Podcast | The risks and rewards of mushroom hunting in the Northwest

Wild mushroom foraging can be deadly. But in a region crammed with thousands of edible species, it’s fiercely beloved.

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Mushrooms abound throughout the Pacific Northwest, in places like Magnuson Park in Seattle. (Sarah Hoffman/Crosscut)

With its plentiful moisture and forest cover, the Pacific Northwest is home to some of the greatest proliferations of wild mushrooms in North America. Many people are inspired to hunt for them, but there’s a fine line between delicious and deadly.

In Northwest forests, for instance, you can stumble upon beloved gourmet varieties, like morels and chanterelles, but also scarier ones, such as the aptly named “death cap” and the “destroying angel,” which can attack your liver and kidneys, killing you within hours of consumption.

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Needless to say, learning how to forage on your own can be an intimidating prospect. That’s where the Puget Sound Mycological Society comes in. It’s one of the largest organizations of its kind in the country, and education is its main focus.

In this episode of Crosscut Escapes, we tag along with Marian Maxwell, a mycologist and former president of the Puget Sound Mycological Society, to learn a thing or two about mushroom hunting strategies, obsessions and pitfalls — and the weird and wonderful world of one of the planet’s strangest organisms.


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[00:00:00] Anonymous: Crosscut Escapes is sponsored by John S. Adams, CFP, and UBS.

[00:00:06] Marian Maxwell: You know, with any mushroom, there's always some in the group that are going to probably either make you sick or do you in. Even with the polypores, you have to know what you’re looking at.

[00:00:31] Ted Alvarez: Hello listeners, I'm Ted Alvarez. And this is Crosscut Escapes. That's Marian Maxwell, a mycologist who knows as much about mushrooms as almost anyone in Washington.

[00:00:41] Marian Maxwell: And I should add that I’m a member of the Puget Sound Mycological Society in Seattle and I'm a past president. And currently on the board. And I've been a member of that club since 1978. And for about 32 years, I was in charge of their annual show and the scientific display.

[00:01:00] Ted Alvarez: Up here, there's a lot to know about fungi. The most conservative estimates suggest there are at least 5000 mushroom species in the Pacific Northwest, which could be as much as a quarter of all mushroom species in North America. That includes prized gourmet shrooms, like morels, matsutakes and chanterelles, as well as varieties like the aptly-named death cap and the destroying angel, which can attack your liver and kidneys, killing you within hours of consumption.

This delicate balance of deadly and delicious has defined mushrooms for most humans since the beginning of time. At least, it has for the portion of people who don't find mushrooms just plain gross. In fact, Marian's first exposure to our trepidation with them came on the very first day of her very first mycology class at the University of Washington, where her professor quoted one of the earliest mentions of mushrooms in the “Grete Herball,” an old English encyclopedia from 1526.

[00:01:57] Marian Maxwell: It says, “Mushroom's been fungi, there'd be two manners of them. One manner that be deadly and sleep him that eateth love it. The other doth not. They that be not deadly may be gross, slimy, disobedient to nature and digestion, be perilous and dreadful to eat. And therefore it is better to eschew them.” And so just saying that, okay, there's, you know, the kind that are deadly and the kind you stay away from, that's it. That's all there was dedicated to fungi at the time.

[00:02:32] Ted Alvarez: Mushrooms eventually won most of us over. Worldwide, it's a multi-billion-dollar industry. And while the state doesn't keep stats, experts estimate that wild mushroom hunting is likely a multi-million-dollar business in Washington. The Puget Sound Mycological Society is one of the largest such organizations in the country.

And our mushrooms are prized in high-end restaurants from Seattle to Japan. Plus, these bizarre life forms in our backyards could be the key to breakthroughs in everything from meatless diets to neurological medicine.

[00:03:02] Anonymous: So-called magic mushrooms can be effective in treating numerous conditions from addiction to PTSD.

[00:03:09] Ted Alvarez: The precise mixture of rain, conifer-heavy forests, and the soil quality of the wildlands in the Pacific Northwest is perfect mushroom habitat.

Before we go too much further, it's probably worth spending a little time defining exactly what a mushroom is. What we think of as mushrooms – multicolored caps and sponge-like masses, dusty puff balls and slimy stocks, weird polypores that hang like shelves on trees – these are fungi preparing for reproduction, usually in the spring or fall. But the actual mushroom is there all year.

