Wild Mushrooms: Foraging the Forest for a Fungal Feast

Lee Allen/ Mother Earth's bounty: Brilliant yellow chanterelle mushrooms and a collection of King and Aspen bolete (with one lobster mushroom hiding in the background)...a morning's foraging in the forest.

Here’s a new take on the old hunter-gatherer concept that has sustained indigenous populations throughout history.

For one avid gatherer it started years ago as a traditional elk junket in the high country of Arizona that turned into a hunt-within-a-hunt experience that ultimately converted one man into a mycologist who now teaches others about the fun and feasting involved in gathering wild mushrooms.

“I was in the forest on a fall archery elk hunt and kept seeing all kinds of mushrooms, but knowing that nine out of ten aren’t the ones you could eat, I wanted to learn more about the ones that were edible,” said retired Game and Fish biologist Jim Warnecke to Indian Country Today Media Network. That wise woodland decision began a lifelong hobby about to culminate in a DVD, Arizona’s 11 Most Edible Mushrooms, that he hopes “will educate and inspire folks to go out and enjoy fungi in the woods.”

Native Americans, such as Arizona’s White Mountain Apache tribe inhabiting the high-altitude ponderosa pine and aspen forests, know that monsoon rains help grow good things to eat along forest edges where grasslands meet timber. Tribal Chairman Ronnie Lupe, now in his third decade governing his people, notes: “We come from, and belong to, the Earth. Our home was given to us by our Creator and provides year-round activities for recreation and survival.”

There are millions of acres of forestland in the Southwest where mushrooms have sustained people during tough times—and still do. Arizona mushrooms provide a smorgasbord of edible delights, an olla podrida of options found in a range of habitats. Mushrooms proliferate in what ecologists call a mixed conifer vegetation zone (pine trees, firs, aspen and spruce), home to tasty morsels like the iconic lobster mushroom, boletes of several varieties, morels, chanterelles, oyster mushrooms and other mushroom munchies.

Photo: Lee Allen/ More than 6,000 feet high in Arizona's White Mountains, ponderosa pines predominate, while stands of aspen also provide growing space for edible mushrooms.

While Arizona isn’t typically associated with the mysterious mycological marvels more frequently found in wetter climates “blue skies, spectacular sunsets, scorching deserts, and torrential thundershowers can combine into an environmental setting to find forms of fungi,” writes author Jack States in Mushrooms and Truffles of the Southwest. Nevertheless there are many options to choose from, with potentially more than 23,000 fungal species already known, “with the possibility of thousands of other species remaining to be discovered, ” according to an estimate from the Arizona Mycota Project.

Photo: Jim Warnecke/Fish Head Productions/ A day's harvest of chanterelle mushrooms.

To a true mycologist grubbing around in the forest, there are no words sweeter than “I found fungi!” But before you grab your harvesting hat and head out to join them, you should know the common wisdom: There are old mushroom pickers, and bold mushroom pickers, but there are no old and bold mushroom pickers. Knowledge is survival. Know what you’re picking, and if in doubt, throw it out.

Mushroom mania is addictive for Warnecke, who hunts regularly in Apacheland, Sky Island mountaintops, and along the Mogollon Rim.

“A good day is locating a wide variety and a respectable number of each kind,” he said.

On his best day he retrieved more than 2,000 black or fire morels over four hours in an area previously scorched by wildfires.

“On one excursion in the vicinity of a ski run, we found a hillside loaded with lobster mushrooms,” Warnecke reminisced. “We filled three grocery bags and returned a week later and did it again.”

That’s another beauty of mushroom hunting: It is environmentally friendly. Regeneration is an ecological advantage.

“Mushrooms come from a main plant (mycelium) that grows underground,” Warnecke said. “The mushroom is the fruiting body of that plant that regenerates with a single cell spore, so each mushroom has hundreds of thousands of spores that are sent out to repopulate. It’s not like a carrot that you pick once, eat it, and it’s done. Mushrooms are a gift that keeps on giving.”

These palatable presents are favored by certain conditions, such as north-facing slopes that tend to be more moist, or under a warm patch of sunlight in tree-crowded woods. A combination of high elevation, wet soil and coniferous forest with lots of leaves and pine needles are good growing sites. And each little habitat quirk provides the environment for a separate variety.

Photo: Lee Allen/ King left and center) and Aspen bolete right) mushrooms fresh from the forest floor.

“Wet leaves in a carpet of forest litter often hide King or Aspen or White boletes,” Warnecke said. “Others like Shaggy Manes look like little grayish-white rockets that grow in groups in old fire burn areas. Sometimes at the base of an old stump, you’ll find a big convoluted thing that resembles a brain the size of a small basketball—a prized cauliflower mushroom. Another favorite is the easy-to-spot chanterelle or egg mushroom. You can pick them out from a distance because of their bright golden color. Another popular find is a flush of lobster mushrooms pushing up through a carpet of pine litter. I call them my colorful ’50-mile-an-hour’ mushroom because I can spot them from the road while driving by.”

If collecting them is fun, eating them is even more enjoyable.

“Lobster mushrooms are crunchy and taste a bit like their namesake,” said Warnecke. “They go well in a soup. Clean them up, chop them into pieces, and do a quick sauté with butter, then put them in vacuum-sealed bags in the freezer until ready for use. They can last a couple of years that way.”

There are different ways to prepare each variety.

“King boletes are best dehydrated, then when needed, are brought back by soaking them in warm water for 20 minutes,” said Warnecke. “With Aspen boletes, it’s a toss-up between dehydration or dry sauté.”

There is seemingly no end to the variety.

Photo: Lee Allen/ Here's supper! The start of a batch of chanterelle mushrooms headed for a date with a frying pan.

“With the delicate chanterelles, we do a dry sauté to pull out moisture and bring out flavor, then add a pat of butter and make a Cream of Chanterelle soup right away or freeze them for later use,” Warnecke said. “They make a good filling, with a bit of grated cheese, as a Sunday morning omelet.”

Weather forecasters are already predicting a record-breaking wet El Niño for fall 2015 and spring 2016, and fungi foragers can’t wait for spores to start sprouting.

Photo: Lee Allen/ Tasting time! Fluffy Chanterelles or egg mushrooms at the top of the photo, crunchy lobster mushrooms at the bottom—and, yes, they do taste a bit like seafood.

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