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A Beginners Guide to Foraging for Wild Mushrooms

A beginner's guide to foraging for wild mushrooms and the world of fungi, including gilled, boletes, corals, cup fungi, polypores, puffballs and earthstars, stinkhorns, and tooth fungi.

| March/April 1987

 A beginners guide to the book of fungi, also known as wild mushrooms. Excerpted from the book by Sara Ann Friedman. 

A Beginners Guide to Foraging for Wild Mushrooms

Once I was standing at the base of a giant redwood in northern California. Huge branches, larger than whole trees in my eastern woods of birches and maples, crisscrossed in intersecting webs. There was no sky above, only more redwoods and the secrets of a thousand years.

Fleeting shadows, footsteps, and whispers broke the mood. Were they the murmurs of hidden forest creatures? The shadows turned into substance, the whispers into loud human voices. "Anything yet?" called one. "Over here," another answered. There must have been 15 or more of them circling the trees, their eyes fixed on the forest floor.

A shaft of sunlight filtered through the tops of the trees and disappeared among the highest branches. Look up! Look up! I wanted to shout, but to my bafflement they were all on their knees, filling their paper bags and baskets with large, white mushrooms. I could not help but laugh to myself at the sight of these frenzied foragers—a group of local wild mushroom hunters out in the woods on a single-minded search—who could not see the forest for the fungi.



Today my laugh would be touched with irony, for in the years since then I have become one of them, a mushroom zealot. My search for these fleshy fungi has taken me to the steep slopes of the Rockies, where I never looked up to see a snow capped peak. And I am glad to have once seen the redwoods, for I now know that when I return, it will be on my hands and knees, nose to the ground.

There are thousands of species of mushrooms in North America, many of which have very strange shapes and don't look anything like mushrooms at all. Resembling heads of cauliflower or coral, slabs of beefsteak, soccer balls, turkey tails, or icicles, they hang, protrude, and billow from tree trunks, leaf mold, dead logs, and stumps. (They also grow on bathroom floors, dead bodies, in woodpecker holes, and on other mushrooms.) Mushrooms have fanciful folk names like "witch's butter," "shaggy mane," and "bear's head." Some turn blue or red when they are bruised; others glow in the dark. (A World War I soldier wrote home to his wife, "I am writing to you by the light of five mushrooms.") Many mushrooms are wonderful to eat; others are toxic enough to cause serious, if temporary, discomfort. Most are simply unpalatable, tasteless, or too tough to eat. A few are deadly.






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