And because they're here to reproduce, those fruiting bodies contain lots and lots of spores, sometimes trillions of them.

[00:03:51] Marian Maxwell: And the spores are what we call haploid or half the genetic material. The spores go out and they germinate and there they are in search of a compatible strain, or a mate, you could say.

And when they find that, they fuse their DNA and then they're able to, again, produce a mushroom. You don't get the mushrooms unless they find a mate. They can actually live a long time in that haploid state, um, where you have half your genetic material before they find that mate. And what that does is that actually increases their chances of survivability because they're still able to survive, even though they can't find a mate.

So it would like our egg or our sperm living for a while until they find a compatible egg or sperm. So they're really resilient.

[00:04:44] Ted Alvarez: That resiliency helps mushrooms play a much larger role in the ecosystem than their size and visibility might indicate. Some form symbiotic relationships with very specific types of trees during very specific times of year, improving their host tree’s ability to absorb moisture and nutrients in exchange for the tree’s sugar. Others help recycle the dead material of a forest or rehabilitate a burned area. Still others are harmful parasites that can kill the forest, too.

Understanding the behavior of a particular species of mushroom is like finding a key that unlocks how our varied forest ecosystems work. The process works backwards, too. You need to understand the precise alchemy of conditions, hosts, weather, indicator species, and so much more to find a particular mushroom. Take the morel mushroom.

This bulbous honeycomb variety is revered for its nutty flavor and meat-like texture. You've probably seen it in fancy restaurants and foragers flock to the hills and spring to try their luck at scoring some to eat or even sell to farmers markets.

[00:05:50] Anonymous: They're like a highly prized delicious mushroom that some people just search for all their lives. It really feels like winning the lottery when you find a patch.

[00:05:58] Ted Alvarez: But you can't just expect to walk into the woods and stumble onto one. A successful hunter will need to follow several intricate, detailed clues to get their morel. And the first hint might be in your front yard. Here’s Marian.

[00:06:10] Marian Maxwell: One thing that we've always said is when the lilacs are blooming in Seattle, that's time to go look for morels.

[00:06:16] Ted Alvarez: Your next clue might be at the trailhead as you begin the hunt.

[00:06:19] Marian Maxwell:  When the trillium has started blooming up in the forest, that little plant that's in association with some of the trees. When those start blooming, that's when you'll find, hopefully find, morels.

[00:06:32] Ted Alvarez: Now the hunting gets a little bit tougher.

[00:06:34] Marian Maxwell:  Now you have to look for habitat. So if you're, if you're looking for morels, you gotta determine whether you're going to go out for the naturals, which are in the forest that is not burnt, or whether you're going to go out for the ones that are in the burn areas.

They do fruit in greater abundance in burn areas. But if you're going for the naturals and you're up in the forest, you would be looking for the conifers and you would be looking in an area that has had enough moisture, maybe following along stream banks where they're no longer is any snow. And the temperature has warmed up to, oh, at least 45, 50 degrees for at least 10 days.

And it helps if, I've found that a lot of times I'll find them in areas where the sun’s shining in that early spring, where, you know, maybe that's warmed up the soil a little better.

You just have to look. You have to train your eye with morels because they look like pinecones or fir cones on the ground. You don't even see them at first. And then if you train yourself, you can develop an eye for it. And sometimes it helps just to stand back and just kind of gaze over the area and try and pick out differences in the area that you can focus on.

And you’re kind of like, okay, that's a cone, that's a cone. And then all of a sudden you see one sticking up straight and you realize, okay, that's a morel. Then you almost have to go through that every spring. I don't know why it is, but for me, I almost have to do it every spring, to train my eye over and over to see them again.

[00:08:10] Ted Alvarez: The hardest part? If any of those conditions change – temperature, time of season, moisture – you may have to adjust your methods entirely. Later in the spring, for instance, you might have better luck looking for morels near cottonwoods instead of their usual habitat of Douglas firs on the west side of the Cascades or Ponderosa pines on the east side of the Cascades.

See, it can be a lot to keep track of, which is why it's so important to say, don't try this at home.

