Creature Feature: Mushrooms, Creatures of the Forest Floor

Disclaimer: This is not an official foraging guide. Before harvesting or consuming anything found in nature please consult an expert or a well trusted field guide. The Humboldt Bay Mycological Society is a good resource:

article and photos by Rob Bray

Common creatures we often see inhabiting the forest floor are mushrooms. They come in different sizes, shapes, and colors. Some are good to eat, many just don’t taste good, others will make you sick, and a small number of mushrooms can kill you. Here on the north coast of California we have several mushrooms that are great table fare. The type of trees in the forest will determine what mushrooms grow there, and the major trees that are associated with mushrooms commonly foraged in Northern California vary by region. On the coast, it’s Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, and bishop pine, but when foraging inland, it’s Douglas fir, tanoak, ponderosa pine and lodgepole pine. All but one of the mushrooms featured here are found near Sitka spruce. 

Golden chanterelle (Cantharellus formosus)

Chanterelles are one of the most popular mushrooms that people forage for.  Chanterelles can be identified by the forked wrinkles that run vertically down the stem. Other common features of chanterelles are their apricot smell and their string cheese-like texture when pulled apart. Chanterelles can be found nearly year round close to the coast due to the moisture from the fog and rains. Inland, they are found mainly in the fall.  

There are two types of chanterelles on the coast. Cantharellus roseocanus and Cantharellus formosus. Cantharellus roseocanus, aka rainbow chantrelle, has a more robust stem and is found summer through fall. Cantharellus formosus or golden chantrelle, is found summer through winter on the coast. Both are yellow-orange gold in color. Inland, there is another chanterelle, Cantharellus subalbidus, the white chanterelle, which grows in old growth forests with madrone, Douglas fir, hemlock and pine. The golden chanterelle can be found inland as well. There is a purple or blue chanterelle that is rarely found inland in the winter, usually growing near black trumpets, another prized mushroom for table fare.

King Bolete (Boletus edulis)

Another popular foraged mushroom that is found in northern California is the king bolete, also called porcini. The Boletus species contains many different mushrooms, but what makes them unique are their sponge-like pores instead of the typical gills that most mushrooms have. There are three types of king boletes that are foraged for in Northern California. On the coast there is Boletus edulis which is found mainly with Sitka spruce and Douglas fir. The other king bolete found on the coast is Boletus granedulis which is larger and found with bishop pines.  Both are found in the fall to early winter. Inland, the Boletus rex-veris is associated with ponderosa pine and lodgepole pine. King boletes are very susceptible to bugs. When you find a large one, if it is soft in places it could be full of bugs and not great for the table. They can grow quite large and usually if you see a big one, it can lead to more growing nearby. Porcini are great to dry and crush to powder for soups or flavored salts. An indicator and a common mushroom seen while foraging for king boletes is the unmistakable Amanita muscaria which has the red cap with white dots. It is poisonous, but not deadly, and is very photogenic so feel to take some pictures to share.

Poisonous Amanita muscaria

The oyster mushroom, Pleurotus ostreatus, is common to Northern California in the fall. It is a decomposer so it will be found on dead trees and logs. A common name is angel wings because oyster mushrooms are white and don’t have a typical stem so they look like wings attached to a dead tree or log. Many people grow oyster mushrooms at home for food because they are easy to cultivate.  Wild oyster mushrooms don’t last long, so you usually want to eat them the same day they are picked or within a day or two if they are refrigerated. 

Oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus)

One of my favorite mushrooms to eat is the hedgehog mushroom also called sweet tooth. In Northern California we have two varieties, Hydnum repandum and Hydnum umbilicatum. Hydnum repandum is the larger variety found near the coast, in mixed forest of spruce and fir. Hedgehog mushrooms are really easy to distinguish because instead of gills they have little “teeth” like a brush. Hydnum umbilicatum is the smaller species which resembles an innie belly button and is found inland with tanoak. It tends to grow in scattered clusters compared to its larger sister, which grows solo or as a pair.  

Hedgehog (Hydnum repandum)

The black trumpet mushroom, Craterellus cornucopioides (probably my favorite to eat, next to morels), is related to the chanterelle, but smaller and more delicate.  It is called the blue cheese of the woods for its smell and flavor. Sometimes called the black chanterelle, it is found in the winter after heavy rains, usually on slopes with runoff debris like leaves and sticks from tanoaks, beech and manzanita.  It grows close to the ground usually in clusters that resemble a bouquet of flowers.  They can be a little more difficult to clean, but the reward is worth it.  Another good reason I like black trumpets is they dry well and reconstitute with the same texture as fresh ones.

Black trumpet (Craterellus cornucopioides)

There are several other good species to forage for, but this should be enough to keep you busy as you learn the different mushroom creatures found on the forest floor and on dead trees. Here are some good tips and tools to have while foraging. First, you need a good container for carrying your mushrooms while you’re hiking through the forest. A mesh bag, a bucket with nickel size holes drilled in it, or a basket are the best options, but a paper bag will work if you’re in a crunch. Stay away from plastic bags because they trap moisture and will cause your mushrooms to become too wet and soggy. I often use a mesh bag because it allows spores to drop while I’m hiking so there may be more growing the next season. Another important tool is a knife or scissors — the ones used to trim Cannabis work well. A brush to help clean off dirt and debris from your mushrooms is useful, too. You can find mushroom foraging knives locally or online that have a brush on one end. A pocket mushroom identification book can be a good tool, too, but usually I’ll take pictures or bring the mushroom home for later identification. Water and a compass are essential if you’re going to be going long distances deep in the woods. Also, if you can, go with someone that has some experience so you can learn how to find and correctly identify the mushrooms you’re after. There are local groups and good online groups that help people identify mushrooms and direct you to locations where you can find certain ones. California is pretty open regarding mushroom foraging, but check with local regulations to be sure. Most national forests require a permit if you’re gathering commercial quantities. No permit is needed for personal use up to one gallon per  species and up to only three species at a gallon each. No permit is needed on private property. Get out and hike in the forest because there are thousands of mushroom creatures along the forest floor in different shapes, sizes and colors.