This is part two in a series on finding edible mushrooms.
On an absolutely beautiful day recently, my mushroom buddy, Allen, and I went out ‘shrooming. It was such a great day, that it wouldn’ta mattered if we found nothing, but as it was, we each got about a third of a five gallon bucket full – and that’s OK, if not great! There was just too much evidence of other pickers getting there before us, so as the sun began its decent, we decided we’d try to locate a new picking spot or two.
Our location that day was at about 2000′ elevation in the foothills of the Coastal Range of Southwest Oregon. We had started the day at about 400’ in a BLM tract closer to town, but we found absolutely nothing there. In the quest of finding mushrooms, you learn early-on that elevation is extremely important in the seasonal bloom of mushrooms. The simple rule is, the higher the elevation, the earlier the mushrooms bloom. Please note that this rule is simple to allow for simple people to follow it! There is nothing simple about why this rule is true. And frankly, I’m not going to ry to get into that here; just trust me that it is a complex issue with much disagreement. Besides, for us simple folk, the simple rule will suffice: if you can’t find mushrooms at a low level, go higher.
So, what else do you need to know that’ll help to find mushrooms? Well, habitat for one – most of the popular local edible mushrooms – chanterelles, boletes, matsutake, lobsters, hedgehogs, etc., are mycorrihzal, which means that they have a symbiotic relationship with certain host trees, and cannot exist without the existence of those host trees. That mycorrihzal relationship results in the mushroom growing a series of web like roots, known as a mycelium, very close to the surface of the forest floor, which you can easily see if you pull up a piece of the duff under a host tree. Interestingly, the mycelium’s relationship with the host tree is through the tree’s roots, which may extend out far away from the tree itself. All of this fascinating and mystical stuff boils down to another one of those simple rules – find a mushroom’s host trees, and you will likely find that mushroom as well. Here’s what my favorite mushroom author, David Arora, has to say on the subject.
OK, I’ll use my local forest environments as an example – our most common planted forest is Douglas fir, and the most common natural forest is Alder. Using the short list of popular mushrooms above, you could expect to find chanterelles, lobsters, hedgehogs, and maybe even matsutakes in the Douglas fir tracts. However, not only are our Alder forests almost devoid of any edible mushrooms, but their canopy is thin as well, which allows enough sun in to create thick ground cover growth, mostly fern, on the forest floor – Alder is simply not an inviting environment. Few of the bolete favorites are found in Douglas fir – for them, the coastal pines or spruce make a much better host – and this is also true for the matsutake as well. Now all you need to do is to learn to identify the trees in your area. But trees alone are not the only vegetative tip off to mushroom location – check out this very interesting matsutake relationship.
On a personal note, my favorite hot spot for white chanterellesis not only in a Douglas fir forest, but has a rather heavy undergrowth of evergreen huckleberry- most of the mushrooms are found under the thick huckleberry bushes. It’s not easy picking, but very productive. And I’m quite sure that there is a relationship and affinity between the white chanterelle and the huckeberry. In the same way, there are some types of undergrowth in the Douglas fir forest that I’ve learned to avoid – whenever I see thick carpets of fern on the forest floor, I know better than waste my time looking there – I’m not talking about a few ferns here and there, that’s fine. But not only does thick fern make for difficult searching, walking in fern is also difficult, as the fern obscures any holes or logs which can make your next step precarious. Besides those negatives, I’m also convinced that fern deters mushroom growth.
Looking for mushroom host trees works by knowing which trees are to be avoided too. Besides Alder, which is anything but inviting anyway, I learned the hard way that Red Cedar should be avoided. However, Red Cedar creates one of nature’s most beautiful forest floors – its flat, soft needles fall and thickly cover the ground in a soft spongy carpet, which seemingly deters all other vegetation from growing. My first discovery of a Red Cedar forest raised my mushroom finding hopes skyward, but an hour later, not one mushroom had been found! And to this day, although I’ll happily walk through any Red Cedar woods just to raise my spirits and breathe in that fantastic smell, I will no longer waste any ‘shrooming time there. My best guess is that the same characteristic which makes Red Cedar a great insect deterrent, has the same effect on mushrooms.
Are there any other habitat issues a mushroom seeker should consider? Yup. Personally, I always consider a flat terrain favored over hilly – you can use up a full day’s energy in a very short time going up and down while getting nowhere. And of course, if there’s so much undergrowth that you can’t even move in an area, you’re not going to find mushrooms, even if they are there. So the ideal is a flat, open floor, with enough canopy to provide a shady, moist environment. The problem with this is that most other pickers feel the same way, so you need to somehow separate yourself from all your competition. How do you do this? Let me share a few tips I’ve learned over the years.
Any good mushroom picker has a list of favorite spots that have proven productive – all the mycorrihzal mushrooms listed above will fruit year after year in the same areas. So, once you’ve found them there, you’ll find them there again. But if you don’t like the idea of sharing your spots with many others, you’ll need to spend some time searching out a few spots of your own. Best way to do that is to devote a few days to finding new potential mushrooming areas, mapping those you find, and then going back to them when mushroom season has arrived. Get a good forest map or two – it’s important to find a map that has the forest roads clearly noted. Forest roads are not always marked, but most in my area are, and the markers are usually a simple wooden T about 2′ tall, placed at the right hand corner of a junction. Take notes, make maps, and include any distinctive landmarks – it’s amazing how similar these roads can be when you’re lost.
As you’re looking for a spot, keep a few things in mind – if you only investigate spots that look good from the driver’s seat, you won’t be getting away from your competition. Remember to make frequent stops at unlikely places, and poke your way through the thick hedgerow. You will soon be amazed at how often, once you are through the nasty looking hedgerow, the forest opens up and becomes quite manageable. You’ll learn quickly that because it gets more sun and rain, the hedgerow often looks thick and impenetrable – but that characteristic only extends a few feet into the forest, and then you are in another world.
The most common detriment I encounter while looking for new spots is hilly terrain. Frankly, I hate hills – it’s just too hard, and at times, dangerous, to quickly waste energy picking on a hillside. Trouble is that there are more hills than there are level areas, at least in my woods. Forest roads will most often have a high side and a low side – it is easier to scope out the terrain on the low side, since it’s more visible. If you see an area at the bottom of the hill that looks promising, begin to look for access points, such as a side road, a trail, or places along the road where access becomes less dramatic and levels off. On the high side, wherever the floor provides easy access, stop and check out the area at the top of the hill – often you’ll find a more level forest floor at the top of the hill. Again, remember to make notes on your findings – and leave your notebook in the car, so you can check it when the season arrives. If you have a GPS unit, it can be very helpful as a notebook alternative for marking your potential spots – it’s also good to take with you into the woods on those first time ventures – use the backtrack feature to avoid getting lost.