At least, not without training. There's still some truth to what those authors of that old encyclopedia from 1526 were saying. Guessing wrong could get you in a lot of trouble. So even if you have a guidebook and have done the research, the best way to learn how to hunt for mushrooms is from another experienced, trained forager.

Puget Sound Mycological Society offers plenty of courses and outings during mushroom seasons and they host identification clinics where you can bring mushrooms you've picked for identification before eating them.

[00:09:09] Marian Maxwell:  The poison inquiries we've gotten have generally been from members of society who are out looking, and it looks like something from their homeland, or it looked particularly beautiful, so they thought they would eat it. Bad choice. You should just not go out and just randomly pick.

[00:09:31] Ted Alvarez: One time, Marian says she got a call from a woman who had been out picking mushrooms by herself for quite some time.

[00:09:37] Marian Maxwell:  Apparently, she got a guidebook and she was picking and she called me when I was, this was during the time I was president, and she said, “My husband said, I should give you a call. I've been picking mushrooms and we've been eating them.”

In her family, she had children. And her husband. And her husband got a little nervous about it in about week three when she's going by a guidebook. And he was just concerned. Thank goodness. And most of what they’d eaten they'd survived so far. They hadn't had any reactions, but she did bring in some mushrooms to our ID clinic. We have a free Monday night ID clinic. She brought it in and it was one that would have made her family very, very ill.

So they got away with like two and a half, three weeks of hunting. And she just went out, took this guidebook along and picked what looked like the mushrooms that she thought they were, but she said, “Well, you know, I really don't think I need to come and see you,” at first. And I said, “Well, what are you hunting?”

And she says, “Well, I found chanterelles and they were growing up on wood.” And generally, chanterelles don't grow on wood unless there's dirt that's kind of covering, they're not growing off the tree, but it looks like they might be when there's dirt there. But she said, “Also I found shiitake growing in the forest.”

Well, we don't have shiitake growing around here unless it's cultivated. I said, “Well, that's not a native mushroom and chanterelles don’t grow off of wood, so I think you’d better come in and see us.” And that's when she later brought in the clustered wood lover, which is, uh, would've made her whole family pretty sick.

[00:11:19] Ted Alvarez: Luckily, that family got away with eating some less than ideal mushrooms without getting sick. And they got the information they needed before they ate that particularly toxic mushroom. Again, foraging under any circumstance can be kind of a gamble. Marian says that even some well-known edible mushrooms can make certain people sick. No person reacts the same to every mushroom and your mileage with each species may vary.

Most edible mushrooms have poisonous doppelgangers and people's powers of observation aren't always equal. A distinctive gill frond or almond-like smell might appear different in the eye or nose of the shroom beholder. Getting it wrong can get scary very quickly.

[00:12:02] Marian Maxwell:  If you get sick within an hour or two, you're probably going to be all right. If you get sick six to eight to 12 hours later, you better start worrying. That's the bad one.

The really toxic mushrooms, like the death cap, you don't even get a reaction generally for six to eight hours after. And by that time it's out of your stomach. And so it becomes more critical. And, um, they've had people like the heir to the Sebastiani wine company, many years ago. He picked what he thought he remembered his grandparents taught him, which was an edible amanita.

There's certain members of the amanita group, which is our most deadly group. You can eat them. And the Italian community is big on some of those. And they go out and they gather them. And unfortunately he didn't remember right. And he picked the wrong one and I think it took him three days to die.

But it's a very gruesome death and there's no cure.

[00:13:18] Ted Alvarez: We'll be right back.

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[00:13:56] Ted Alvarez: Before the break, we were talking about how some mushrooms can be lethal, but others are still so beloved that the hunt for them can get extremely competitive. The only thing more deadly than a death cap might be asking an experienced mushroom forager to take you to their favorite mushroom hunting spot.

[00:14:11] Marian Maxwell:  So people are sometimes upset that we won't give our secret locations. But it takes you sometimes, you know, five to 15 years to find spots that fruit regularly, that you have become accustomed to knowing through trial and error when they might fruit based on the environmental conditions of that year, you recognize it.

And so when they tell you that they want you to tell them where the exact spot is, if you do that, you've got a lot of people competing for that same spot. And there are places that, you know, basically that I'm more willing to share with people than others. Like my matsutake spots, no way. No way, but I have shared some, I've shared some chanterelle spots with people, and we've also shared morel spots with somebody one time.

