by Learning Lead – Hannah Brown

Hello! My name is Hannah Brown and I am an Edmonton-based writer and nature lover holding a BSc degree. I love bird watching and playing guitar, violin, or keyboard, depending on my mood and who I’m playing with. My values are rooted in environmentalism, social justice, and building community.

This year I have chosen to take up a dangerous hobby: edible mushroom foraging. 

Enter the beautiful Cautious Optimist Project, a legacy project for an absolutely wonderful human being I never had the privilege of meeting. Danielle Moore began her own blogging project before she passed away. This project was designed to highlight learning new skills that would be useful during a climate apocalypse. She was a person who inspired hope in those around her, with full awareness of how troubling our world is today, and who fostered community where there is isolation and despair. I feel deeply honoured to help continue her legacy.

Edible mushroom foraging is a skill I’ve been wanting to learn for a long time, for a number of reasons. I adore the natural world and am fascinated by everything in it, and I have always loved the taste of mushrooms. Scanning the trees, logs, and forest floor for mushrooms is also a change to my usual scanning of trees and skies for birds. Mushrooms are also an excellent source of nutrients, a great meat substitute for vegetarians and vegans, grow from decaying (and live) matter, can grow without sunlight, are easy to grow, produce a ton of spores (like seeds in plants), and don’t need to be pollinated. Therefore, they are an extremely good candidate for apocalypse food

So, here it goes.

To begin immersing myself in the world of mushrooms, I listened to my friend’s podcast episode from one of our local student radio stations, CJSR. In it, an expert, Candice Cullum, explains a lot about the process of mushroom foraging with great enthusiasm and knowledge. She shares the invaluable wisdom that every forager, novice or expert, must follow: “Any doubt, throw it out.” Then, I joined the Alberta Mycological Society (AMS). This people-powered nonprofit consists of academics, storytellers, artists, and parents who are at different levels of expertise. 

“Any doubt, throw it out.”

Candice Cullum- Expert Mushroom Forager

After the third lockdown in Alberta (yes, third), two of the mushroom forays were canceled. I was disappointed; I had wanted to start learning in May. Will I be able to find morels now? I didn’t know, but I hoped so because I have always wanted to try them. Fortunately, there are many other mushroom varieties out there that I can enjoy as the season gets on. I then joined the AMS Facebook group and read the About section, which gives helpful detail on how to ID mushrooms and I announced my summer project to the group, asking for general support.

It turns out there are many steps you must take to identify mushrooms, including something unique to mushrooms: 

Photo by me: My trusty basket with my Wild Edible Mushrooms of Alberta (by Tom Cervenka) book for identifying mushrooms, wax paper pieces to separate my finds, a knife to remove the mushroom, and binoculars in case I come across any cool birds.

Spore prints

This is how you identify the colour of the spores the mushroom produces. I will show you how this works in the coming blogs.

Realizing I couldn’t keep waiting for a group foray to work out, I set out with my partner for the first run, keeping it simple and close to home by going to the Edmonton River Valley. Wild Edible Mushrooms of Alberta book in hand, I stomped my way over to the lower paths. If you are in Alberta and want to follow along on my journey, I recommend picking up that book. The mushrooms I will be consuming will show up there.

Of course, my first foray happened during a heatwave and just after I got my second COVID-19 vaccine, so I will not be including anything about eating the mushrooms I found – an extra sensitive belly is not willing to experiment! Look forward to that for the next entry!

The first forage

As I was walking through the forest filled with aspens, mountain ash, and lots of dead trees (snags), I carried my trusty basket with me.

Even though it happened late, I did come across some cool mushrooms.

Photo by me: I’m not sure what this one is, it wasn’t in the book.

Wax paper or brown paper bags are necessary in the field in order to prevent cross-contamination. If you are uncertain and accidentally pick a poisonous mushroom, you do not want it touching any of the mushrooms you end up eating. Better safe than sorry. My wax paper is extra pretty because it was used to wrap a bouquet of flowers my partner gave me for my birthday.

Most of the mushrooms I found were growing on dead logs or trees. Since these organisms often consume decaying matter, they may grow on dead organisms, or among leaf litter, and other shaded and moist areas where proper break-down of nutrients can occur. So I looked under the leaves and in the shadows to see what I could find.

Photo by me: Fomes fomentarius, aka tinder conk (not to be confused with a great match on a dating app). Not edible; used as a fire starter. Could also be Phellinus igniarius, false tinder conk. Also not edible.

I was excited and happy to see every mushroom; it’s amazing what comes out when you start looking for it. But I thought it was unlikely I would find anything edible for my first run, and even if I did, I wasn’t very confident in my abilities to properly identify, even with help.

But I was wrong. I came across a most distinctive and pleasing growth of Hericium coralloides.

I jumped for joy and prized it from the dead log it was growing on. I took only a little, for two reasons: 

  1. I didn’t know if I was right and even if I was, you need to test small amounts of a new mushroom to see how you react to it. Some people get upset stomachs from some edible mushrooms.
  2. Lots of folks sleep rough in the river valley, and some may know how to forage and prepare wild food; I don’t want to limit their supply when I can easily buy and prepare food from a grocery store.
Photo by me: The beautiful Hericium coralloides, aka Coral Tooth Fungus, appearing unusually early this year.

When I get further away from the city, where the supplies are more bountiful, I will feel better about taking more. When I do so, I will need to make sure I am going somewhere I am allowed to forage. More on this to come.

Hopeful upcoming finds: giant puffball, (late) oyster mushrooms, chicken of the woods.

That’s it for this time. Join me next time to see more of my findings and to see how I prepare and eat edible wild mushrooms.