Mushroom hunting

From Academic Kids

Mushroom hunting (or mushrooming) is the activity of searching for mushrooms in the wild, typically for consumption.

Some mushroom hunters often view it as a sport — one in which the mushrooms may actually have a chance of "winning" if the person eating does a poor job of species identification. However, picking mushrooms and eating them is a safe occupation, provided one knows the toxic types and stays with the most common edible species.

There are literally thousands of species of mushrooms that are regularly consumed by mushroom hunters. The king bolete is a popular delicacy. Sulphur shelf is often gathered because it occurs in bulk, recurs year after year, and has a wide variety of culinary uses. Chanterelles and morels are among the most popular types of mushrooms to gather, the latter being fairly hard to misidentify by anyone with practice. Only experts, however, collect from dangerous groups, such as Amanita, which include some of the most toxic mushrooms in existence.

Identification isn't the only element of mushroom hunting that takes practice — knowing where to search does as well. Most mushroom species are quite selective as to where they grow. Some will only grow at the base of a certain type of tree, for example. Finding a desired species that is known to grow in a certain region can be a challenge.

Contents

Safety Rules

A variety of safety rules for mushroom hunting exist. Listed here are some of the most common in order of importance, from greatest to least:

  1. Never consume a mushroom for which a positive identification to species has not been made (see Mushroom poisoning).
  2. Never try to convince anyone else to eat a mushroom that you have identified.
  3. Do not believe in phony general rules, such as: It's edible if it discolors when cut, or: if it doesn't stain a silver spoon, or anything similar. Species identification is a must.
  4. An identification should be made with no less than size, color, gill connectivity, environment, a cross section, bruising color, odor, and a spore print.
  5. In no case should you eat a mushroom when something about the mushroom contradicts available information about what one suspects the mushroom is.
  6. Always attempt to use multiple sources for identification.
  7. Be able tell what distinguishes this mushroom from its closest sister species
  8. Learn what the Death Cap and the Destroying Angels look like in all stages of their development; those kinds cause the majority of deadly poisonings. Other species can make you severely ill but often do not kill.
  9. Until you can be considered an expert, stay away from all difficult to identify groups, such as amanita, cortinarius, and LBMs (Little Brown Mushrooms).
  10. Always identify each specimen during preparation. Deaths due to an inexperienced collector gathering a button-stage amanita in with edible mushrooms have occurred.
  11. Novices should start with more easily identifiable and less dangerous groups, such as boletes and bracket fungi, completely avoiding standard agarics.
  12. Be careful to use information relevant to your area. Some mushrooms that are safe in Europe, for example, have deadly lookalikes in North America.
  13. Only consume a small amount of the mushroom the first time. Certain types of popular mushrooms, such as Sulphur shelf, cause an allergic reaction in about half of the people who eat them. Some species, such as Paxillus involutus, can be eaten several times without ill effect and then cause severe distress when consumed again. Your first taste should be just a taste (to see if you actually care for it), and your second should be about a teaspoon full. Space tastings far apart - poisoning from the highly deadly destroying angel doesn't even produce symptoms until ten hours after consumption and can take over a week to kill its victim. You can "taste" any mushroom without poisoning yourself if you spit it out — and rinse your mouth afterwards; do not swallow until all the steps above are followed.
  14. Do not mix known edibles with other species while gathering. Keep them in separate containers.
  15. Do not allow young children to gather mushrooms for consumption. If they hunt with you, keep any mushrooms they find separate and identify them yourself. As always, if in doubt, throw it out.

Guidelines

Hunting mushrooms is a fascinating pastime, requiring sharp eyes and a keen mind. There are many thousands of species, all unique, each beautiful in its own way. It is usual for a particular fungus to produce a visible fruiting body only under a precise combination of conditions, including geographic location, elevation, temperature, humidity, light level, and surrounding flora, so you may only see a particular species very rarely -- similar to bird-watching. Unlike bird-watching, however, when you find a choice edible you can gather it and make dinner with it, knowing that its mycelium lives on and will produce another crop next season. Gathering wild mushrooms is similar to berry-picking in this way.

If at all feasible, your first few forays into the forest should be with a knowledgeable and experienced mushroom hunter. Check for a mycological society in your area; while its members may not be generous with information about their favorite spots, they commonly offer classes and field trips with trained mycologists on hand who can identify the fungi you collect. There is no substitute for examining many different types of fungi and observing their differences, in order to develop your own skills in identification. Also, acquire a mushroom identification book with color pictures and a key to identifying specific species, and take it with you to the field.

When collecting a species for identification, gather more than one specimen and take the entire fruiting body, including the base and even some of the surrounding material or substrate. This will enhance your ability to make a positive identification. Some things to note: shape, color, size, odor, presence and layout of gills or tubes under the cap; differences between immature vs. mature specimens, surface features, interior features when cut, and changes in response to cutting or bruising. Some species can only be positively identified with a spore print, chemical tests, and/or microscopic examination of the spores.

