3 important tips for beginner mushroom foragers

mushrooms-on-a-platter-with-wooden-background Photo by Africa Studio/Shutterstock

With the farm-to-table movement in full swing (and not slated to go away any time soon) and the possibility of bumper crops of morels in wildfire ravished B.C. backcountry, it seems like a good time to take-up mushroom picking. But where do you even start? And how do you ensure this new hobby is a safe one? We reached out to Scott Redhead, a research scientist with Agriculture Canada and a mushroom expert, also known as a mycologist for tips for novice mushroom foragers.

1. Find your mushroom mentor

“You shouldn’t just head off on your own with a little booklet,” says Redhead. “There are more mushroom species in Canada than most people realize. There are about 5,000 species and most people think there’s only a handful or so, or a few dozen.” Mushroom identification is also a lot more nuanced than other wildlife foraging, such as flower or berry picking. Just because you’ve read about a mushroom that has a white cap or big gills, doesn’t mean the one you find in the forest with those features is the particular varietal you’ve researched, explains Redhead. “I would always start with somebody who has some knowledge and can point out certain things to you and then be able to explain them, so you have some confidence in what you’re looking at…you shouldn’t just boldly leap out there and pick mushrooms.”

2. Brush up on your botany

Redhead advises foragers to learn the different features of a mushroom, such as the cap or the pileus (the technical term), the gills—or the lamellae. “To actually learn how to differentiate different mushrooms, you have to learn how the gills are attached to the stem,” he explains. Mushroom dichotomy guides, called keys, can help. “Usually you have two choices, or multiple choices and you work your way through these guides, but you have to use different terminology as you go through these things,” says Redhead.

3. Be cautious of crowdsourcing advice

Never rely fully on crowd-sourced identification to eat something or feed someone, warns Redhead. “You have to weigh the opinions based on how reliable certain observers on the site are and there’s always the chance they’re wrong,” says Redhead. He says that instead, in-person mycological clubs or societies could be a better tool for beginners, because experts experienced in that geographical area can point out odour or other sensory-based identification measures that aren’t available through a photo.