Oh what a year it’s been in the mushroom foraging world for me this year! From the start to the finish, it was an excellent year for sure. Most years are pretty consistent, however every year shows different patterns. This past years the morels were great but the reishi was not as much. This year saw some great flushes of chanterelles, chickens, honeys, milkies, turkey tail and so many more, the maitake and lions mane were not as abundant as past years. All in all it was a busy time foraging mushrooms throughout the whole year. I attended my first mushroom festival and for the third year in a row I taught many groups and visited a few private homes to teach. Since all my products are made with wild foraged mushrooms, I spend the majority of my time in the forest. Each season brings a new experience and a new set of mushrooms with it. I love to watch the changes and the consistency from year to year. I’m truly blessed to spend my time among the trees, picking mushrooms, experiencing the serenity of nature and doing what I love the most! Here’s a look at the year passing by through the eyes of a wild crafter.
My first good hunts began in February, being my birthday month, I always like to do a good chaga hunt. The first couple of months of the year are slim pickins, mostly chaga, turkey tail, usnea, some jelly mushrooms and birch polypore, almost all of which grow in high elevations. For me that’s the way I like it, the high elevations have a different feel, the forest seems denser, the landscape more rocky, and of coarse the views are a bit more stunning. Winter mushroom hunting is also a solitary time, it’s quite rare that I see anyone on the trail during the winter months, at least in places further away from the city. I love the quiet, with occasional sounds of creaking trees or breaking icicles, the brisk, cold air with deep breathes and how crisp everything looks. The advantage to winter foraging is the bare trees and lack of plant coverage, the ability to see through the forest is nice, especially with chaga, which can really stand out from a distance, however sometimes, burls, broken branches, holes in the tree or dark moss can easily fool you.
Then came March and April and the season many mushroom lovers look forward to more than any other hunt, morel season! For much of my first years mushroom hunting, the morel was the ghost, I spent a lot of time searching but always coming up empty. Over the next few years I’d find a handful until I finally found a few patches I could count on every year. This year was my first real banner year finding them, but not just on my own accord, a good friend of mine, that’s been hunting morels for many years around here, invited me along for the season. My friend taught me about patterns, environments, using mapping and some strong instincts to really dial in where the elusive morels hide out. We set out early in the mornings and would spend the whole day, light to dark, searching, picking and having a blast in several different forests on the hunt. The four types of morels in our region are black, gray, blonde and half free morels. Trees are always a factor in finding morels, poplar, elm and apple trees are the top producers in the blue ridge mountains. Many mushrooms are associated with and have a relationship with different trees, this is one of the best tips I can give people. Morels take patience, lots of slow, observant steps, and although it happens, finding just one is rare, morels grow in patches, much like chanterelles, so were there is one, there’s more! It’s truly an exciting hunt and fun to see others finds in posts from around the country and locally. Out of all the mushrooms I forage, morel and chaga spots are not ones I share too much. This year I dehydrated a fair amount of morels to eat through out the year and I still have some left for christmas dinner.
May and June bring about an exciting time that moves in slowly. There’s always seems a space of time between when the morels end and the new crop of mushrooms move in. Pheasant backs are some of the first to show up, they have a strong cucumber smell and taste good when they are small, growing bitter with age and size. Corals of all kinds also begin, the crown tipped corals are the only ones I eat, many corals are tough on the digestive system and some are toxic. You may see different jelly mushrooms or cup fungus, also the very popular chicken of the woods begins it’s season, that lasts through late fall. The berkleys polypore is one that can be too tough to eat and can often fool you into thinking it’s a big chicken of the wood. Indian pipe/ghost pipe is not a mushroom but a wild flower that feeds off mushrooms, and is powerful medicine, these beauties grow in large clusters during these months. The big prize of the spring is the reishi however. Reishi is one of the most beautiful mushrooms to find, with it’s shiny, lacquered appearance, reishi is amazing medicine used and revered for much of history. Here in this region they prefer hemlock trees and grow in groups, they can grow quite large as well. This past year the reishi was not nearly as abundant as past years.
July and August are when things really get popping. This is prime time to see lots of the diversity these mountains have to offer. It’s my favorite time to take groups out. The chanterelles are a delightful mushroom to forage, with a wide range of variety, there are golden, smooth, fragrant, flame colored, peach, cinnabar and the black trumpets. They are found in big patches and the smell, color and taste are all wonderful. The milky or lactarious family can be quite prolific. Blue indigos and leatherbacks are two of the most popular and both tasty. The boletes also dominate the forest floor, with over 200 different varieties in our region, I focus on about 5-10. The old man of the wood, the shaggy stalk, the painted, the slippery Jack, many boletes are mushy and an acquired taste but fun to see, especially the ones that turn colors. The beefsteak is a unique one as you can eat it raw. Cauliflower mushroom is a delicious mushroom and hard to mistake for anything else. The russula family is a colorful one, they can be green, red, purple, yellow or brown, not the best edibles however. Lobster mushrooms are a parasitic fungi that takes over other mushrooms and become the bright orange lobster claws that hide in the pine needles. The bleeding tooth is an interesting fungi and so is cordyceps. Cordyceps, aka the zombie mushroom, infects an insects body and grows out of its brain! These little wonders are medicinal and are tricky to find, this year I found a few and couldn’t be happier about that. It takes really slowing down and observing closely. During this time it’s important to be aware of the deadly mushrooms too! The amanita family rules this realm, showing up in lots of different colors and looks. Once you become familiar with some distinctive features, it’s easy to pick them out in the wild.
September and October usher in the fall mushrooms. Hiding in colorful and fallen leaves, Maitake or hen of the wood and lions mane stand out during this time of year. Both for their medicinal benefits and for their taste. Lions mane is great for brain health and taste like seafood. Bears head tooth/comb tooth look very much like lions mane and are similar in taste and benefit. Maitake has a nutty flavor and it fights high cholesterol among other benefits. Lions mane loves beech and oak trees, Maitake is drawn to oaks. Hens are masters of disguise, blending perfectly with the foliage and surroundings. Also growing at the base of oaks are honey mushrooms, which grow in large clusters but to be eaten in small doses. Puffballs are cute little edibles. Earth stars, stalked puffballs and stink horns look like they came from outer space. Blewits are a beautiful purple color, to be foraged with caution as there are toxic purple corts. Shrimp of the woods is a parasitic mushroom that takes over honey mushrooms, they are a really good edible. The resinous polypore or steak of the woods is another good edible mushroom, typically trimming off the outer edges to sauté. Chicken of the woods is still abundant in fall, as well as other summer mushrooms hanging around. Over all fall is a great time to forage!
November and December end the year just as it began, mushroom wise that is. It’s a time revisit the high elevations or go south to find the last of lions mane. As my radar would have it, I finished the year with a foraging trip to South Carolina and found some beautiful lions mane, 5 to be exact and finding three more I couldn’t get to! Foraging chaga, turkey tail, and birch polypore here for the remainder of the year. You may find edible winter oysters or brick tops out during this time as well.
This year I also attended my first mushroom festival in Pennsylvania, I started several new collaborations that brought about chaga soap, chaga lager beer and a cbd/mushroom tincture. I attended a mushroom growing blitz, vended new markets, made some great foraging trips and made lots of new connections! It’s been a fantastic fungi year!! Can’t wait to see what 2023 has in store….