A nest of the much sought-after Pine mushrooms.

Finding the fun in fungi: mushroom hunting for pleasure

Mushroom hunting is dangerous, and not because of guns, or bows.

“Mushroom hunting

They don’t run away

But everyone’s in such a hurry!”

-Anonymous, Japanese

What is worth getting lost and maybe dying for? If you’ve been watching the news, you’d be tempted to think that the allure of mushrooms was so magnetic that it could lead to death on the side of a mountain. And for serious devotees, it seems worth the risk (although the risks can be minimized with some planning) year after year.

Mushroom hunting is dangerous, and not because of guns, or bows. Well, it could be dangerous because of that too: animal and mushroom hunting seasons and territories can and do overlap. A word to the wise: mushrooms don’t run away, and aren’t scared off by bright colours, so get yourself an attention-getting fluorescent orange toque, coat or vest to let hunters know where you are.

Bright clothing does double duty if you do get lost. Losing yourself in the woods is easier than you might think: one moment you think you know where you are, the next you don’t: every undulating acre of moss-covered fallen trees and ground can suddenly look the same. That’s all it takes. In a world of compasses, GPS, telephones, walkie talkies, internet and other human beings, there are many ways to make sure that if you do get lost, you don’t get lost for the rest of your life, however long that may be out in the woods.

There is some danger in your woods, cherie, if you indiscriminately taste strange mushrooms, or maul them with fingers that then feed trail mix to your uneducated mouth. Yes, unidentified mushrooms aren’t something you want to experiment with, as appealing as they may seem. Mycetism, mushroom poisoning, can result in an upset stomach, organ failure or death, although fans say the case for poisoning is often overstated and reinforced by a culturally-supported fear of fungi. But it always pays to be sure. The question is how.

There are several characteristics that can be used to identify mushrooms: colour, shape, smell, where and when they grows, how they bruise, stickiness, etc. Mushroom spores are another characteristic used to positively identify a mushroom, and serious pickers make spore prints on black and white paper to see what colour the spores are. Spore prints can be quite pretty, and mycophiles have been known to identify themselves as mushroom devotees by printing on clothing.

But if you’re going to pick mushrooms to eat, nothing beats having an expert show you the ropes. Get someone to take you, and if you’re lucky they’ll show you a good patch to start picking (even experienced pickers have been victims of mycetism, but usually due to inattention). Taking a class with an expert can be a good start, but nothing beats on-the-ground experiential education with a trusted teacher and a good guidebook. Don’t eat anything until its identity has been confirmed by a trustworthy source.

Mushrooms have been popping up all over the place throughout history, and continue to contemporarily too. There are websites, magazines, lectures, tours, societies, that curate and discuss mushrooms in art, culture, science, and even the mind. There are cases of fungi mind control: Cordyceps has been caught in action as it invades an ant’s body and controls its behaviour, impelling it to climb before the ant dies, having become a vehicle for the fungi’s fruiting body to disperse its spores from on high. The zombie death march of the fungally infested ant begs the question “who is hunting who?” Maybe humans aren’t the only predators in the mushroom hunting game. Some people, notably Terrence McKenna in his book Food of the Gods, have suggested that psychoactive Psilocybe cubensis was responsible for the transformation of Homo erectus into Homo sapiens.

So what are mushrooms anyway? Mushrooms, highly prized and otherwise, are the “fruiting bodies” of fungi, the lifecycle segment where spores are spread from the underside of the mushroom via gills, pores, ridges or teeth. Interestingly, fungi – including yeasts and moulds as well as mushrooms – have their own kingdom distinct from plants and animals, because they are saprophytes, meaning they eat by secreting enzymes on dead or decayed matter, then absorb it into their bodies. In that way, they are like the digestive system of the forest. Neat, right?

Fungi are also different from plants in that their cell walls contain chitin, not cellulose. Not only is chitin the main component of fungal cell walls, it’s found in the exoskeletons of insects and lobsters. It’s also the same molecule found in some feathers and butterfly wings that can mimic different colours. So saith Wikipedia.

Even in the fungal world, there are those who are considered “true” fungi and others, like the very interesting slime and water moulds, which have been exiled from the fungal kingdom. (Slime moulds are very cool creatures. When food sources are in short supply, the single-celled creatures get together and can move as a single body, and form fruiting bodies to scatter spores. They don’t need Kingdom Fungi, they’re adaptable like that.)

The appeal of mushroom hunting isn’t hard to understand for those who love it. Not only does it get you out into the great big outdoors, it allows grown ups to wander the woods and fields in a natural easter egg hunt. And if you love the taste of Chantarelles, Pines, or Shaggy Manes, the find is much more rewarding. (How many hard boiled eggs can one person eat anyway? Or foil-wrapped chocolaty sugar bombs for that matter?)

Identification is extremely über-important, but before you figure out what’s out there, you have to see it, which is trickier than you think. The mushrooms may not be running away, but it takes time to learn how to spot them in their natural habitat, to develop fung-eyes that can spot the hump of a Pine at 50 paces. The real danger of hunting mushrooms is getting hooked on the high of tracking down the buried beauties. It can drive a nine-to-fiver to distraction. It can drive you out into the woods at hours at a stretch. Not such a bad thing, as long as you tell someone where you’re going, take a compass, a guide book, a friend, some food, matches and some good sense. Have fun!