Last month, our photo competition invited our staff to share their hobbies and pastimes. Taking some inspiration from the wide range of activities our staff get up to, we thought we’d share a slightly more niche hobby which is growing in popularity & can help you stay active and healthy.
Darker, shorter days are just around the corner & before long we’ll be swapping out shorts and sandals for long johns and boots (unless you’re a postman). Keeping in good spirits can be difficult through the autumn and winter months but there is a saving grace and something to look forward to – Mushrooms!
Foraging is a hobby which is growing in popularity and if you have a connection to the outdoors then you might be surprised at how fun and therapeutic the process can be.
First of all, some context on what Fungi (Mushrooms) are, as it’s likely that a lot of information isn’t widely known outside of the mycology circles.
Mushrooms are more closely related to us humans than plants are. Although we usually view them as completely alien, mushrooms breathe in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide. We also share the process of how we intake energy – through consumption of matter from the food chain. Mushrooms essentially keep the place clean & tidy up all the waste matter which comes at the end of summer. This doesn’t mean that mushrooms are harmful or unclean, in fact, quite the opposite. On a microscopic level, mushrooms are the architects of our natural environment.
They actively “speak” to the ground around them and form “alliances” with bacterium which inhabit the soil, they do this to keep the flora healthy, which in turn will attract fauna & then mushrooms get their nutrients from the animal droppings which are left behind. Mushrooms also live on a network which connects everything in the soil. This network is called a mycelium mat & it connects all the plants in an area where mushrooms may be located – this is because fungal intelligence is regulatory and can divert nutrients to specific areas in order to maintain floral life.
The largest living organism on our planet is a Honey Mushroom located in The Blue Mountains, Oregon. This giant is parasitic – which holds negative preconceptions but in reality, it’s the lynchpin when it comes to biodiversity. What the Honey Mushroom does is kill off large areas of forest, clearing the canopy and allowing sunlight to reach the ground, incentivising growth of new flora which in turn attracts herbivores & increases population sizes. It might feel like the wrong move to our species, but it might surprise you to know that mushrooms have had their form for 115 Million years – Us humans have had ours for around 2.5 Million years, meaning that we’re basically new-borns compared to these elders.
All this information may seem tangential, however there is a key piece of information there that will help you know where to look when you’re foraging. Dying plant matter is the sweet spot for locating our fungal friends & you’ll usually see massive outbreaks following a few days of rain. The first frost usually marks the ending of Mushroom season so the window for success isn’t huge, but it will give you a reason to look forward to the frequent rainy days!
This is the extremely tricky part of foraging which will take a long time to master but is a rewarding journey, nonetheless. Identification through sight alone is something that I’d advise against strongly as even qualified Mycologists can only make an estimate without first conducting a few tests. First is the standard visual check – does it look anything like a mushroom that is consumable? If yes, get a little closer. If not, don’t even take the risk, just take a photo and move on. Assuming the mushroom looks familiar to you, there are a few common features which we can use to identify further:
- Skirt – Mushrooms have skirts! Not all of them, but on the stem of the mushroom you may be able to see a small ring just below the cap. This is from where the cap opens up before it takes its traditional mushroom shape. This is something that will be referred to in field identification guides as it can be seen without handling the mushroom.
- Shape – We all recognise the typical mushroom shape & probably all assume that we should look for that shape when foraging. It’s a logical mistake to make, but one of the most common (and my personal favourite) mushrooms include the colloquially known “Chicken of The Woods”. This mushroom doesn’t at all look like something that you should eat but it’s very easy to identify due to its specific habitat and its common lookalike is also safe to eat.
- Surroundings – look around you. If you have an identification guide or the knowledge then you’ll be able to narrow it down further. Is the bed that it’s growing from leaves or wood? Is it near cow dung? (100% avoid if it is). Are there other mushrooms growing in clusters? All these things will help you narrow down the species.
- Spore Print – This is getting into the more definitive and scientific methods of identification. A spore print is something which is fun to do! You can even collect them and label them if you so wish – I still have the scraps of paper from the first few I collected. This step requires handling the mushroom so make sure you wear gloves unless you’re 100% certain that it isn’t toxic. Assuming you’ve safely collected a few mushrooms and are now back at home, you remove the cap from the stem, making sure not to break the cap at all. It can usually just be pulled off – or cut if you want to be precise. Then place the mushroom cap face down on a piece of white paper, so the side that is visible is completely smooth. Place a drop of water on top of the centre of the cap, then place a glass over the mushroom so there is no air flow. Then the hardest part, leave it for 12-24 hours. The spore print will reveal a number of things about the mushroom but we’re purely looking for the colour as an extra identifier.
Below are a select few mushrooms to look out for.
Orange Peel Fungus (Aleuria aurantia)
A very unusual, completely unmistakable, and edible mushroom. This mushroom is common from August to November, so there is a good time frame to get a few walks in and see this growing without looking too hard. This species can be found on decaying vegetation, usually on grass, gravel & soil.
Caution: Make sure to completely avoid any similar looking fungi which don’t have the distinctive orange hue (above) , as these can be poisonous. If you’re unsure, avoid all together.
Honey Fungus (Armillaria mellea)
This mushroom is extremely common & another easily identifiable species. It can be found growing from September to November. Appearing in large clusters, usually on tree trunks, tree stumps and dead wood. Unfortunately, this tasty mushroom has been known to cause gastric discomfort within certain people, so it’s always good practice to only consume a small amount before including it in a meal. Always cook before eating.
Caution: A similar looking mushroom – aptly named the Funeral Bell, has a similar appearance to the Honey Mushroom. Luckily a giveaway is that the Funeral Bell is darker in colour and has a much less “mushroomy” scent. If you’re unsure, avoid all together.
Chicken Of The Woods ( Laetiporus sulphureus)
Another wonderfully common species. Mostly overlooked due to its strange appearance – this mushroom can work as a great alternative to chicken! Usually, numbers fall after August but given the continuation of warmer weather, it can still be found into late September & early October if lucky. This mushroom grows commonly in large tiers on Oak trees, Cherry trees, Sweet Chestnut trees, Willow trees & Yew trees. As a rule of thumb, it would be wise to avoid taking this species from Yew trees though, as there is a chance (although unproven) that the fungus absorbs some of the toxic alkaloids from its host. It’s always better to be safe than sorry & this species grows in abundance, so stick to the safe trees. Always cook before eating.
For a comprehensive list, guide and recipe ideas, check out – Foraging for Mushrooms and other Wild Foods in the UK (wildfooduk.com)