As nature awakens, so does our inner forager. Let’s talk about the species that we can safely forage during spring.
1. Morel mushrooms
Oh, the divine morels. There was no chance that I would start this list with any other mushrooms.
Morels are loved and thought-after by almost anyone who knows them for their unique tender, meaty flavor and earthy aroma.
Look for them in deciduous forests and on scorched earth in forests that burned down. They may be hard to find, but once you do, remember the location. Morels grow in the same place for many years. If you find such a place, keep it a secret to avoid competition.
Beware of mismatching them for a poisonous false morel. You can learn to tell them apart by the size of their folds. And if you want to be sure that you have a true morel, cut it in half – morels are hollow, and false morels are not.
Learn everything that you need about morels in this comprehensive guide.
2. Oyster mushrooms
You have probably seen these mushrooms sold in a store before. They are among the most popular cultivated mushrooms, but you can find them in the wild too!
With their characteristic shape that resembles a tongue, oyster mushrooms are quite unmistakable. A few oyster-like mushrooms are inedible, but they are a different color, and none of them grow in early spring.
Let’s go through all their identification signs anyway:
Their caps can be grey or brown or purple-grey. Stalks are often eccentric and slant, sometimes grow from the side. Oyster mushrooms have a characteristic sweet aroma with a hint of aniseed ranging from mild to strong.
If you have ever cooked an oyster mushroom before, you will be able to identify it in the wild just by that unique smell. And if you do, you will be rewarded by more than their delicacy.
Oyster mushrooms have several medicinal effects. They are used in supplements to boost immunity. They are also researched for their anticancer properties and ability to decrease cholesterol.
3. Chicken of the woods
Chicken of the woods is almost impossible to mismatch. It is a large orange polypore that grows in shelf-like groups. The lower side is yellow or white has many tiny pores that are almost invisible.
Chicken of the woods can grow for long months and becomes tough with age. Only cook the ones that you can cut through as easily as through butter. If you have problems cutting the flesh, the mushroom is too old and tough. Toss it.
No matter how much of the chicken you harvest, you should cook it within hours. It becomes inedible fast. If you have more than you can eat, you can freeze the cooked meal. It will keep for about half a year.
4. Scarlet elf cups
These cup-shaped beauties are among the first mushrooms to pop up in the spring. They are quite tough, and for that reason, some foragers consider them inedible. In my opinion, they are fine, and if you stuff them or place them atop a salad or omelet, you will impress absolutely any diner. (Try this simple omelet recipe or stuff them for a savory snack.)
Scarlet elf cups grow on decaying deciduous trees’ wood, especially around creeks and rivers. An expert mycophile has told me recently that they can often be found around railways. If they are interesting to you, read my post about them.
5. Pheasant backs
The second polypore mushroom on this list. It has scales on the top of the cap, tiny pores on the underside, and a cucumber aroma. You could only mistake it for its close relatives which are too tough to be eaten.
The first pheasant backs appear in April, and those are the ones that we want to forage the most, as they are soft and have a mushroomy watermelon flavor. Older specimens become too tough and leathery.
6. Wild enoki (velvet shanks)
Velvet shanks grow all winter, but you will find them in early spring too. They have a sweet meaty flavor and definitely worth looking for. You will find them od dead deciduous tree wood, often in huge clusters.
Like many popular mushrooms, enoki double as both great edible and medicinal mushrooms.
I have a whole guide to foraging wild enoki. Check it out to learn more about this exciting species.
7. Mica caps
If you are lucky to find these lovely little mushrooms, make sure you can cook them within an hour since harvesting them. A mica cap that is picked up or is too old will start autodigesting, turning into an inedible ink-like liquid. Toss the mushrooms if the gills start to turn black.
Cooking will stop the process of autodigestion entirely.
Despite their small size, mica caps are surprisingly fleshy. They also taste great, so they are definitely worthy of harvesting and hasting home to cook them before they turn black. The best use for them would be a soup or a sauce.
You may have heard that inkcaps don’t go well with alcohol. Indeed, some inkcap species have a compound called coprine, which, when combined with alcohol, can cause mild poisoning with severe symptoms. However, that is not the case with mica caps. They don’t have coprine in them.
Identification of a mica cap is quite easy. It has an oval, bell-shaped, or convex cap with centrical lines and, when young, tiny shiny particles that gave the mushroom its other common names: glistening inky cap and shiny cap. Sometimes, the center of the cap resembles a nipple.
While mica caps’ medicinal effects have not been described completely yet, we already know that they have antitumor, antioxidant, and antimicrobial effects.
8. Giant puffball mushrooms
There are no look-alikes for this gigantic mushroom; you could only mistake it for a soccer ball or a small sheep. It is so fleshy that a single mushroom can feed a family for days.
You will find them in pastures and lawns, often in the same place each year, so remember where you found them. There may be many pounds of food waiting for you there again.
You might also encounter other puffball species in the spring. Check out my guide to puffballs to learn everything about them that you might need to know.
9. Wood ear mushrooms
These atypical mushrooms grow all year, but spring thawing is one of their favorite times. Look for them on dead elder wood around creeks and rivers.
They have a crunchy texture and take on the flavor of the meal in which you cook them. If you haven’t tried them yet, trust me: they are definitely worth looking for this spring!
I dedicated a whole guide to wood ear mushrooms foraging and their medicinal effects.
10. Birch polypore
The third polypore on this list is edible only when very young, but it is medicinal, and you can use it to make great mushroom tea. It is a great mushroom for beginners. There is no way to mismatch it as it is unique in look and only grows on birch trees.
This guide has all you need to know about the foraging, cooking, and birch polypore effects.
Late spring mushrooms
As spring nears its end, the first summer mushrooms start to pop up, but sometimes you may find them as early as April.
The first such mushroom that I usually encounter is the white parasol. Porcini are a close second. However, the first porcini tend to be wormy and only caps of the youngest ones tend to be healthy enough to cook. Still, after a mushroom lover had to survive the winter on dried mushrooms, pickled mushrooms, and enoki, even a piece of fresh porcino is a great treat.
Avoid frozen morels
One perk of spring foraging is that the winter can strike back and freeze your mushrooms. While enoki, wood ears, oyster mushrooms, and birch polypore handle mild frost well, morels die if frozen. A mushroom that froze and unfroze can rot and cause food poisoning.
Read more about this in the post Will frost kill morels?
Don’t underestimate mushroom identification
Make sure that you identify all the mushrooms that you harvest properly. Most spring mushrooms are very safe to forage because they have few if any dangerous look-alikes. But without care, it is possible to mismatch anything for everything.
Most people are afraid to forage mushrooms, but in reality, mushroom identification is quite simple if you think about it. A cup-like mushroom that isn’t scarlet color simply isn’t a scarlet elf-cup, a scaly mushroom with gills definitely isn’t a dryad’s saddle, etc.
I believe that the only realistically possible mismatch of a spring mushroom is the false morel.
If you aren’t 100% sure about a mushroom ID, you can ask an expert about it. Or just toss it – there are many more mushrooms out there, and you will only get to them if you forage safely.
Spring mushrooms of the subtropical belt
Note that the above list is for the northern temporal zone. If you live in the south, you will be able to find other popular mushrooms as well.
In the subtropical belt, spring mushrooms include hen of the woods, black trumpets, fairy ring mushrooms, chicken of the woods, porcini, puffballs, shaggy manes, and mica caps.
As soon as there is a week or two of temperatures above freezing in early spring, I get out to seek morels and other early mushrooms. And you should too. With the knowledge of where they grow, sharp eyes, and a bit of luck, you are bound to bring home a bounty of tasty treats.