It almost feels illegal. Taking something from nature, for free, and moving on like it didn’t happen. Just think about the number of times you picked a ripe apple off the neighborhood tree or took a few fresh cherry tomatoes right from the vine. You can’t help but walk away a little faster than you walked up. But what about the plants that don’t belong to anyone?
If you’re like me, you’ve tasted the wonder that is an heirloom tomato and will never be the same. You’ll seek out these fruits at the farmer’s market (or someone’s backyard) because you know they’re better—in color, in texture, and of course in taste. In the same respect, wild mushrooms are unquestionably different than the mushrooms you find in the produce aisle. They also have superpowers, but that’s not the point of this article. This article is about what I’ve learned about mushrooms, what chanterelles are, and how to forage in the Pacific Northwest. I recently attended one of REI’s member classes on chanterelles and have to share the magic.
Mushrooms, like all foods, are a business. There are three ways to go about getting mushrooms: wild harvesting, outdoor log inoculation and indoor growing. Many of the mushrooms we’re accustomed to eating (those simple, white button mushrooms also known as Agaricus bisporus) have been grown in compost in large scale commercial production buildings. The industry has gotten creative in renaming them as “crimini” and “portabello” mushrooms to sell more of the same mushroom at different prices. Much of the mushroom supply is produced indoors because of the predictable outcome. A quick Google on “where do grocery store mushrooms come from” was enlightening, but I’ll let you read further if you wish.
Shiitake and oyster mushrooms, on the other hand, are commonly grown via outdoor log inoculation (though they can be grown indoors). Logs are stacked, holes are drilled, and mushroom spawn are placed in the logs. While plants develop through photosynthesis, mushrooms develop by extracting carbohydrates and proteins from their nutrient-rich food base: soil and trees. These mushroom species, and others, grow on dead trees because decomposition is their job. Dead trees need to decompose. Log inoculation takes advantage of this by essentially creating a large group of dead trees for mushroom decomposition magic to happen on.
Yet, there are a variety of edible mushrooms that are not “grown”, but simply harvested. These mushrooms have a symbiotic relationship with trees—a give and take of nutrients that makes their existence mutually exclusive. Making matters even more complex, certain mushrooms will only grow near certain types of trees (i.e. morels and elm trees). For this reason it is almost more important to be able to distinguish trees than it is to ID mushrooms. I said almost. Poisonous mushrooms are very real.
Due to the Pacific Northwest’s large forests and wet climate it is one of the best places for mushroom hunting in the U.S., especially for the signature delicacies that are chanterelles. A great list of edible mushrooms of the pacific northwest can be found here. Novices and professionals alike will make their rounds in the Fall season to harvest chanterelles from B.C. down to California. The unofficial start of chanterelle season here in Washington is Labor Day, and it will go until the first big frost. If you start early, as early as late-July, you’ll need to start up high before it gets too cold up there.
Before You Go
- Know what you’re looking for. Chanterelles have specific features: 2-10in in diameter, decurrent gills that run down that cap and fork, a normally yellow/tan/golden color, and cap edges that roll downward, are wavy and lobed. They may also develop a dimple in their cap as they age. Chanterelle tree associations include: mixed conifer forest such as Birch, Poplar, Pine, Spruce, and Hemlock. No hardwoods or cedars though! Chanterelles also grow out of the soil, not on dead trees as mentioned above, and grow alone as opposed to patches of mushrooms (sometimes you can find a few together).
- Know what you’re NOT looking for. There are several imposters, though none are deadly. The Mushroom Forager does a good job of explaining a few of the most common imposters as does Leslie Land. Study up on the imposters and bring some pictures with you if you can.
- Prepare. You’ll need basic hiking equipment, as well as a few additional items. Bring a hiking pole or other long item you can use for uncovering plant growth, along with a bright ribbon you can attach to it if you use it as a marker. You’ll need some sort of knife to cut of the mushrooms at ground level, so as not to disturb the roots, and a soft brush to rub loose dirt off. Also bring at least 2 large paper bags; you’ll always want to keep the “I’m sure this is edible” mushroom in a separately labeled bag “Unknowns”. A flashlight and a GPS are highly recommended. It’s easy to get lost in backcountry, or just off the beaten path.
When You’re There
- Pay attention to where you’re going. If you’re not good at wayfinding, use your GPS to mark your starting location (the trailhead, parking lot, whatever). Don’t venture too far unless you know the area well, and even then pay attention.
- Find the trees first. As you now know, finding the right trees is the most important factor for mushroom hunting. Chanterelle tree associations include: mixed conifer forest such as Birch, Poplar, Pine, Spruce, and Hemlock.
- Walk in circles. When you think you’ve found a good area, one method of hunting calls for sticking your hiking pole with the ribbon on top in the ground. Walk ever bigger circles around the pole. When you’ve gone pretty far, walk the same circle backwards to get a new perspective on the ground. You’ll likely uncover something you missed the first time around, literally.
- Clean the mushrooms gently before you put them in the bag. This is a hot insider tip that saves time up front. Use that brush you brought along (a soft toothbrush will even do) to gently rub off excess dirt. You won’t have to wash the mushrooms much when you get home and you’ll keep clean ones in the bag from getting dirty.
Always know where you are and how to get back. My favorite quote from the REI member class on chanterelles was this: Mushroom hunters like to go into the forest, alone, having not told anyone where they’re going, and they walk in circles while staring at the ground. If that isn’t a recipe for getting lost, I don’t know what is.” -Wren Hudgins
After You’re Done
- Brush off your mushrooms. Use a soft brush or a damp paper towel to wipe off any excess dirt. Yes, one at a time. If that seems crazy though, Martha Stewart and her accomplices say washing them is OK. I tend to trust Martha, despite her bad rep.
- Store mushrooms in paper bags. Since mushrooms are 80-90% water, the plastic packaging they usually come in is not the best packaging. Paper bags actually let them breathe without creating condensation and browning. If you’ve bought mushrooms at the store though, many times keeping them in their original packaging until you’re ready to use them will prolong their life.
- Keep your mushrooms in the refrigerator. Mushrooms will keep growing after they’ve been picked, but refrigeration slows down their metabolism.
- Find a kickass recipe. I have yet to cook chanterelles myself, but I’ll let you know how it goes when I do. Until then, I’ll lead you to the experts at Food & Wine.
To learn more about mushrooms types and identifying local mushrooms check out: Mushroom Demystified, Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest (with “an emphasis on the heart of mushroom country: the low- to mid-elevation forest habitats of western Oregon and Washington”) and the MatchMaker Mushrooms database of over 4000 mushrooms in the Pacific Northwest. I also highly recommend sitting in on one of the REI Outdoor School classes on the topic—where I got much of my information to start this article—or attending one of the Puget Sound Mycological Society’s events. Do not take my word as absolute for mushroom foraging, any action taken by you is yours and yours alone. Get educated and get foraging!
Next up: huckleberries, razor clams, and geoducks. I have big foraging dreams.