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Fighting the Fear Factor of Foraging for Fall Fungi

Tell someone you hunt mushrooms in the fall, and they’ll utter phrases like: “Are you crazy, do you really know what you’re picking?”
“Why do you want to do that, aren’t you scared that you might pick and eat a poisonous one?” “You don’t eat those (fall mushrooms) surely, do you?”

Statistics related to the frequency of mushroom poisonings are hard to come by, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia. While the federal agency says the poisoning rate seems to be very low, the potential exists for grave problems.

When it comes right down to it, proper fall mushroom hunting is a combination of education and caution. Furthermore, it is a process of elimination, search for common features, cross reference with official ID guides and second opinion from an expert. These steps all need to be done to completely verify what you have is an edible fungi specie, not a toxic lookalike!

The number one rule when fall mushroom hunting is to thoroughly get to know just several species that are distinctive and abundant.  The majority of the edible varieties have nicknames that mimic their characteristics, much like the spring morel, which is dubbed the “sponge” mushroom. The colors of edible fall mushrooms can blend with the drab shades of dead bark or stand out like the colors of a winter holiday pageant.

From my perspective as a longtime woodsman in Nebraska, there are three easily identified autumn mushrooms to find, gather and eat.  They are the giant puffball, oyster mushroom and chicken of the woods. These are typically found in the same habitat where white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and fox squirrels roam. Some have emerged already while others will appear soon. Look for them in or near moist mature river and creek bottom woodlands, particularly in the eastern part of the state.

With regard to other wild edible fungi in the fall, be sure to check out looking for other species such as hen of the woods, chanterelle, lion’s mane, shaggy mane and turkey tail.

Safety & Wild Fall Mushrooms

  • All wild mushrooms collected must be fresh specimens. The general guideline after gathering is to soak them briefly in salt water, rinse them with cold tap water, pat them dry with a paper towel and thoroughly cook them before eating. Use them right away or dry (dehydrate) them. Mushrooms usually do not last very long. Once they have shed their spores, the collapse and deteriorate. Although, some species like turkey tails can last much longer. And, not under any condition should you sample a raw wild mushroom! Cooking edible wild mushrooms essentially stabilizes or chemically changes the components that may cause severe gastric discomfort and digestibility issues.
  • If possible, enlist the help of an experienced fall forager or trained mycologist (biologist who specializes in fungi) when learning about autumn’s wild mushrooms. Join a mushroom club or local affiliate of the North American Mycological Association, where you’ll learn things from the experts like how to correctly make a spore print for positive ID on fungi. Go to workshops and forays on harvesting edible fall fungi, if offered.
  • Consult multiple credible, reliable apps or guidebooks with photos, and ensure that all identification points listed match your specimens. A nice field guide for mushrooms has been done by the Missouri Department of Conservation, to view it click here. Vivid descriptions and pictures of mushroom anatomy, cap shapes, surface textures and gill spacing are just a few of the features used to determine what species of fungi you have. Show your finds to experts at nature centers or state park offices.
  • Collect and identify what you think is the same species repeatedly. Some mushrooms change appearance dramatically as they mature.
  • When trying a new wild mushroom for the first time, eat just a small portion; some people react badly to mushrooms that others can eat with no problem. Always set one mushroom back to give to a physician in the event of illness.
  • Keep in mind that some wild mushrooms don’t mix well with alcohol at all, but reactions differ from person to person. It is a good idea to leave the alcoholic beverages off of the meal list when serving wild mushroom dishes.
  • When in doubt, throw it out. Never, ever eat a wild mushroom unless you are 100% certain of its identity! Don’t guess and don’t experiment! There are poisonous mushrooms that resemble the ones fit to be eaten, know the differences between them. Consume the wrong fungi and it may lead to extreme sickness and even death! As the saying goes: “There are old mushroom hunters, and there are bold mushroom hunters. But there are no old, bold mushroom hunters!”
  • When foraging alone (it is always best to go with a partner), tell someone when you’re going out and when you plan to return.
  • Adhere to any local, regional or state COVID-19 restrictions or guidelines.

Important Field Notes

  • The greatest variety of mushrooms in Nebraska can be discovered from about mid September through mid November, depending on weather. Moisture matters. Head out after a few rainy, misty few days and you should be in luck, as new species are likely to ‘pop up’ in good numbers.
  • Before venturing onto any private property, know that you must have permission from the landowner of his or her agent, whether the ground is posted or not!
  • Hobby picking (non-commercial picking) of edible fungi is allowed on Nebraska Game and Parks Commission owned and controlled properties, unless signed or indicated otherwise. A current, valid state park permit is required on motor vehicles entering state park lands. On state wildlife management areas and certain state park lands, hunters most likely will be present, so be seen by wearing some blaze orange clothing and steer clear of hunting blinds and treestands.
  • Wear clothing specific to a morel mushroom hunt in the spring (e.g. long pants, light-colored socks, light colored shirt, cap, etc.).
  • Good footwear is quintessential for fall mushroom gathering. Choose a good pair of comfortable hiking boots or shoes with adequate ankle support.
  • Among the necessary pieces of equipment for hunting and harvesting mushrooms in the fall are a container of insect repellent, mesh bag or well-ventilated collection basket, walking stick, pocket knife, Smartphone or iPhone and bottle of water.
  • Pay special attention to the presence of poison ivy. Remember the line: “Leaflets of three, let it be!” Also, know how to identify stinging nettles and other plants that cause skin irritation.
  • Fall mushroom hunters should be careful to not intentionally disrupt wildlife or cause damage to their homes (dens, etc.) and make certain to pack out all trash and recyclables.
  • Please take only quantities of edible fungi that you will use! Harvest responsibly!

About greg wagner

A native of Gretna, NE, a graduate of Gretna High School and Bellevue University, Greg Wagner currently serves as the Public Information Officer and Manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's Service Center in Omaha. On a weekly basis, Wagner can be heard on a number of radio stations, seen on local television in Omaha, and on social media channels, creatively conveying natural resource conservation messages as well as promoting outdoor activities and destinations in Nebraska. Wagner, whose career at Game and Parks began in 1979, walks, talks, lives, breathes and blogs about Nebraska’s outdoors. He grew up in rural Gretna, building forts in the woods, hunting, fishing, collecting leaves, and generally thriving on constant outdoor activity. One of the primary goals of his blog is to get people, especially young ones, to have fun and spend time outside!

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