by Learning Lead – Hannah Brown

“If you’re new to mushroom foraging, it’s recommended that you don’t actually eat the mushrooms you pick; at least not for the first year or two.”

*Disclaimer: Throughout my entire investigation, I need to stress how important it is you do not take my advice at square value. This blog is only meant for reflection, and to get an idea of what it may entail learning to forage. I am in no way qualified to tell you what to eat. In fact, I feel considerably LESS confident this month than I did last, probably due to The Dunning Kruger Effect. By golly, a lot of mushroom species look alike. Seriously, if you plan to learn this skill, connect yourself with people who know mushrooms and don’t eat unless you are POSITIVE about what it is. I cannot stress this enough.* 

Welcome to another month of mushroom foraging in Alberta! This month I explored forest floors, tall grasses, and turned over logs! I didn’t find anything edible (yet), but I got some scratches on my legs and a spore print. I suggest wearing pants and long sleeves and so does the Alberta Mycological Society but sometimes I forget to take people’s advice.

The reality of climate change is hard to bear. The UN 2021 Climate Report’s dramatically increased heat and drought findings mean that foraging for mushrooms will get harder. Edmonton area, Treaty 6 Territory, ᐊᒥᐢᑲᐧᒋᕀᐋᐧᐢᑲᐦᐃᑲᐣ (Amiskwaciy-wâskahikan), has been no exception to the devastation, having routinely experienced drought and forest fires this summer. But, I’ve still managed to learn. This is why I am so grateful for communities like The Cautious Optimist team because it means we are stepping into this scary future with our eyes wide open, and we are learning ways to live and work together to thrive as much as humanly possible, even with the threat of a climate apocalypse. We are preparing for the worst by learning skills that could help us and our communities now, rather than amid (further) chaos. Foraging may be harder with such challenging conditions for the growth of many organisms, but it is a useful skill nonetheless, and one that can be built upon. Mushroom growing is another skill worth cultivating (pun intended) to feed communities.

Now, let’s talk about our beautiful, nourishing, and naturally miraculous friends, the mushrooms, and be grateful when the right weather allows them to grow. 

Amazing mushroom fact: The mycelium (similar to roots) of a fungus producing mushrooms transfer nutrients like carbon, nitrogen, and sulfates between themselves and a plant they are symbiotic (forming a mutually beneficial relationship) with. In fact, mycelium is more like a nutrient highway, transferring nutrients between plant species.

On finding what I thought might be a crab brittlegill (Russula xerampelina:

At first, I felt very confident. Here it was, looking very similar to the picture in the book, but it was paler. The only way to get a good idea was to give it a good sniff, so I cut it away from the ground (scared to touch it with my fingers because I am just so dang cautious). If it was a crab brittlegill it would have a very distinctive crab-like or seafood smell, and I didn’t notice that. I reasoned that since it was also paler, maybe it is just a younger one. To make sure it was of the Russula genus, I cut into its stem and it broke apart easily like it was supposed to, almost like a piece of chalk. This genus of mushrooms has brittle stems and gills. So I took it home for a spore sample. While waiting for that to deposit, I posted my pictures on the Alberta Mycological Society Facebook page to get some help identifying. I also talked to my dad about it and he said “I don’t like the way the gills pull away from the stem,” and thought he was right, the description does say the gills are adnexed, or “nearly free”, or “almost not attached to the stem.” It is important to read the mushroom’s DESCRIPTION rather than merely a picture because samples vary too much and pictures don’t capture everything.

The Russula genus is one of these mushroom types that are particularly hard to decipher and require microscopic identification (thank you to Ken Dies of the AMS for this info).

According to an Alberta Mycological Society member, this find was most likely a Russula rosea, aka Rosy Russula. Literature isn’t clear on whether this mushroom is edible or not, and it looks too similar to some poisonous varieties for a beginner like me to test.

The bottom line is the mushroom I found looked too similar to other mushrooms, some of which have questionable edibility while others are poisonous. So, I didn’t eat it, and I washed the cutting board I used to examine it very thoroughly. 

Advice to forage (and live) by:

Use many resources, and be skeptical of your conclusions.”

Producing a spore print:

Photo by me: I used a package for an old demo CD to get my spore print. It is subtle, but the Brittlegill species I found deposited a pale yellow spore print. It isn’t just moist paper. There is an actual print there. If you can look closely enough at your print, you will be able to see unique patterns not dissimilar to a fingerprint.

The process (from Wild Edible Mushrooms of Alberta by Tom Cervenka):

Spore prints are an essential step in identifying mushrooms that can’t be more readily identified through more superficial features like the way their gills attach to the stem, the shape of the cap, the colour, or even the smell. Therefore every mushroom forager needs to learn this skill. Here is how it’s done:

  1. Get yourself a clean sheet of white paper.
  2. Separate the cap from the stem so that the gills or whatever spore-producing area can be laid flat.
  3. Place the cap face down on the sheet.
  4. Cover with a cup or something to prevent air currents from interfering with the process.
  5. Wait 30 minutes to 8 hours for the print to form.

Once you are finished, remove the cup gently and peel off the cap. You will (hopefully) see a print of the underside of the cap. These are the mushroom spores! They come in a variety of colours, and noting this is a crucial step in identifying some mushrooms.

Photo by me: The rosy Brittlegill cap sitting and condensing it’s moisture into the restricted air within the glass jar.

I’m not sure why, but I wasn’t expecting the print to be so moist. Somehow I imagined a dry, dusty imprint like the powder on moth’s wings, but having sat in a glass for eight hours, of course it was moist.

Fruitless (hah) forage:

Sometimes when you set out you won’t find anything edible. Even so, the outing is worth it because spending time in nature with the branches pulling your hair while trying to avoid spider webs is deeply nourishing. We are meant to be in nature as much as possible, and it makes me feel really good. Every time I go out, I also learn something new about foraging. 

Mushroom Growth and Rainfall

Mushrooms need a particularly large amount of rainfall to grow. If they don’t get enough moisture, they shrivel up quickly. If it rains, do not make the same mistake I did even though my dad told me to wait; don’t go out foraging right away. Wait a couple of days. They’ll start to spring up like weeds but they need a little time to mature.

If you go too soon, you will see baby mushrooms like the ones pictured above. Wait a couple of days to find them again. 

I went back later in the week to find these little guys but I couldn’t. 

Advice for future Hannah (and you!): mark spots where you take note of mushroom crops you want to revisit. I should have left a little flag.

That’s it for this month. Tune into my next entry for more cool mushroom stuff!

Photo by me: Tiny white mushrooms beginning their ascent into the realm beyond the leaf litter.