Foraging mushrooms, as the kids say, is having a moment. In some parts of the world, such as Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, picking wild mushrooms has been a popular tradition for generations. For some reason, modern American culture has never taken much of an interest in the practice. The general perception here is that wild mushrooms are extremely dangerous and not worth the risk.
Recently, though, a combination of pandemic-fueled soul searching and a flood of books and documentaries about mycology (the study of mushrooms), has interest in foraging on the rise. Wild mushrooms in particular are suddenly a sought-after prize for many people who aren’t used to harvesting wild foods. It’s something that I’ve always been interested in, and I have grown proficient at finding and foraging mushrooms. In fact, have added mushroom foraging to my guiding business. It has become a core part of my efforts—especially in the summer months when the hunting seasons are closed. Further, my foraging business has been steady even though I haven’t advertised it outside of my usual social-media activity.
Identifying 5 Edible and Widespread Mushrooms
One of the first things I discovered about mushrooms is that it doesn’t take a PhD to become a competent mushroom hunter. It’s true that you need to be very careful to avoid eating hazardous species, but a majority of the most common and choice edible mushrooms are pretty easy to identify with a modest amount of knowledge.
It wouldn’t take a ton of work for a guide to learn a few of the most-common choice species and then be competent enough to take clients on hunting adventures of a different sort.
Several species of edible mushrooms are downright foolproof. The top five in my book are morels, chanterelles, oysters, chicken of the woods, and hen of the woods. All five of these species are fantastic eating, and none of them have a deadly lookalike.
Morels are one of the rarest (and in my opinion the most delicious) of our edible wild mushrooms and are nearly impossible to get wrong. Their scarcity stems from their very short growing season (roughly three weeks in spring), inconsistent productivity, and need for a symbiotic relationship with living trees, making them impractical for cultivation. There is an upside to their dependence on living trees, though. The fungus that produced the mushrooms, which are fruiting bodies that can be thought of like the apples on a tree, will continue to live and produce morels for many years in the exact same spot.
The morel’s pitted surface and slightly phallic shape are unmistakably unique. The one toxic lookalike is the false morel, which only slightly resembles the true morel. If the forager has any doubt about identification, the two species are instantly distinguished by the fact that morels are hollow like a tube jig and false morels have a solid core. Morels can be found across the globe wherever conditions are right. In the US they mostly occur in the eastern half of the country, especially the Midwest, and in the northwest from Northern California up the coast to Canada and inland to the Montana Rockies.
Chanterelles share the morel’s need for tree partners, a dependence known as a mycorrhizal relationship, but they are much more reliable producers than morels with a season that can last for months. I have harvested as much as 60 pounds of big orange chants in a day. They require slightly more skill than morels to properly identify but are still pretty easy to sort out from the two toxic lookalikes, which are false chanterelles and jack-o-lanterns. These imposters have true gills and flesh which is not white, while chanterelles have only slight ridges called false gills and are white when cut open. Jack-o-lanterns also grow in large clusters on dead wood instead of coming up from the soil as singles or small groups.
Jacks are toxic enough to make you quite sick for a few days though, so beginners should take care to ensure correct identification.
Chanterelles are widely distributed around the world and can be found anywhere that the right conditions occur on every continent but Antarctica. In the northeastern US where I live, the chant-foraging season usually runs from mid-July to late September.
Oyster mushrooms are a prolific wood-rot fungus. Various subspecies can be found fruiting on dead and dying hardwoods year-round all around the globe. They’re most abundant in warm weather, but I have found many in fall and winter, including a large flush in my dad’s backyard in Tennessee on Christmas Day a few years ago. The fall and winter specimens are especially nice, because they don’t get rapidly infested with insects like those that grow in summer.
The ability to grow on dead wood in a range of environments has made them popular among gourmet-mushroom farmers. The oyster mushroom is one of the few known carnivorous mushrooms.
Most wild varieties have white or grayish-brown caps. The main distinguishing features are their presence in clusters on dead and dying hardwoods and their gills, which run down the stem. Oyster mushrooms benefit the forest by decomposing the dead wood and returning the elements and minerals to the ecosystem. There are a few toxic lookalikes to oyster mushrooms, but they lack stems entirely or have gills present only on the cap.
CHICKEN OF THE WOODS
Chicken of the woods is another wood-rot fungus with a long season, and it is easily identified and often extremely large. I have harvested as much as 30 pounds from a single tree. Its common name relates to the fact that its taste and texture are reminiscent of chicken meat. Chicken of the woods grows in large clusters of brightly colored orange and yellow shelves. The underside of the shelves, which can be either yellow or white, has a spongelike surface of yellow, round pores instead of gills. There is nothing in the woods that looks remotely like it. The only concern with this mushroom is that one variety grows on conifers and can make people sick when they eat it, so it’s best to avoid eating chicken of the woods that you find on a conifer.
All mushrooms tend to have the best flavor and texture when young, but chicken of the woods is especially vulnerable to age decline. If you find it after it's more than a few days old, it will often be tough and chalky.
I have had a hard time finding consistent information about the range of this mushroom, but it seems to be widely distributed in North America and Eurasia.
HEN OF THE WOODS
Hen of the woods, which is often sold as maitake, is a parasitic fungus that feeds on living hardwoods, fruits throughout the tree’s life, and continues to fruit for a while after the host dies. This ability to grow on dead wood makes it easy to farm. The wild version has a preference for oak, beech, and wild cherry trees.
The mushrooms grow each fall and always directly from the base of the host tree. Hens can be found growing in the same places year after year. They get their name from the fact that they resemble a hen gamebird. The top side, though, can sometimes be so pale it is nearly white. Similar to chicken of the woods, the hens do not have gills. The pore surface is always white or grayish in younger specimens and yellow or brown past its peak.
The only lookalike is the black staining polypore, which is edible when young but undesirable when old. The resemblance is enough to fool a trained eye at first glance, but the black staining polypore fruits in spring and summer, and the hen of the woods fruits only in cool fall weather, and there’s no fear of getting ill as a result of confusing them. The mushroom is rare in the western US but very common in the eastern half of the country.
Foraging as a Side Business
Heading into the woods in search of these gems is a lot of fun and has a much broader appeal than hunting with the general public. There’s no real data to compare the two, but my anecdotal experience using social media and promoting my business suggests that far more people are interested in learning to forage than learning to hunt. The main engine for interest in foraging that I observe is the desire to source top-quality local food from outside the system of mass agriculture. Steven Rinella has demonstrated for years that the culinary aspect of hunting is what has the most appeal to mainstream audiences, and the beginners who hire me to mentor them cite his show almost unanimously as a source of inspiration. This being the case, it seems likely that mushroom hunting can be a gateway to meat hunting.
I’m convinced that offering the opportunity for guided mushroom hunting would be beneficial to all outfitters. Many existing and aspiring foragers have an anti-hunting mindset, but most of the ones i’ve been around range from not opposed to curious to try hunting. Some already hunt, though I find a surprising lack of foraging interest among lifelong hunters. Whatever the breakdown may be, it seems like there is only an upside to adding mushroom foraging to an outfitter’s offerings. The upfront cost is practically nothing, and it has the potential to both generate off-season income and cultivate new hunters, the future of our industry, at the same time.
Fisher Neal is the creator of Learn to Hunt NYC, specializing in teaching raw beginners from around the area to hunt and forage on public land. Find him on Guidefitter @learntohuntnyc.