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Wild Mushroom Hunting: A Beginner’s Primer

Wild Mushroom Hunting

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Mushrooms are delicious, and gourmet stores have many varieties of store-bought wild mushrooms. Unfortunately, store-bought wild mushrooms are often very expensive.   But did you know that wild mushroom hunting is easy? You can hunt for many delicious varieties of edible mushrooms in the woods and fields near your home.

This primer will give you some hints and tips to get help you better understand foraging for edible mushrooms.

Caution: foraging for mushrooms has a dangerous reputation, and rightly so, as there are many poisonous mushrooms. This primer aims to give you a basic overview of foraging for mushrooms.  If you choose to hunt for wild mushrooms, we strongly recommend purchasing a good field guide and searching with an experienced mushroom forager during your first few foraging trips.  You should NEVER eat a mushroom until you are certain that it is not a poisonous variety.

The North American Mycological Association (NAMA) is a good source for mushroom hunting information.  They have chapters across North America that schedule group mushroom hunts and other events.  They are a great place to find experienced mushroom hunters.  Visit their website to find a club near you.

What Makes a Good Mushroom Hunter?

First of all, you should enjoy the outdoors and have some curiosity about the natural world that is around you.  Secondly, you should have an abundance of caution. And thirdly, the ability to observe and remember is very important.  For example, hunters of the elusive and delicious morel mushroom know from experience that they will find these mushrooms in forests around dead trees during the Spring.  But if you are hunting for Morels, you need to know what a poisonous False Morel looks like so you don’t eat one by mistake.

Thus, a good mushroom hunter can identify the ones they seek and their poisonous counterparts while wild mushroom hunting.

Poisonous Mushrooms

A common misconception is that poisonous mushrooms have a bad odor or flavor. In most cases, this is true.  But unfortunately, the most dangerous mushrooms of all, Death Caps and Destroying Angels, are said to taste delicious.

Just half of a Death Cap or Destroying Angel mushroom has enough toxin to kill you, so it is especially important to familiarize yourself with these two species so that you don’t eat one by mistake.

Read our post about poisonous mushrooms for more information.

Edible Mushrooms

Fortunately, there are many edible types of mushrooms in the wild. Morels, portabellos, and the elusive truffles can all be found in the woods. Here are a few common wild edible mushrooms that grow in North America.


A staple of French cuisine, morel mushrooms are probably the most popular edible mushroom among mushroom hunters. They are easy to cook and taste delicious.  Cultivating morels is difficult, so they can be expensive and hard to find in stores.  Many mushroom enthusiasts hunt for morels each Spring to build their supply.

How to Cook Morels

If you decide to look for morels on your own, keep a healthy distance between yourself and other foragers: competition is fierce, and conflicts have happened in the forest during morel season.


Wild Chanterelles tend to grow in clusters.  You can find them in pine forests, and they like to grow in mossy areas.  They are  Summertime mushrooms, but you may still spot some in September and October.

Chanterelle Mushrooms in a Basket

Lion’s Maine

Lion’s mane has a unique look, like a big white pompom or lion’s mane.  They generally grow on hardwood trees in the late Summer and Fall.  Lion’s mane mushrooms have a delicious flavor similar to seafood and are said to support brain health.

Lion's Mane Mushroom on a Tree


Hen of the Woods

Hen of the Woods are also known as Maitake and Rams Head.  Italians call them Signorina mushrooms.  Hen of the Woods is another late Summer mushroom.  They usually grow at the base of trees, especially oaks, and elms.

Maitake Mushrooms

Turkey Tail Mushrooms

Turkey tail mushrooms are saprotrophic mushrooms that grow on trees or fallen logs.  They are quite common in North American temperate forests, and they grow in a distinctive fan pattern, usually in shades of brown and tan, that look like a turkey’s tail.  These are not cooking mushrooms but are used to make a tea with many health benefits.

Turkey Tail Mushrooms on a Log

Chicken of the Woods Mushrooms

Chicken of the woods mushrooms are considered one of the better cooking mushrooms.  They have a distinctive and vibrant orange-yellow color, which makes them stand out in even dimly lit forest conditions. They generally grow in temperate forests, especially in areas with hemlock trees.

Laetiporus Sulphureus

Wood Ear Mushrooms

Wood ear mushrooms were initially native to Asia and some islands in the Pacific Ocean. Today, however, they are found in humid temperate regions worldwide and typically grow in the wild on old decaying wood.

When cooked, they have a woody and earthy fragrance with a mild, musty flavor. When added to other foods, they take on the taste of whatever ingredients they’re cooked in.  So cooks mostly utilize them for their crisp, snappy texture and health benefits. They are a great addition to soups, salads, and stir-fries.

wood ear on log

Lobster Mushrooms

What we think of as a lobster mushroom is a type of mold called Hypomyces Lactifluorum, which usually attacks two specific types of mushrooms – Milk Cap (Lactarius) and Russula (Russula).

This mold completely engulfs the host mushrooms, altering the way they look. As a result, the altered mushrooms have a reddish appearance, making them resemble cooked lobsters.

The parasitic mold also makes the host mushroom taste remarkably better.  Many gourmet chefs prize this mushroom as highly as the delicious morel mushroom.


lobster mushroom


Portabellas are a staple in most supermarkets, but you can also find them in the wild.  Just be cautious, as poisonous varieties like the Smith’s Aminita resemble the portabella.

portabella mushrooms

Note that Portabellas, White Button mushrooms, and Creminis are the same species at different stages of development and are marketed under different names. White button mushrooms are the children, creminis are the adolescents, and Portobellas are the fully-fledged adults.


The elusive truffle is among the most prized of all wild mushrooms.  Although they’re produced agriculturally on a limited basis, chefs and home cooks find truffles from the wild have a richer, deeper flavor.

Truffles on a cutting board

Wild Mushroom Hunting — Conclusion

Learning to forage for wild mushrooms is deeply rewarding. Spending time in nature is always satisfying, so even if you don’t find a mushroom every time you go wild mushroom hunting, you’ll feel better after an afternoon outdoors.

Dress for the elements, have fun learning, invest in a good field guide, and use caution when identifying mushrooms. Above all, learn your foraging and identification skills from a trusted expert.

A couple of great mushroom field guides that we recommend are:

Falcon Guide’s North American Mushrooms: A Field Guide To Edible And Inedible Fungi — This inexpensive yet thorough guide covers almost all the mushrooms you can find in North America.  Plenty of photos and tips make this a great little guide to bring to your walks in nature.

Mushrooms of the Northeast: A Simple Guide to Common Mushrooms — We live in New England, and this is the guidebook that we use.  It has great pictures and is pocket-sized, so we can take it on walks.

The Complete Mushroom Hunter: Illustrated Guide to Foraging, Harvesting and Enjoying Wild Mushrooms — This book is too heavy to bring out onto the field, so on its own is not a good mushroom guide.  But what is great about this book (aside from the awesome photos) is its instructions on preparing and serving the wild mushrooms you find.  It’s full of interesting facts and even has instructions on how to grow wild mushrooms.

To learn more about foraging for mushrooms, check out our article on this blog: Mushroom Foraging — The Ultimate Guide.

If you have any other book suggestions, we’d love to hear about them.  Please leave a comment!

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