Gathering mushrooms adds a new dimension to walks in nature. Learn more about how to start your own mushroom habit.
I can’t recall the first time I noticed a mushroom growing in the wild. The wild was likely our front lawn in South Florida. Mycophobia dominated, so from an early age I would steer clear of this unusual creature.
Then I moved out West and experienced real, unspoiled nature. Hiking in Marin or Mendocino County, my understanding of the fungus world exploded. Next came the mushroom events. The more I learned about mushrooms at a Fungus Fair or the Sonoma County Mycological Society (SOMA) Camp, the keener my mushroom lens became.
Part of the mystery of mushrooms is their unpredictable time of arrival. The right conditions must be met for the fruiting bodies of the hidden mycelium to appear. The lifecycle of a mushroom begins with spores—single cells that burst from a mushroom’s gills or pores. Billions of spores may be released from a mushroom in one day, but few will meet a genetic mate.
The spore can remain dormant as a microscopic filament, sustained in all types of weather, for a long time (scientists are still digging into this, but some spores can survive at least a year). Some scientists believe spores survive in outer space; we already know they thrive in the space station.
When an optimal environment is achieved and a spore has a genetic mate, together they are referred to as mycelium. Below ground, the mycelium ingests organic matter, thus making it more animal-like than plant-like. The mycelial network continues growing and interacting with its host environment. It takes in water and minerals and breaks down toxic chemicals. And eventually a fruiting body blooms.
This eruption is temporary. Here today, gone tomorrow. As David Gardella—artist, gardener, and SOMA Camp instructor—told me, he’s honed his skill for paying attention. He is honored to bear witness to the transient nature of mushrooms.
SOMA Camp takes place annually over the Martin Luther King Junior weekend. We, the attendees, know this, but the mushrooms don’t. Some years the mushroom identification tables at camp are overloaded with foray specimens. Other years, we glory in the few we can find.
But quantity is not what we’re after. It’s the communing with the natural world—plants, animals, and fungi.
Rules regarding mushroom hunting vary. Some locations require a permit. On forays sponsored by mycological societies, a guide will be well-versed on the rules governing the location. For culinary chasers, mushroom etiquette advises territorial boundaries. But once you do find your own trusted area, don’t be greedy. Leave a few fruits for other forest dwellers to happen upon.
Let’s call it Mushroom Mindfulness. You’re walking through a wooded area, leaving your tethering technology behind. Breathe in the freshly moistened tree bark aroma. Move slowly. Look everywhere. Look down to discover protrusions from a dead log or amidst fallen leaves. Look up to find clamshell-like bulges from a tree stalk. Notice all the shades of browns and greens until you spot fungal matter. Maybe it’s a shiny shade of beige or a bright red.
If you’re on a mushroom foray with expert mycologists, they’ll help you identify your specimen. If you’re going it alone, here are a few tips from the San Francisco Mycological Society:
- Identify and describe the mushroom’s anatomy. What color and size is the mushroom cap? What does the stalk or stem look like—same color as the cap? If you take a sample, make sure to get an intact mushroom with stem and maybe even some of the leaves or dirt the mycelium is living in. Place specimens in wax paper or a paper bag. Avoid plastic, since it speeds decomposition.
- Does the mushroom have an odor? And while you're sniffing, take a very careful look at the color. Some mushrooms, when handled or cut, react by changing color.
- What color are the spores? To differentiate two very similar-appearing mushrooms, you may need to turn to the spores for a precise identification. (See sidebar for making a spore print.)
- What is the mushroom’s habitat like? Describe where the mushroom was found and what type of trees were nearby. Was it found growing on wood? What type of wood and at what stage of decomposition? Were there many mushrooms in this location? What was the weather like?
- Get a good guidebook. Some ideas: All That the Rain Promises and More: A Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms by David Arora; The Complete Mushroom Hunter, Revised by Gary Lincoff; National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms by National Audubon Society.
How to Make a Spore Print
- Cut off the mushroom’s cap.
- Place the cap (gills side down) on a piece of white paper or glass.
- Leave the mushroom cap for 2–6 hours. The spores will drop naturally.
- Remove the mushroom cap.
- To protect the print, cover with glass and seal the edges with tape.