An interview with Tristan Woodsmith
Education and Outreach | Equipment and Cultivation Specialist
1. What does a successful foray look like?
A “foray” is essentially a field trip to collect wild mushrooms led by experienced mycologists. Forays come in many different shapes and sizes, depending on the intention of the group. It could be a hunt for edibles, a structured survey of the “mycota” (fungal organisms) in a given area, or merely an educational stroll through the woods to appreciate the beauty and diversity of mushrooms. Forays can be relatively short (1-2 hours), or multi-day events with camping, cooking, lectures and workshops, and lots of picking. Either way, beginner and expert mycologists alike congregate with their favorite mushroom collecting gear to forage, find and feast upon fungi.
At a typical foray, people split into several groups directed by foray leaders who know the trails and good picking spots. After a few hours of picking, everyone gathers together and the bounty is showcased on a table, where one or more expert mycologists identify and label each specimen. Often a detailed examination of each mushroom ensues, including morphology, identification characteristics (e.g. color, texture, scent), ecology, taxonomy, et cetera. Forays provide a unique opportunity to experience the woods, offering a friendly and supportive atmosphere to learn how to identify and collect mushrooms.
2. What tips do you have for beginners (what to bring, what to look out for, what to be aware of, etc.)?
If it’s your first foray, you’ll likely need to acquire a set of mushroom hunting accessories. Standard paraphernalia includes a basket, wax bags/paper or aluminum foil (to protect your mushroom specimens) a knife, a trowel, a small brush, a 10x magnifying loupe, drinking water and a snack. You’ll also likely want waterproof boots and rain gear to stay comfortable while you are out. And last but not least, safety equipment is a must: a first aid kit, compass, map and whistle.
Besides getting lost, one of the greatest dangers to mushroom pickers is game hunters, as seasons and areas overlap. In light of this, many mushroom foragers choose to wear fluorescent “hunter orange” so they are more easily seen. You also want to ensure you are foraging on public land or otherwise have permission to be there. Believe it or not, picking wild mushrooms is restricted or regulated in many areas. Certain jurisdictions allow mushroom harvesting for personal use, some require permits for large quantities, and some limit the quantity harvested, e.g. one to 5 gallons. In some areas you can harvest a larger quantity with an educational permit. Rules and regulations continually change, so before filling your basket, be sure to check the latest mushroom harvesting rules for your destination. Also, be careful and do not consume any mushroom if you are unsure of its identity. There is a saying amongst the bemushroomed: There are old mycologists and there are bold mycologists, but there are no old, bold mycologists.
3. Can you share your most memorable mushroom hunting experience?
Although I have many fond memories of the hunt, my first mushroom hunting experience is still the most memorable. I must have been 10 or 12 years old at the time. My dad was taking cooking lessons from an Italian chef in exchange for some woodwork, and the chef invited us to go mushroom hunting. He took us to a secret spot near Baker Lake in the North Cascades where we picked Chanterelles and Angel Wings to our heart’s content. I will never forget the sight of hundreds of delicately thin, pure white mushrooms adorning nurse logs and stumps in stark contrast to the greens and browns of the forest floor. The mushrooms easily stood out, illuminated by dappled sunlight as it penetrated the dense canopy of Douglas fir. I now know Angel Wing’s as Pleurocybella porrigens - a white-rot decay fungus that inhabits conifer wood, but I will always remember their contribution to the extraordinary and inspiring experience of my first mushroom hunt.
4. What are the most important things you have learned through years of forays?
Get your bearings, and don’t lose them! When collecting mushrooms, you’ll inevitably spend a lot of time staring at the ground, going from one mushroom to the next, and it’s easy to become temporarily disoriented. Every few minutes I stop and look around, becoming familiar with the trees and underbrush as well as the lay of the land. Designate landmarks (a crooked tree, large boulder, etc.) so once you’re finished collecting you can easily find your way back. A compass and a map can be especially helpful when hunting in unfamiliar territory. Another invaluable accessory is a whistle. Not only can it help your friends find you, but if you get lost in the woods, a whistle could save your life.
And no matter how excited you get; try to avoid picking every mushroom you see in hopes of identifying them all. At first, you will have an urge to pick everything in sight, which inevitably makes identification much more problematic. Concentrate on a few larger varieties at first, and as you become familiar, go back for the smaller, less conspicuous mushrooms that tend to be more difficult to identify.
