How To Learn About Fungi Safely

by Barry Smith

Fly Agaric

Fly Agaric - the classic image of a toadstool. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Fungi season is upon us!

Although we can hunt for fungi all year round, autumn is the most productive time of the year to get outside and go hunting for fungi.

As you get more interested in bushcraft and the natural world around us it starts to become obvious that fungi - an almost taboo subject that we are conditioned to avoid - are both fascinating and very useful.

In this short article I’ll give you a few ideas about how you can get outside and safely enjoy hunting for fungi.

As a Scout Leader I have written this article with other leaders in mind but the content applies equally to any organised groups or individuals who want to learn about fungi.

Why Look For Fungi?

Fungi are an amazing thing, somewhere between plant and animal, they play a key role in their ecosystem by breaking down dead and dying matter around them.

From a young age we are trained to avoid mushrooms and toadstools, treating them with extreme caution. This leads to many people remaining completely ignorant and passing them by.

Hedgehog fungus

Wood Hedgehog - common, good eating and relatively easy to recognise but ignored by most people. Photo: Paul Kirtley

When you get interested in bushcraft, it becomes clear that fungi are a useful resource. We can eat them, make fire with them and even strop our knife with them. However, we need to learn which are safe and which ones to avoid and this learning takes time and effort.

Razorstrop fungus Birch Polypore

Birch Polypore, or Razorstrop Fungus, is a practically useful species that also has medicinal value. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Learning to safely identify fungi is key here and it's a subject best learnt from experts in the field. Luckily these experts are more accessible than you might think and usually keen to share their knowledge.

How To Learn About Fungi

There are several ways to learn more about fungi and I would recommend employing a combination of methods for best effect. I should say, though, there is a lot to learn and even the experts are still learning.

Organised fungi groups - Joining a ‘foray’ with an organised group is a great way to get outside with likeminded people who can teach you about fungi. There are a number of groups across the country that arrange forays and you can usually go along for a small fee. See the links section below for more information on finding a foray near you.

A selection of edible fungi

A selection of edible fungi - Boletes and Chanterelles - collected on a fungi foray. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Visiting fungi experts - Another way to get access to a fungi expert is to approach a local fungus group or the British Mycological Society and arrange for them to come and join you for a private foray or lecture. We did this with our Scout troop last autumn, on a troop night, and split the evening into two halves. The first half was outside, whilst it was still light, collecting fungi from a local wooded area. We then moved back to our HQ for a briefing from our local Mycologist and spent time identifying the fungi we had found.

Mycologist giving a lecture

Organise a visit from a fungi expert, or mycologist. Photo: Barry Smith

Fungi books and field guides - Field guides and books are essential in making a positive identification on any fungi you find. It’s advisable to have a selection of books. Illustrations and photographs of species vary greatly and you will find it useful to cross check between different sources. Good fungi books will have several clear pictures of each species, a description of characteristics such as feel and smell and detail on the environment in which the fungi grows.

Inkcap fungi

Use the habitat as well as characteristics such as feel and smell to help identify the species. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Positive Identification Of Fungi

Correctly identifying what you have found is the key to safely exploring the world of fungi, especially if you are considering eating what you find. A positive match from several books is helpful but a second opinion from a fungi expert is essential if you are foraging for the pot.

REMEMBER – IF IN DOUBT, LEAVE IT OUT!

Chanterelles, bacon and bannock

If you are foraging for the pot, you must be absolutely sure you have the right species. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Fungi Foraging Kit - What You Will Need

You don't need much to go hunting for fungi but the following are useful:

A basket - You’ll need something to keep your finds in and a basket is good because it allows air to circulate and prevents your specimens sweating as they might in a plastic bag.

A knife - so you can cut the fruiting bodies (the part we see) off at the stem and leave the mycelium (the part we don't see) behind in the ground or tree.

A first aid kit - because it’s a key part of our kit and is essential if we are using a knife.

Books - for assisting with positive identification.

A stick - for lifting up ground vegetation and looking underneath.

Waterproofs - because fungi season usually corresponds with rainy weather...

Something to wash your hands with before eating or drinking. If you have been fiddling around with unidentified fungi it’s probably best to clean your hands when you have finished and ensure that anyone you are responsible for does the same.

Safety Is Paramount

Foraging for fungi is fun and educational. It teaches us about natural resources we can use in bushcraft and gets us closer to nature. However, some fungi are fatally poisonous and it is therefore essential to take a safe and sensible approach, only eating fungi that are positively identified as edible by a competent person.

The most important thing to remember when identifying any wild foods is:

IF IN DOUBT, LEAVE IT OUT!

Over To You

If you are new to fungi, then let us know how you get on with exploring this fascinating subject. If you are a seasoned forager, let us and other readers know your stories of fungi finds in the comments below.

Disclaimer
This article is meant only as a guide as to how to approach learning about fungi. It is not a treatment of how to identify edible species that might be available. Nor does it provide a guide to identifying and avoiding poisonous species that may also be present in the habitat where you find edible species. If you want to learn more about edible fungi identification, you should learn from an expert with them showing you each species in person. Any foraging you do on your own is at your own risk.


Useful Fungi Links

Association of British Fungus Groups: http://www.abfg.org

The British Mycological Society: http://www.britmycolsoc.org.uk


 

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Barry Smith is a Scout Leader and a member of the Frontier Bushcraft instructional team.