[00:15:04] Ted Alvarez: The relative generosity provided by Marian and other teachers has occasionally come back to bite them. One day, a man who claimed to know nothing about mushrooms approached Marian for help.

[00:15:17] Marian Maxwell:  He heard us talking at one of the meetings that we were going to go looking. And so he begged and begged to go along with my husband and I, and so we, we took him, you know, we thought, oh, well, you know, we'll be nice.

And then when we got out there, he's spotting morels. And remember I said that, you know, like for me, every, every year I have to retrain my eyes. I get out and I have to kind of focus in on, okay, now look for a morel. But we get out there and he's like zeroing in on those babies. And it was like my husband nudged me.

And he said, “I thought you said was a neophyte.” And I said, “Well, that's what he said.” He goes, “Ah, there’s something fishy here.”

Later, we found out when we went back a couple of times to the spots and they were all cleaned out regularly. We found out that he and his friend were going a couple times a week to clean out those spots. And they were actually selling them. It was going to be another source of income for him. But he had actually documented everything on his little iPhone where we were and put the coordinates down.

So he knew exactly where they were. But I guess the part that really fried me was that he pretended, he said he had never been out looking before. And I, that was the part that made me mad.

[00:16:31] Ted Alvarez: The last thing I'd ever want to do is make a person with an encyclopedic knowledge of toxic mushrooms mad. So when I decided to try my luck at hunting, I decided to go it alone and attempt to apply all the mycological wisdom Marian shared with me.

I wasn't going to pick it and eat it for all the obvious reasons, but I wanted to see what I might find. This was June, hardly an ideal time for shroom hunting, but ripe with possibilities at higher elevations where it was still basically spring. But the encroaching heat of summer meant I had to hurry.

Mushrooms are highly sensitive and regulated by temperature. That sometimes acts like a seasonal on, off switch. Now, if you live in the Pacific Northwest or read the news, or basically haven't been living under a rock at the bottom of the ocean, you can maybe guess what happened next.

[00:17:18] Anonymous: The Pacific Northwest is broiling in temperatures never seen before. It is sweltering under a heat dome.

[00:17:26] Ted Alvarez: Instead of an on, off switch, the infamous heat dome that brought Saharan temperatures to metro Seattle and melted I-5, well, that acted like a nuclear blast on the fungal community, virtually obliterating my chances. Marian tried to sound encouraging, like maybe I might find something at really high altitude. At least I'd see polypores or bracket fungi. The kind that stick out of tree trunks, like little shelves.

[00:17:50] Marian Maxwell:  Those you can find all year, even in the heat. So you might be able to find some of those.

[00:17:54] Ted Alvarez: But even at Paradise on Mount Rainier, temperatures hit almost 90. I did not like my odds. Still, I found a high-altitude spot in the Cascades – no, I'm not telling you where – and began my ascent up to the snow line.

After several hours of arduous, switchback-free hiking, I had nothing but a few hardened bracket fungi to show for it. I set up camp near a pile of remnant snow. Hounded by mosquito swarms, I went for a last look at the mountains in the waning light after sunset, and a few inches from the snow, in moldering wet grass, I saw it.

Let's see what we can find here. A cluster of frilly, beige mushrooms, sprouting next to their own miniature stream. Hmm. Looks, it looks kind of like something you can eat. When I showed Marian a fuzzy photo, she said it was a variety called a cup mushroom, but she needed to see more to determine what specific kind and if it was safe for consumption or any other use. I didn't collect it.

Instead, I'm planning to return next season, hoping to catch this resilient little cup mushroom, one that survived the worst heat wave in history in my own secret spot. But I definitely won't eat it until Marian can take a look.

[00:19:12] That's it for this week's episode. Many thanks to Marian Maxwell and the Puget Sound Mycological Society. This episode was produced by me and Sara Bernard. Our executive producer is Mark Baumgarten.

Our theme music and other sounds are by the Explorist.

You can subscribe to Crosscut Escapes on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you listen. For more on Crosscut Escapes, go to crosscut.com/escapes.

And if you like the show, please review us. It helps other people find us. