Learning and Collecting Mushrooms
The best way to learn about mushrooms is to collect with an experienced mushroom hunter, and educate yourself using reliable references. Traditionally, the standard reference has been a field guide (or several field guides), but more and more material is becoming available now on the web.
There are many different kinds of field guides: some aspire to national coverage; others are regional. Some focus on only a few species, to be collected for the table; others try to give a sample of everything you may find. You should be able to find a field guide that matches your interests. Traditionally, field guides have tried to cover all of North America; but with the growing recognition of just how many thousands of species there are here, there are more and more field guides that focus on covering a particular region, and doing so much more completely and currently than is possible in a national guide. If there is a regional guide available for your location, that one should be your priority.
We have a set of mushroom profiles here on the Mushroom the Journal site, and a set of pages to teach you about the actual process of identifying mushrooms. To know which features are important in figuring out what you have found, it’s important to know how mushrooms live and what the function of those features are. We try to provide that information.
There are also many websites now that list mushroom species with photos and a greater or lesser amount of descriptive information. Some excellent ones are:
Your fellow mushroomers
But besides reference material, learning from other people who know your area is essential. The best way to find experienced local mushroomers is to get in touch with your local mushroom club(s). There is a directory of clubs in North America here on the Mushroom the Journal site. As with field guides, mushroom hunters come with all sorts of interests and areas of expertise.
It also really helps to keep a journal of what you find, where and when. This jogs your memory, helps you remember your experiences, and lets you know what to look for at the same time next year (and where).
Unless your only interest in mushrooms is photography, you’ll also need some way to transport your finds, as you’ll probably want to bring some of them home, either to eat or to investigate further than can be done in the field.
The traditional way to do this is a wide, flat-bottomed basket with a central handle. That way the mushrooms can be spread out as much as possible so they don’t crush each other during your walk. If they need to be packed more closely, or stacked, then individual collections (a collection is a group of mushrooms of the same kind) are put in an individual sandwich bags, either brown paper bags, or waxed paper. The stiffness of the paper bags keeps the mushrooms inside from getting crushed, even when you have to put bags on top of each other. Instead of the paper bags, you can use twists of waxed paper or aluminum foil. With a system like this to protect the mushrooms, you can carry the individual bags around in a tote bag or grocery sack (instead of a basket) and they’ll remain uncrushed.
The important thing is to not put mushrooms into plastic bags. Plastic bags condense moisture inside them and if the day is at all warm, this makes your mushrooms rot very quickly.
Another item that can be very helpful is a compass, to keep from getting lost. You don’t need to be an expert in the woods to use one – there are many situations where you can just note when you’re entering the forest that “Hey, the forest is east of the road and the parking lot.” Then if you lose your orientation, you can just head west and you’ll be assured of at least hitting the road.
The other tool for not getting lost is a whistle, if you’re hunting with other people. Usually, one blast means “Hey, where is everybody?” and a few repeated toots mean that you’ve found something cool and they should all come see.
If you are planning on eating the mushrooms in question, you’ll save yourself a ton of trouble by “field cleaning” your finds. Basically, that means cutting off the dirty bits (which are usually at the base), and removing leaves and suchlike that may be stuck to them. When you put dirty mushrooms into a bag or basket, they spend the rest of your walk bumping around against other mushrooms and getting them dirty (and spreading the dirt around on themselves). Then you get home and have to clean it all off them. It’s better just to leave it in the woods.
For many mushrooms, it’s important for the identification process to check the base of the stalk. In some, the stalk even roots into the ground. If you don’t retrieve the whole stalk, you may find that your mushrooms are unidentifiable. If you’re not sure (yet!) of the identity of mushrooms you’re collecting for the table, take a couple of them whole, with the entire stalk intact, and wrap these in their own separate bag so they don’t get dirt on your other mushrooms.
You may have heard of people bringing a knife along on a mushroom walk. That’s to dig out the base of the stalk in cases where it’s important for identification. It also sometimes helps in separating tough polypores from a tree. Some people also carry a brush, to aid in field cleaning; and you can even buy a special “mushroom knife” that has a brush built into the handle. It’s fun, but most people I know don’t bother.
More specialized equipment is also possible: to detach mushrooms that are high up on a tree, some people attach a knife to a long pole. But this is cumbersome to carry around; the one time when some friends and I actually needed one, we were able to improvise it by tying a knife onto a nearby branch. Pretty much all you need by way of tools is a knife and maybe a brush to help remove dirt.
Also, at some point, you will probably hear some people advocate mesh bags for mushrooms, to let the spores drop down from your mushrooms as you travel through the woods. There are a couple of problems with this. First of all, it doesn’t take much weight of mushrooms before all the jostling in your bag starts the mesh cutting up the ones one the bottom, and actually pushing them through the bottom of your bag, one little piece at a time. This does indeed distribute the spores in the forest, but it’s not the primary reason you’re collecting mushrooms for. Second, just about all mushrooms are designed to distribute their spores from a certain orientation – that’s why their caps are parallel to the ground. With them getting all jumbled around in your bag, the spores aren’t going to make it out of the mushroom anyway. So this idea is pretty much a non-starter.
We asked expert mushroomers for advice on starting out with mushrooms. Here are some of their recommendations:
Look for specific edible mushrooms. When you go berrying, you collect blueberries or blackberries. You don’t pick every berry in sight, mix them in a bag, and then expect some ‘expert’ to tell you which are edible.
If you wouldn’t buy it in a grocery store because of its condition, don’t eat it from the wild.
Mycology is not easy. You don’t start with any guideposts. A birdwatcher starts out knowing a sparrow from a duck, but a beginning mycologist doesn’t know a bolete from a clavaria.
Go mushrooming as often as possible.
Every day if possible. If not, then every other day.
If that’s not possible, then at least once a week.
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus
Every moment, think steadily – – as a Roman and a human being – – to do what you have in hand with perfect and simple dignity, and feelings of affection and freedom and justice; and give yourself relief from all other thoughts. And you will give yourself relief by laying aside all carelessness, and hypocrisy, and conceit, and discontent with the portion that has been given to you. And so, performing every action as if it were your last, you will see how few the things are, which if a person lays hold of them, their life flows on in quiet, and is like the existence of the gods.
Don’t poach on my patches!