5. Can you share insight on the importance of sustainable harvesting? What should folks consider when mushroom hunting?
Sustainable mushroom harvesting has long been a topic of debate amongst mycologists and mycophagists. There is much to be debated regarding ethical harvesting practices: plucking vs. cutting, how many to leave behind, or even what type of container to carry. And yet, unlike foraging for plants, the impact of mushroom harvesting on the ecosystem is not as clear.
One study in Switzerland found that long-term and systematic harvesting in a given area did not have a measurable impact on subsequent flushes (Egli et al, 2006). An Oregon study, examining cutting stems vs. plucking whole Chanterelle mushrooms, revealed that plucking every mushroom actually resulted in an increase in yield during subsequent years! This shows that harvesting many types of mushrooms does not harm the underlying mycelium - much like picking fruit does not harm the tree (Norvell et al, 2016).
With that said, you are impacting the ecosystem by removing mushrooms. Mushrooms host a variety of insect larvae and other organisms as they mature and decompose. They are also a food source for slugs and mammals, such as squirrels and deer. So, regardless of the impact on future yields, one should collect responsibly and only harvest some of the mushrooms in a given area. Not only is it courteous and considerate to leave some behind for another picker, but it also allows the remaining mushrooms to release their spores. Also, consider the condition of the mushroom, and leave behind any that are too old, too small, or otherwise of low quality.
Another rule is to tread lightly. The Swiss study mentioned above found that trampling the forest floor reduced the number of mushrooms that subsequently formed. Like hiking or backpacking, try to impact the environment as little as possible. Be careful where you walk, don’t litter, and pack out any trash that you find.
Please also keep in mind the type of mushroom you are harvesting. The research mentioned above focused on fleshy fungi like Chanterelles, Oysters, Porcini and others. Some mushrooms like Agarikon thrive only in certain habitats and have become relatively rare. Other mushrooms like Chaga have a unique life cycle and large scale harvesting may damage host trees and negatively impact the health of wild populations.
As a beginner, it’s great to focus on more abundant, more common species. And as your skill level grows, so too will your awareness of which mushrooms can be safely harvested in abundance and which mushrooms are best left in their forest home.
6. What recommendations do you have for folks who are interested in mycology, but don’t know how to start exploring the field?
The best way to get involved and learn is to join your local mushroom club or mycological society! If you can find mushrooms where you live, chances are you can find mycologists as well. Organizations such as PSMS (Puget Sound Mycological Society) encourage research, education, cultivation, hunting, and cooking of mushrooms. They have meetings, classes, workshops and field trips - including forays! The North American Mycological Association (NAMA) website offers a list of affiliated clubs so you can find the organization nearest to you. Also, get a good book or two. Mycelium Running by Paul Stamets is an excellent source of information about mushrooms and how they can help our struggling planet. A field guide such as David Arora’s All That the Rain Promises and More can help you identify mushrooms and celebrate the fun in fungi.
7. Why do you think mushrooms are amazing and why should others be excited about them, too?
Mushrooms are incredibly diverse and fascinating organisms, not only in size but also appearance. Some are just a millimeter across or less, and others well over a meter. They come in many different colors, textures and shapes. The fungi that produce mushrooms are Nature’s recyclers, either decomposing organic material to create soil, detoxifying and restoring ecosystems, or symbiotically nurturing plants and encouraging the natural succession of forests. Once you begin to study mushrooms, you’ll discover their universal beauty, complex ecological symbioses, and incredibly rich flavors. Mushrooms are good for you too – as nutrient-rich functional foods, they are rich in protein, support the immune system and encourage health and wellness. Why wait, when there is so much to be excited about?
Norvell, Lorelei & Roger, Judy. (2016). The Oregon Cantharellus Study Project: Pacific Golden Chanterelle preliminary observations and productivity data (1986-1997).
Egli, Simon & Peter, Martina & Buser, Christoph & Stahel, Werner & Ayer, François. (2006). Mushroom picking does not impair future harvests - Results of a long-term study in Switzerland. Biological Conservation. 129. 271-276. 10.1016/j.biocon.2005.10.042.