 

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Tim Pike

Hi Paul,
A very interesting and timely article with great photos.
I was on an organised fungi foray last Sunday, and found the only death cap out of the whole group. I let someone else pick it!
Regards,
Tim

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Tim,

Good to hear from you. Glad you liked the article (and photos 🙂 )

Very sensible re not picking the Deathcap!

All the best,

Paul

Reply

Barry

Tim, Glad you liked the article. Finding and identifying the dangerous ones is an essential part of the learning process, so well done.

Regards

Barry

Reply

Niels

Great post!

Here in the Netherlands I’ve been searching the woods for giant puffballs lately, which are quite common and easy to identify. I’d love to see more articles focusing on a single useful fungus species:D
Fungi are the best consolation to the end of summer!

Cheers from the Netherlands,

Niels

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Niels,

Thanks for your comment. Giant puffballs make great eating. One of my favourite ways of eating them is for breakfast with some bacon. First fry the bacon, then fry 1.5cm slices of the puffball in the bacon fat. Not so healthy but delicious! 🙂

Cheers from the UK!

Paul

Reply

Barry

Niels, Great to hear from you in the Netherlands. This year I have puff balls growing on my lawn! Its the first year this has happened and I’m sure its because I’ve dropped spore in the garden from forages in previous years. You reap what you sow as they say.

Regards

Barry

Reply

Steve Bayley

Another good and timely article. I’d like to recommend the book Mushrooming Without Fear by Alexander Schwab as a good introduction to foraging edible fungi. It concentrates on mushrooms without gills and thus cuts out the possibility of harvesting any deadly species. There are good colour photographs, a general introduction explaining what mushrooms are & what the different parts are called and it includes a small, waterproof, pocket-size ID card for use in the field. Of course there are plenty of mushrooms with gills that are very tasty which users of this guide will miss out on, but better safe than sorry has to be the number one rule for foraging fungi.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Steve,

Good to hear from you. Thanks for the book recommendation. It’s definitely better to be safe than sorry. Concentrating on easily-recognised fungi without gills is a safer way to begin foraging for fungi. As you know, people still need to take care though – for example not mistaking very young amanitas for puffballs. The general principle of limiting yourself to only a few fungi that you can 100% identify is always a good one. And don’t try to learn too fast….

Cheers,

Paul

Reply

Barry

Hi Steve, Thanks for your comments. The book you mention is very good indeed, I have it in my collection, I do refer to it and the field card often ends up in my pocket this time of year. Best wishes Barry

Reply

John Larkin

Hi Paul,

Hi Paul

Nice to read your articles and see a different perspective on some topics. I too am a scout leader and have run a Bushcraft Group in Hemel Hempstead for the last 5 years. Perhaps sometime we may meet up and exchange ideas. Where are you based? Also quite like your bow and drill article as you have listed key ways to failure, an easier way for scouts to understand!

Regrads

John

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi John,

Welcome and thanks for your comment. I’m glad you appreciate our articles. Both Barry (author of the above article) and Matt on the Frontier Bushcraft team are Scout Leaders and it’s good to have their perspective on things. We run many of our courses in East Sussex. Always happy to have exchange ideas with like-minded people 🙂

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

Barry

Hi John, Great to hear from you. We’re pleased to be able to provide resources that Scout Leaders find useful. Keep your eyes out for more in the future and do let us know what else would you like us to write about.

Regards

Barry

Reply

Dave

Another great Post Paul.

This is a subject i always find myself reading about, but there is a lot to learn.
My best course of action is to just leave them alone for now. But there is a lot of tasty Fungi out there !

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Dave,

It’s definitely better to be safe than sorry with fungi. If in doubt, leave it out!

Cheers,

Paul

Reply

Nige

Just been reading about polypores after taking a picture of one while out on a walk in the woods this morning. Will definately have to pinch my daughters fungi book for when I’m next out in the woods. Another interesting article Paul!

Cheers
Nige.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Nige,

Birch polypores are indeed a very useful species of fungus, with multiple practical uses as well as medicinal value.

Glad you enjoyed the article.

Enjoy your explorations and let us know if you find anything interesting.

Cheers,

Paul

Reply

Julie bidmead

Neighbour has some wonderful fungi growing under hedge
They look like field mushrooms to me but the gills are white rather than pink and I should value an expert identification before tucking in !

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Julie,

Thanks for your comment. Anything with white gills needs to be treated with a great deal of caution. While there are some good edible fungi with white gills, there are also some that are deadly poisonous, notably some members of the genus Amanita. Other nasties such as some of the Clitocybes also have white gills.

Seek out a local mycologist and ask them if they can identify the species in your neighbour’s garden.

If you do receive a positive ID, please let us know what they are.

All the best,

Paul

Reply

James Harris

A very good article. Mycology has been a real interest of mine for a couple of years now, it all started when I wanted to learn more about using fungi as tinder. I’ve now progressed onto being able to positively identify a number of different species for the pot, just recently i was doing a charity survival challenge and the area was teeming with parasol mushrooms, not much nutritional value but they were a real morale booster when cooked properly.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Yes, positive identification is a must and a good phrase to keep in mind always. I agree that even though fungi might not always have much calorific value, they can turn something very bland into a much more appealing meal. Flavour should not be undervalued.

All the best,

Paul

Reply

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