Ethical Fungal Foraging

By Max Brotman

What are the impacts of mushroom picking? 

The author bringing some friends home for dinner.

As with many ecological questions, the answer is… it depends. Fungal life cycles are diverse. To understand the impacts of harvesting we have to look at each species individually, and know the habitat enough to gauge how they are doing. Thankfully, many of our most delicious mushrooms are abundant, globally and locally. Long term studies have shown that there are zero impacts on the abundance of several commercially harvested species in harvested areas, either picked or cut. Alternatively, there are rare species that are extremely impacted. Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus) is uncommon in the wild and is a threatened species in some places. Some species grow only in old growth forests or other rare habitats. Other species are very slow growing and the fruitbody can persist for years, including popular medicinal mushrooms in the Ganoderma genus, like some reishis and artist’s conks. It comes down to understanding of the lives of the fungi.

Many of the best edible mushrooms are abundant in our disturbed forests. Logging, skid trails, clear cuts decades ago, and subsequent planting of timber species result in the abundance of some species, and the reduction of others. They are reacting to us, and we to them. Most of the forests here are at an early point in the process of succession, the continuum between massive disturbance and old resilient ecosystems. Often the spots where I find the most mushies are right next to the trail. The sidecast piles of earth from road building frequently have choice edibles growing in them. We have created the conditions for these species to thrive. Studies have shown us that picking mushrooms, at least some of the common edibles, does not adversely affect their success. We are even perhaps helping them spread spores by carrying them around, although this nice idea is not proven. Yet, there are ways to be an ethical mushroom hunter, and they revolve around relationship and understanding. 


Asking permission, giving thanks, making friends.  

By asking permission I don’t mean the current landowner. I mean the mushrooms and the forests themselves. This idea may seem admittedly odd from the perspective of our dominant culture, but is something that many traditional gathering cultures believe is necessary. Show respect to the non-human beings that you are interacting with. You can say it aloud, or just reflect inwardly for a moment. Listen to your heart and your senses. Does this being want to come with me? Do they consent? If you feel doubt, maybe the answer is no. Try moving on, try coming back later in the season, or next year. Maybe after you have met a patch of mushrooms more than once, they will want to come with you. Giving thanks is easy. Try it, it feels good. Making friends means becoming familiar with a mushroom patch. Long time foragers know their spots. This familiarity I think of as a friendship, and you can invite your friend home for dinner.

Cartoon by Joel Mielke

Relationship to a gathering place should also include awareness of and responsibility to the human legacy of care of that place. This can look many different ways, but remember that everywhere is Indigenous territory. In some places, people are starting voluntary gathering taxes as an offering to tribes on whose lands they harvest mushrooms.

Fungi are food for more than you. Deer, rodents, and invertebrates all eat different species of fungi. Other people want them, too. Take what you can use, but if you let them rot at home you have denied the opportunity to others. 

How exactly we harvest depends on the species. I pluck chanterelles  (Cantharellus spp), following the stipe into the soil and gently popping it out. Same with boletes. Afterwards, I’ll shave the bottom with a knife to remove the parts covered in soil. I prefer to clean them as I pick, so I don’t get any soil in the bag. Hedgehogs (Hydenum repandum) are good to pluck similarly, but sometimes they have a little mushroom ready to take their place at the base. If you slice it off the second one can grow. Hedgehogs are slow growers, and can reach a massive size. Treat a hedgehog patch as a garden, picking them when they are large and ready. Leave little ones to get bigger and come back later. 

Porcini (Boletus edulis) are the opposite, they swell up in just a day or two, and will start to spoil a day or two after that. They are best in the kitchen when younger, the pores still whitish, although I don’t hesitate to eat mature ones. The King Bolete is abundant across the world, and their quick emergence and spoiling encourages us to pick them. After picking terrestrial fungi, it’s good to cover the hole you’ve made. There is concentrated mycelium all around that spot and we can keep its micro climate intact by covering it with forest duff. 

Black trumpets (Craterellus cornucopioides) and winter chanterelles (Craterellus tubaeformis) occur together in tanoak-Douglas fir forests. I harvest these with scissors. I snip off a clump, leaving the soil and the small emerging mushrooms undisturbed, and they go nice and clean into the basket. Oyster (Pleurotus spp) mushrooms and honey mushrooms (Armillaria mellea) grow on logs and snags, especially alder. When harvesting these, try to remove the bigger, better ones while leaving the just-emerging ones to grow.  

The impacts of picking these mushrooms is hard to study, but there is no evidence yet that they are harmed by this process. The mushroom is the fruit of a large underground organism that will go on living for a long time. There will be mushrooms we miss that will continue to spore, and vast amounts of land behind the gates that do not get significantly harvested. Some of the well known spots in Humboldt have many people every year picking, and have been productive for decades. But remember, some mushroom species are rare, slow growing, and over-harvestable. Know the ecology of what you pick.  Responsible foraging is about caring for and understanding the non-human people we meet in the forest.