How to Forage Safely as a Beginner
Disclaimer: Always seek local advise prior to consumption of wild mushrooms.
I guess, to be completely honest, the best ways to forage as beginner would be to either hire a guide to take you or attend some sort of class. However, I’m going to come at this thing assuming most people are at least somewhat like me and bit tight with the budget. Truly, and even still, I plan to hire a pro, at some point, to take me foraging, but arriving in North Carolina, where it seems foraging is pastime for many, I wasn’t willing to wait for that point in time.
Luckily, I’ve managed to make it through my first six months without any mishaps. I started with some common plants in the spring, when visiting a farm—Snaggy Mountain—in Burnsville, North Carolina. From there and then, my wife Emma and I cautiously ventured into mushroom foraging, which has come to dominate our nearly daily hikes into the forest. Suffice it to say, we are eating some delicious treats without any cost or energy spent cultivating.
We literally bring home mushrooms on weekly—usually multiple times—basis, but the excitement of finding a little fungi has not waned. In fact, adding a new species to the list only seems all the more wonderful. Six months ago, however, it was hard to envision ourselves being here: Confident foragers, able to enter the forest and come out with a basket full of treats with no reservations as to whether or not we are going to poison ourselves.
Here’s how we got there.
Pay Attention When Someone Knows Something
While we’ve never taken a lesson, we’ve been around a couple of people who knew about foraging. At Snaggy Mountain this past spring, the owner Jared took us on a clambering walk in the woods behind his house, pointing out a huge assortment of edibles: trout lily, chickweed, wood sorrel, crinkle root, fiddleheads, pineapple weed, and many others. We further researched the names that we could remember, and the ones we were comfortable finding became commonplace in our meals. Suddenly, we were eating nearly ten foraged plants on a regular basis. Without Jared’s guidance at the beginning, we likely would have um-ed and ah-ed for weeks or months before trying anything. In other words, when the opportunity is there to pick up a thing or two, it pays to take it. We’ve eaten stacks of absolutely free food because of that one afternoon with Jared.
Our second breakthrough was when a friend named Micah, a native North Carolinian, joined us for a hike. Emma and I had been doing quite a bit of research on wild mushrooms, but we had absolutely no confidence in terms of actually harvesting some. We’d gotten to the point of tossing some new names around, feigning to look for them, but we were nowhere near to foraging any. Micah was really confident with certain mushrooms, and on our walk with, we found our first chanterelles. He also nonchalantly found his first ever cinnabar chanterelles. We ate them for dinner, and that was all the confidence building Emma and I needed. Within the next couple of weeks, we started harvesting chanterelles and cinnabars on our own.
Bite Off Only What You Can Chew
Not long ago, well into our foraging days, Emma and I had a walk on which we harvested two mushrooms we’d never picked before, let alone eaten: hedgehogs and honey mushrooms. We found another new species, lion’s mane, that we would’ve picked had it not been past its prime, and we harvested a load of oyster mushrooms, which we had only identified once before. When we left the woods, I felt a bit rattled. I was used to spending two or three weeks poking around at new mushrooms, reading about them four or five times and seeing them on multiple occasions before going for it. I got spooked after grabbing two—nearly three—new species on the same day.
The thing is that there are hundreds of plants to be foraged out there, and it’s completely doable. However, there are also some costly mistakes to be made for those who get ahead of themselves, and for me, that was the first time things seemed to move a smidge too fast. They hadn’t. We went through our normal procedures, which I’ll share in just a minute, but my gut told me—before I’d eaten anything, mind you—that I needed to be careful. We ate them all and live to tell the tale, but it was a good moment for realizing there were definitely still cautionary boundaries to uphold.
There are poisonous plants and fungi in the wild, so foraging does require some care and absolute certainty. We have been very patient and methodical about adding new options to our list, which is now up to eight mushrooms that we can find and positively ID (and we do so frequently). That means we’ve learned more than a mushroom a month. And, we can do slightly more than that in terms of plants. In my opinion, twenty different things to forage is a pretty nice repertoire for six months of practice, more than I’d imagined having back in April.
Keep to the Method and Add One at a Time
Early on, Emma and I decided we were happy to forage only what was easy to identify and leave the hardcore stuff to the pros. We have chosen plants and mushrooms that are considered difficult to mistake for something else, and just as importantly, we’ve made ourselves familiar with those possible mistakes, learning how to recognize them as something different. We’ve also chosen things that are very common. When the search for something seemed overly difficult, we simply moved on to the next easy meal.
For each thing we forage, we’ve spent a lot of time becoming familiar with it. Before we even thinking of picking something new, we know all the features it needs to have, and we know all the signs that tell us it might not be the right thing. When we find it, we both go through our mental checklist of these things, have a little discussion to double-check each other, and sometimes—all things being as they should—pick it. Sometimes, we just take pictures, go home, and check it again, saving the harvest for the next hike. At home, with our research at hand, we go through the checklist again.
After Micah, we’ve had no more in-the-flesh help with our foraging, yet we’ve added six new mushrooms with the help of research and Facebook groups. These have all been easy-to-find and easy-to-ID species, and we’ve carefully investigated before harvesting them. We do a spore print at home for one more positive identification. Still, we take several pictures of them and explain on the Facebook groups what we believe they are and why. (Definitely do your research before asking for an ID, the experts get annoyed with insufficient pictures from someone who has obviously made no effort to ID for themselves.) We don’t eat anything until several experienced foragers have verified our ID. We’ve also adopted the practice of tasting a small bit and waiting 48 hours before eating a full serving, a common custom for making sure that there are no allergies or personal issues with mushrooms (not so much a poison thing).
Some people still wouldn’t dare eat something from the wild without an expert on hand to tell them it’s okay. The slow method we’ve used may seem overkill to others, but we are happy to and feel we should take our time. In other words, we are determined to both forage and not kill ourselves doing so. So far, so good. And, it’s an extremely exciting addition to our hikes and walks.
Our 2017 List (Thus far)
Stellaria media: chickweed,
Oxalis acetosella: wood sorrel
Rumex acetosa: wild sorrel
Allium ursinum: wild garlic
Taraxacum officinale: dandelion
Plantago major: plantain
Portulaca oleracea: purslane
Erythronium americanum: trout lily
Polygonatum biflorum: Solomon’s seal
Panax quinquefolius: American ginseng
Matricaria discoidea: pineapple weed or wild chamomile
Impatiens capensis: jewelweed or touch-me-nots
Vaccinium: wild blueberry
Cantharellus cibarius: chanterelle
Cantharellus cinnabarinus: cinnabar
Strobilomyces floccopus: old man of the woods
Laetiporus sulphureus: chicken of the woods
Pleurotus ostreatus: oyster mushrooms
Hydnum repandum: hedgehog mushrooms
Trametes versicolor: turkey tails
Armillariella mellea: honey mushrooms
Feature Header: Afternoon Harvest, Courtesy of Emma Gallagher