There are thousands of different species of mushrooms in North America. To put it into perspective, there could be as many as 10,000 different species in British Columbia alone. There are poisonous mushrooms. There are safe-to-eat mushrooms…that taste gross. And, of course, there are edible mushrooms—that are delicious.
To make your foraging efforts simpler, it’s best not to try to learn how to identify every wild mushroom and instead focus on a smaller number of common wild mushrooms that are easy to identify, safe to eat, and tasty. The following six wild mushrooms are a great place to start. Remember: Never eat a wild mushroom unless you are certain it’s safe. When you’re confident in your identification skills, harvest mushrooms by cutting them off low on their stem instead of pulling them out. This will ensure that they’ll regrow in the same place the following season.
1. Lobster Mushroom
Lobster mushrooms have a distinct orange-red color. Jim Baird
One of the most distinct looking mushrooms, lobster mushrooms have the bright orange-red color of cooked lobster; they even have a seafood-like flavor to them. Search for them in the late summer growing season along the edge of old dirt logging roads or quad trails. Lobster mushrooms have no gills along with a hard, rough exterior and often form a wide vase shape. In maturity, they can become unevenly twisted and they’ll usually have dirt on their tops.
2. Chanterelle Mushroom
A forager shows off a handful of golden chanterelles. Jim Baird
There are several types of chanterelles, including winter, white, and scaly vase chanterelles. The ones most commonly sought after—and the type people refer to as simply “chanterelles”—are technically Golden chanterelles. Search for them in mixed hardwood forests. Golden chanterelles are typically yellow, but can be orange, too. The cap of a chanterelle is flat at first, then turns into a funnel shape as it reaches maturity. The edges of the cap curl with age and become wavy but are good to eat at any growth stage. The stem is solid, as opposed to hollow like some other mushrooms. When you pull the stem apart, it peels like string cheese. The gills under the cap fork and are categorized as “false” gills because they’re shorter, more separated, and more rounded than typical mushroom gills. Golden chanterelles also gives off the mild but distinct smell of apricots.
3. Oyster Mushroom
Oyster mushrooms don’t rely on seasonal changes to grow like most mushrooms, whcih only grow in the fall or the spring respectively. These mushrooms react to weather changes so you can find them in May or even in late autumn and they grow very quickly. Oyster mushrooms have a slight almond-like sent to them when young and they grow out of sick deciduous trees whether they’re standing or have fallen down. They’re called oyster mushrooms because their tops resemble an oyster in shape. They are typically white but also can be tan or grayish in color, but despite their outer hue, the gills on the underside are always cream colored or white.
4. Puff Ball Mushroom
A giant ball is carved into “steaks” for dinner. Jim Baird
Puff balls are round, white to light brown mushrooms that typically grow in clusters. There are two varieties—puff balls and giant puffballs. Puff balls grow not much larger than the diameter of a quarter and Giant puff balls can grow to larger than the size of a soccer ball. They’re one of the most impressive mushrooms to come across. Both have a white, spongy flesh that resembles a white bread or a marshmallow. Puff balls are aptly named, as once they reach maturity, they puff out spores from a hole on their tops when poked. For eating, they need to be harvested before the sporing phase, so only young, immature puffballs are edible. Once the flesh changes color and/or becomes mushy, the mushroom is is past its prime.
If harvesting the small-size puff balls, or immature giant puff balls, you’re going to want to be careful because there are highly toxic look-a-likes in some regions. To be safe, slice the puff ball in half: If the coloring and texture is not consistent throughout, or if there is any sign of gills at its base, discard. Also, if the skin is any thicker than an eggshell, discard.
5. Bolete Mushroom
Bolete mushrooms have a spongy texture under the cap. Jim Baird
Boletes are a broad species of mushroom characterized by the distinct, spongy underside of their caps where most mushrooms have gills. In general, “rules of thumb” aren’t safe to follow when it comes to mushroom foraging. That said, bolete mushrooms are the exception to that non-rule to an extent as there are no varieties of boletes that can kill you and there are a couple easy ways to tell if the bolete in question will give you an upset stomach.
When you find a bolete, crush part of it or slice into it with your knife. If the flesh rapidly starts to turn blue, discard. A Bolete’s pores are the spongy side under the cap. Make sure it doesn’t have bright yellow or red pores, or any red on it at all for that matter. Also, choose boletes that are growing out of the ground as opposed to out of logs and stumps. If you follow these rules, you will be safe to eat any Boletes you fund.
6. Chicken-of-the-Woods Mushroom
Chicken-of-the-woods grow out of tree trunks. Jim Baird
Chicken-of-the-woods is technically a bracket fungus or shelf fungus as it grows horizontally out of tree trunks and out of exposed tree roots as opposed to up from the ground like toadstools do. The fungus has a distinct, light-orange color that moves to golden-yellow at its tips. Some have yellow pores on their underside and some are white pored. Both are edible and taste about the same. Chicken-of-the-woods gets its name from the texture of its flesh which is said to remind one of chicken. It is prone to having worms, so before harvesting, cut into the mushroom from the base and make a slit towards the outer edge. If you see any tunneling, let it be. Chicken-of-the-woods is one of the safest fungi to eat as there are really no look-a-likes for this one; but consider avoiding chicken-of-the-woods that’s growing out of conifers. Though many people in the northern areas of its range routinely eat chicken-of-the-woods that grows out of spruce trees, it’s been reported that it can cause mild stomach irritation in some.
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