The Key to Safe Mushroom Hunting

mushroom foraging

When she gets there, she knows
if the stores are all closed,
with a word she can get what she came for.

Led Zeppelin, “Stairway To Heaven”

They say all mushrooms are edible — once.

I have been hunting and eating wild mushrooms for more than 20 years. What makes me an expert? The fact that I’m still alive. I’ve taught thousands of others to do the same, and they’re all experts, too.

The world is full of expert foragers. Practically none of them have ever used an ID book or app. How do they survive? They do the only thing you need to do to forage safely. Do you know what that is? What do you do when you’re not sure what you’ve found is edible? It’s the only thing you need to remember, and it’s just one word. It’s a verb with just three letters.

Here’s a hint: it’s not eat, try, run, see or die. It’s not 911 either, though that’s close.

Give up?

The word is ASK.

To ask means to consult another person — particularly someone who knows more than you do. I highly discourage beginners from using ID books or apps. At best, you’ll spend two hours on what would otherwise take two minutes. At worst, well, you know the expression, “If at first you don’t succeed?” It doesn’t apply to wild mushrooms.

In short, find a real field guide: one with two legs.

When I show people an edible mushroom, side-by-side with what they consider a dangerous look-alike (or if you prefer, a “dead ringer”), they ask me the million dollar question: How in the world can you tell those two apart?

They’re doing the right thing: they’re asking. In Southern Africa, where they eat a lot of mushrooms, there’s a well-known adage: “The one who asks is the one who does not get poisoned by mushrooms.”

How can you tell those things apart? The answer is simple: experience. Can you pick out your own mother in a crowd? If so, it’s because she is familiar to you, as in the word family. Can you tell cabbage from iceberg lettuce? If so, did you learn that in school? Did your parents ever sit you down and explain it to you? No, you know because you grew up with it, just like family.

Mushrooms are no different. Spend time with them and they will soon be easy to recognize. We evolved to be able to do this. However, you can’t learn it from a book, and I can’t just explain it to you. Trying to do both would do more harm than good. Only practice makes perfect.

Learning to forage is simple. You don’t need a fancy app. You don’t even need to take a class with me. But you do need to do the one thing that for most people is scarier than even eating a potentially poisonous mushroom, and that is to ask for help.

Get help. Remember that African proverb and safe foraging is easy. Even easier, remember one short word.