Spending a spring day in the forest finding mushrooms is an all-around winning activity. Not only do you get back to nature, but you can end up with some delicious results.
Spring foraging is all about the experience, and education plays a key role. Whether you've never tried it before or have gone out countless times, it's important to evaluate your approach for a safe, fun, and hopefully fruitful experience.
Your absolute best bet is to join a foraging club. Not only will you receive valuable expert information, but you'll constantly learn through educational resources, workshops, and excursions. Plus, you'll have a nice sense of community and gain some new friends with woodsy interests that match your own.
You can never have too many reference materials. Field guides, apps, notes, photos, and anything else you can get your hands on will go far toward a successful forage. Take samples and cross-reference your finds as added insurance.
Expect complications, too. Some fungi change shapes over time and look different compared to previous years or times of year.
The most frightening part of foraging for most beginners is the iffy nature of fungi. They can be delicious, or deadly. And there are imposters, too, that look friendly (or like an edible species) but harbor a dark and dangerous nature.
This is why educating yourself and relying on experts is critical. You'll learn subtle differences and quickly understand what key features and characteristics to look for in a safe mushroom. Don't eat anything that you don't have full confidence in. And overall, seek out soft and fleshy scores, never relying on the mushroom's scent.
Some mushrooms grow all through the winter. Others have only a week or two of springtime availability. As you dive deeper into foraging, you'll learn what's going on when in your neck of the woods, and base your activity around this timing.
As a general rule, once temperatures are around 50 degrees Fahrenheit for about a week, it's time to head out. Dedicated enthusiasts go so far as to take soil temperatures, but you don't need to do that unless you really want to get technical. Just remember that mushrooms need moisture — during particularly dry seasons, you're unlikely to have much luck.
Growing in the same areas for years, morels like deciduous forests and even scorched earth. Scarlet elf cups and wood ears, often the first forages of spring, live on decaying trees near water. Giant puffballs tend to be found in fields. Birch polypore grow solely on their namesake.
You'll most likely find these springtime mushrooms through trial and error. Learn where to look, and remember these spots for next year. Even if they seem rich in harvestable treats, avoid roadsides and other areas prone to contaminates, and always look for clean crops without blemishes or early nibbles from other creatures.
Don't overforage. Hoarding everything from a particular spot will dramatically lessen your chances for success there next season. Plus, it cheats other foragers and natural forest-dwellers from getting their fair share.
Take only what you'll eat in the immediate future — once picked they won't last too long. Always cut them from the base, and never yank them from the ground.
Having the right tools is an important aspect of foraging. Pocket knives and scissors work well, just make sure they're sterile and sharp. Mushroom knives are quite handy because they include a brush: lightly dusting off the mushroom before storing it will keep your harvest cleaner and save on prep time once you get home.
Collecting mushrooms requires the right type of container. You'll need something that will be gentle on your harvest and allow it to breathe. A lot of foragers prefer a flat-bottomed basket or a cloth bag with a piece of cardboard at the bottom for a solid surface. Some purists will opt for a mesh bag, which affords spores the opportunity to fall through to the ground as you wander.
The choice is yours. But whatever you do, make sure to stay away from plastic. Grocery bags in particular are the worst environment for your spring harvest. Your fungi will bruise easily in this humid environment and likely won't last till you get home.
When foraging, you shouldn't bite off more than you can chew. If you live in an area where you have easy access to the woods, only take what you're going to use that day. But for those who can't venture into the forest frequently, store your leftovers in the refrigerator. Of course, this only applies to fungi that will last a few days — some varieties have a shelf life of only a few hours at best.
Keep your harvest in a partially open brown paper bag so moisture can easily escape. Avoid washing them; instead, brush them softly with dry bristles. In the event they're particularly soiled, rinse them only right before eating, and gently dry them off with a clean towel.
The most seasoned foragers you'll ever meet have days when they find absolutely nothing. This can and will happen to you. Instead of letting it get you down, know that you're in good company.
Learn from your results. Understand which areas tend to have better results. Put this info in the back of your mind, and then just enjoy the fresh air and gorgeous spring day. Foraging isn't only about the score, after all. Experiencing nature's beauty and tranquility is just as big a take-home as a full basket of mushrooms.