out there, and the internet is full of them. Mushroom guides are scientific, written by no-nonsense mycology experts who don’t repeat stuff they heard from friends. Using a mushroom guide, you will avoid a lot of useless, or even harmful, nonsense.
- It is easier to fall in love with a paper book with a lot of pictures than with an online database. And loving the medium will help you focus, enjoy the learning process, and put in the hours.
4. A camera
To check your findings with experts online, you will need quality photos of both the top and the bottom of the mushroom. Blurred photos will often not suffice; if you use a DLSR camera, increase the depth of field to focus on the whole mushroom.
If you can’t take a good photo of the mushroom as a whole, then take several detailed photos of the mushroom. The most important factors for identification that you should take pictures of are:
- Center of the cap.
- The rim of the cap.
- Center of the cap’s underside.
- Ring, if any.
- Texture and shape of the stalk.
5. Proper outdoor clothing
Mushrooms often grow in wet weather and less accessible areas. Dress appropriately; consider that you might need to pass through wet grass, thickets of conifers, or thorns. Waterproof shoes and long pants are a necessity.
6. Patience and common sense
Patience is needed for both learning to forage and foraging itself. You may go mushroom hunting and come back with little to nothing. Other times, you might not find anything for an hour and then encounter a field of amazing edible mushrooms. In many ways, foraging is like fishing.
You will also need to be exceptionally careful with identification. Never eat (or cook, give away, etc.) any mushrooms you aren’t 100% sure about! When you learn new species, always confirm that you have the right mushroom with an expert or someone who has been foraging that species already.
There is a lot more to foraging safety. Continue with the process of learning how to become a mushroom forager with this post: This is how you forage mushrooms safely.
Should you use mushroom identification apps?
There are several mushroom identification apps in the app stores. Beginner foragers often ask me if they should use those. I have tested a couple, including one from Google, and the answer is:
No. They may be able to correctly identify a mushroom at times and point you in the right direction in others, but there will be cases when the app is downright misleading. The technology is nowhere near being able to recognize mushroom species with a 100% reliability that we would need to use them.
The legality of mushroom foraging
Depending on your state, mushroom foraging may be unregulated, restricted, or prohibited (that’s rare though). Many states prohibit or limit just commercial foraging, and hunting mushrooms for personal use, usually recognized by the amount of mushrooms foraged, is legal.
It is best that you check your state and local regulations to find out if you need a permit and where to get it.
I hope this helped. Enjoy your journey to becoming a forager. You can do it.