The Key to Safe Mushroom Foraging

Mushroom foraging is a skill that requires time and experience. Beginners who want to do it safely need to embrace a simple three-letter word.

by Alan Muskat
PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock

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 picked up an identification book. How do they survive? They do the one thing anyone who wants to forage safely needs to do. It’s what 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.

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To ask means to consult another person—particularly someone who knows more than you do. I highly discourage beginners from using identification books. They can cause more harm than good. 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 mushrooms.

In short, the only good field guide is one with two legs.

When I show people an edible mushroom side-by-side with one 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.”

My answer is simple: experience. Could you pick out your own mother in a crowd? If you said yes, it’s surely because she is literally familiar to you. Can you tell cabbage from iceberg lettuce? If you said yes, did you learn that in school? Did your parents ever sit you down and explain it to you? No, you know this from experience.

Mushrooms are no different. Grow up with them, spend time with them, and they are easy to recognize. 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 book. 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.

Remember the African proverb, and safe foraging is easy.

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