Wild Mushrooms: Workshops Are The Best Way To Learn About Them

Whether you are student or teacher, knowing a place and observing the changes over time provides invaluable insights into foraging for wild mushrooms.

by Karen Lanier
PHOTO: Karen Lanier

I recently attended a foraging workshop on wild mushrooms, and for the past week, I’ve been enjoying my own samples of the assortment of fungi. Oysters (cultivated), chanterelles, chicken of the woods, voluminous-latex milky, old man of the woods, hedgehog, indigo milk cap, shaggy-stalked bolete and more oddly named delicacies, all of which are delicious sautéed in some butter and olive oil, with just a sprinkle of salt. Chewing these morsels of the forest, the workshop experience lives on.

wild mushrooms
Karen Lanier

This workshop on wild mushrooms illustrates many reasons why workshops are the best way to learn and to teach land-based skills.

Immersion Is Effective

wild mushrooms
Old man of the woods. Photo by Karen Lanier

The old saying holds true: “Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand.” Workshops like the ones on wild mushrooms led by Tim Hensley and Jane Post of Forest Retreats engage all your senses while taking you away from your day-to-day environment. You experience eating a meal of wild and home-grown foods, listening to the quiet of the woods, smelling the musty earth, training your eyes to discern subtle changes in the color and texture of the forest floor, spotting a mushroom, and challenging your muscles to climb up a slope to reach it. You are immersed. You can’t help but get involved. You’ll remember, understand and apply the knowledge because it is an unforgettable, lived experience. Of course, repetition helps. Over and over, a workshop participant picked a mushroom that had already been identified, tried to guess what it was and was corrected by Tim. This story repeated with each of us, and we each began to think for ourselves a little more each time.

You Slow Down & Get In Sync

wild mushrooms
Oyster mushrooms. Photo by Karen Lanier

A key ingredient to the experience of attending a wild foods retreat, or any other nature-based learning experience, is the change of pace. Time to get oriented, wander around a little, or just sit and be still greatly enhances the mind’s ability to become curious. The agenda can be flexible, especially if it reflects the lifestyle of the teacher. At Forest Retreats, it feels as if schedules and clocks don’t exist. Presentations are casual, discussions and questions are encouraged, and the day flows in a natural rhythm. It’s not necessarily easy to adjust to this if you come from a more regimented pace, which is why the spaciousness of some unstructured time is welcome.

Workshops Teach Real-World Skills

wild mushrooms
Photo by Karen Lanier

Workshops like this one provide extremely valuable services beyond conveying knowledge of how to identify organisms such as wild mushrooms. There is a purpose much broader and less tangible than what could be learned from books. I’ve often thought mushroom identification is a skill I want to master, and after attending this workshop, I know that is an unattainable goal. I can scratch it off my bucket list, because I will never achieve it. That’s OK, I’m in good company. Tim Hensley has hunted wild mushrooms for decades and frequently responds to questions such as, “What kind of mushroom is this?” or “Is it edible?” with “I don’t know.” Thank goodness for his honesty. Tasting a questionable mushroom could land you in the emergency room, or worse. As Tim taught us, a guide book is just a guide, not a definitive authority.

Wisdom Comes Through Experience

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Chanterelle mushrooms. Photo by Karen Lanier

A real-world skill this workshop taught: Caution is the best companion. If in doubt, don’t try it. Hesitation can be a good thing. Caution and attention to delicate details can make the difference between a delicious, nutritious, sustainable local meal made of sautéed chanterelles, or severe abdominal cramps from eating a jack-o-lantern mushroom. As an added layer of safety, our teacher examined each of our bags before we headed home, identifying and rechecking that everything we took is edible.

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You Interact To Understand The Land

Paying attention to your land and cultivating an intimate relationship on a daily basis can pay off. Summer might seem like an odd time of year to find mushrooms abundant. Spring and fall provide better conditions, with cooler temperatures and more moisture. However, there are some mushrooms, such as chanterelles, that like south-facing slopes. Tim noticed with a few good rains that the mushrooms were popping up in the middle of July, and he took a chance by scheduling a workshop on short notice. Since he is affectionately known as the Mushroom Man in the central Kentucky region, his network is vast and his workshop attracted enough novice foragers to make it a go. Knowing the place and observing the changes over time provides an invaluable insight that can then be shared in an educational enterprise.

Our group of novice mushroom hunters left loads of nice, healthy, meaty fungi right where they were, because we just didn’t know whether we could eat them or not. We tuned into the information we could get from our surroundings, rather than just from a book or even our teacher. Why don’t these robust mushrooms have insect nibbles like most of the other mushrooms do? Why aren’t the beetles and squirrels eating them? Maybe they know something we don’t. Maybe we can learn best by spending more time in the woods with all the teachers there.

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