"Ethics of Mushroom Foraging" by Damon Tighe

Ethics of Mushroom Foraging

Guest post by Damon Tighe

The harvesting of wild mushrooms, like the harvesting of fish from the sea, is filled with adventure where one’s knowledge and physical abilities intertwine to produce not only sustenance, but a connection to the environment that few people will know. As with any relationship full of give and take, our relationship to these places and to the organisms we take from them develops an ethic that is often guided by regulations around wild harvest. As more people find themselves drawn to the woods to hunt for mushrooms, where regulation is sparse compared to harvesting fish, the conscious cultivation of an ethic for each individual is just as important as understanding what is good and bad to eat. The sustainability of the harvest for generations to come and our relationship to these places depends upon it.

Regulations on harvest are usually in place to help codify the science of sustainability. The most broad stroke in regulation has to do with where one can harvest – for mushrooms in California, sadly the answer is very few public lands, but luckily some of the spaces themselves are enormous. Along the California coast there are three well known legal hunting grounds: Point Reyes, Salt Point State Park and the Jackson Demonstration State Forest. They all have different regulations for the amount you can pick in a day and Jackson is the only one that requires the purchase of a year long permit. Currently Point Reyes allows the collection of two gallons plus one mushroom and this is because they don’t want you to miss out on collecting one giant king bolete if you’ve already found other mushrooms that day. Salt Point allows the collection of five pounds per day and Jackson has no daily limit as long as you have the permit. Always check up to date regulations before you go because these have been evolving over the past few years as more people enter the forest for fungi. Heading inland, most of the National Forests allow mushroom harvesting with a permit and you’ll want to check the regulations of each individual forest before heading out as fines can be substantial. 

Unlike fishing, there are no regulations on size, how harvest takes place, or even on what species can be taken – this leaves a lot of room for the mushroom hunter to develop their own ethic. How does one develop their own ethic? The way I have thought about harvesting mushrooms has evolved over the years as I transitioned from wanting to simply find and identify mushrooms for the table to a concern for mushroom hunting in a sustainable manner for many years at the same location. The joy comes not just from the hunt and consumption, but from the anticipation of returning again in the next season to fulfill the cycle. Just as understanding an organism better increases your chance during the hunt, it also increases your ability to do so in a more sustainable manner. Anyone getting interested in harvesting mushrooms should consider getting curious about not only their identification, but their role in our local ecologies. This will make it easier for you to find mushrooms and it will give you the tools to develop your own ethic around how you collect them.

You can learn a lot about mushrooms through reading books, but for developing a mushroom harvesting ethic, you really want to find a community (online or in person) with which you can discuss mushroom hunting. Books are great at relating what we know, but often are not good at pointing out what we don’t know about a subject. This is where  communities become  important;  things that often cause the most dialogue or debate in a community can indicate  which topics we know less about. It is important to remember that  there is a lot we don’t know about mushrooms. Although they are major players in our ecosystems, very little academic energy is spent on understanding these organisms.  A large body of scientific knowledge about fungi in the western US has come from mushroom hunters, enthusiasts and amateurs. The number of mushrooms in our area without proper scientific names is astonishing – if we don’t have names to refer to these organisms, you can imagine how little we know about everything from their chemistry to their ecological roles. This means there is a lot we can all learn by carefully observing the habitat and the mushrooms we hunt to help inform our ethic.

Understanding the general life cycle of mushrooms can provide some general principles about collecting and the gear you’ll want to bring into the field. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of march larger organisms intertwined into their habitat via mycelium, the single-cell-thick threads of fungi that you may have seen on rotten wood. The mycelium is the end result of spores that emerged from a mushroom that found a suitable place to germinate and grow into hyphae. When hyphae of different types find each other and conditions become favorable, new mushrooms can be formed. When collecting mushrooms it is important to collect them in such a way that the spores may disperse as you walk. Baskets are the most common collection tool used so that spores may float free and your mushrooms won’t get hot and sweaty. I personally like to take this a step further and have a small mesh bag about the size of a cell phone that clips on my backpack where I put dried bits of my favorite mushrooms to give them just a little extra chance of getting their spores someplace I’m already going.

One of the longest debates in mushroom picking communities is whether one should pluck the mushroom or cut the mushroom. Those in the cutting corner will argue that by cutting the mushroom you are not disturbing the mycelium and thus ensuring more fruiting from that same mycelium. Pluckers will claim that mushrooms evolved to be plucked by animals and that the cutting introduces pathogens to the mycelium. In 2016 researchers gathered  data that could shed light on the debate: a group in Oregon compared chanterelle plots that were plucked, cut, or not harvested at all, and what they found was that future fruiting yields  were not significantly different (1). Another similar debate which is more about personal preference than science has to do with  field cleaning your mushrooms. It is a good idea to bring a small knife to shave off the base of the mushrooms that are covered in dirt and a paintbrush to remove dirt from the cap before placing them in your basket. This  will make cleaning them at home a lot easier and it will be a lot less likely that you’ll get a gritty bite later on. Some hunters leave their mushroom shavings around for everyone to see while others cover them up. Some people like seeing the shavings as it tells them “ this is a good spot” while others think it looks messy. Most mushrooms shavings persist for a few days at most, so it is up to you to develop your own ethic about this.

The fear of overharvesting to the point the stock is damaged for the future is a very real threat for organisms like fish, but less so for mushrooms. A 27 year long study in Switzerland where a set of plots were picked clean constantly and others were left untouched were found to produce the same amount of mushrooms year over year (2). However,  tons of people scouring the woods can result in habitat destruction. Soil compaction is a danger that can stifle the size of production and ultimately eliminate species of mushrooms. Mycelium is able to create much larger networks in airy soils and larger networks usually lead to larger fruiting bodies. Soils can become compacted when lots of people are breaking trail to look through the forest (which ironically doesn’t reliably  deliver you more mushrooms). Many different edible mushrooms species fruit really well next to the compacted soil of a well trodden trail because it is a barrier to mycelial growth, so the organism will put up a mushroom at that edge to try to ‘jump the obstacle’ with spores from the mushroom. Although fears of  overharvesting are generally minimal, there is a caveat for mushrooms that are perennial. Many conk mushrooms that grow on trees will exist in the same spot for years, with a new spore-forming surface becoming active each season. Removing these perennial fruitbodies is generally discouraged, as they can take a long time to grow back.

The joy of mushroom hunting is not simply the feast they provide, but that in the process of hunting them and eating them we begin to see our forests differently. We become more aware of subterranean water flow, temperature, humidity, the names of plants that our favorite mushrooms grow with, insects and animals that also enjoy our mushrooms. Ultimately we get used to seeing these yearly cycles and they fill us with anticipation of the hunt and the responsibility to do it in a way  that allows generations after us to appreciate. 

  1. Norvell, Lorelei & Roger, Judy. (2016). The Oregon Cantharellus Study Project: Pacific Golden Chanterelle preliminary observations and productivity data (1986-1997).
  2. Egli, Simon & Peter, Martina & Buser, Christoph & Stahel, Werner & Ayer, François. (2006). Mushroom picking does not impair future harvests - Results of a long-term study in Switzerland. Biological Conservation. 129. 271-276. 10.1016/j.biocon.2005.10.042.