Learn to recognize one or a few species that are common in your area, and be absolutely certain of your identification. The first few times you collect a species that is new to you, resist the urge to collect and eat it in quantity. Instead, gather a few representative specimens, carry out as many field tests as possible (such as dividing lengthwise with a knife to observe interior features and color changes), then preserve everything carefully in a separate paper bag or aluminum foil wrap. Repeated examination will help you mentally categorize the identifiable features and help you distinguish it again in the future.

When to hunt: just after a period of rain in the spring or fall is usually best, but mushrooms can be found almost any time in some locations. Try to go when the light is good, because mushrooms tend to blend with their surroundings and are usually hard to spot.

Where to hunt: almost anywhere, but avoid private property and places where chemicals are used to control plants and pests, or where pollution is evident. Wilderness trails are far better than golf courses, private yards, and busy roadsides.

What to do:

  • Take a sturdy knife.
  • Take a paper bag or wicker basket that will allow air to circulate; plastic bags tend to make mushrooms soggy and warm, which is never good for them. You may get them home only to find that you have to throw most of them away.
  • Some interesting and edible species grow on trees, but identifying them is a completely separate process from identifying ground mushrooms. If you know what to look for, keep your eyes out for mushrooms both on the ground and on trees and logs.
  • Bring your collection home and process as soon as possible. You will find organisms such as fly larvae, slugs, etc. fairly often in some climates. Section the mushrooms and throw out any parts containing undesirable denizens before you poach/fry/dry/freeze the rest. If you wait a day before doing this, you may find your entire collection deteriorated and useless.

Additionally, some other things that you should generally keep in mind:

  1. Try to harvest only young mushrooms. Older mushrooms are generally associated with an increase in allergic reactions, worse taste, worse texture, and increased incidence of insect infestations.
  2. If you find a single mushroom, take a closer look around. Where there is one there is probably another. If you find two, there are probably five.
  3. If you want a more "mushroomy" taste, dry mushrooms before use. This is also the best long-term storage option for most mushrooms.
  4. Some mushrooms must be used quickly after harvest, such as the inky cap which rapidly decomposes into a soggy mess even under the most favorable conditions.

Statistical data

To aid in knowing whether a mushroom is worth the time to identify it, statistician Wlodzislaw Duch analyzed 8,124 mushroom species with 22 symbolic attributes, each with up to 12 possibilities for those attributes. 51.8% were edible species; the rest were inedible or toxic. The following rules were the result of the analysis:

  1. If the mushroom smells like almond, anise, or has no smell and if the mushroom's spore print is not green, then there is a 99.41% chance that the mushroom is edible.
  2. If the mushroom has a smell other than of an almond, anise, then there is a 98.52% chance that it is poisonous.
  3. If the mushroom has a green spore print, there is a 99.41% chance that it is poisonous.
  4. If there is no odor, and the stalk below the surface is scaly, and the color of the stalk above the ring is brown, then there is a 99.90% chance that it is poisonous.
  5. If the habitat of the mushroom is "leaves", and the cap is white, then there is a 100% chance (given the dataset) of the mushroom being poisonous.
  6. If the gills are narrow, and the surface of the stalk above the ring is either silky or scaly, then it has a high chance of being poisonous.
  7. If the gills are narrow, and the population is clustered, then it has a high chance of being poisonous.

While helpful as guidelines to characteristics common to poisonous species, these findings cannot replace the standard safety rules. Remember that the percentages cited in the study refer to an artificial population of 8,124 different mushrooms. This is far in excess of the number any mushroom hunter would encounter in a lifetime of hunting in a particular area. Therefore, these percentages bear no relationship to odds of mushrooms in your area being poisonous or not.

One common saying among mushroom hunters is: There are old mushroom hunters, and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters.

Poisonous mushrooms commonly confused for edible ones

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Any good mushroom guidebook will call attention to similarities between species, especially if an edible species is similar to or commonly confused with one that is potentially harmful.

Examples:

  1. False chanterelles can look like real chanterelles to the inexperienced eye. The latter do not have sharp gills, but rather blunt veins on the underside.
  2. True morels are distinguished from false morels (Gyromitra esculenta and Verpa bohemica). The impostors have caps attached at the top of the stalk, while true morels have a honeycombed cap structure attached along the stalk.
  3. Conocybe filaris, and some Galerina species can look like, and grow next to Psilocybe.

"Little brown mushrooms"

A "little brown mushroom" or LBM refers to any of a large number of small, dull-colored agaric species, with few readily distinguishable macromorphological characters that readily distinguish one species from another. As a result, LBMs are typically difficult to impossible for mushroom hunters to identify. Experienced mushroomers may discern more subtle identifying traits that will help narrow the mushroom down to a particular genus or group of species, but exact identification of LBMs often requires close examination of microscopic characteristics plus a certain degree of familiarity or specialization in that particular group.

For mycologists, LBMs are the equivalent of LGBs ("little gray birds") and DYCs ("damn yellow daisies") that are the bane of birders and botanists.

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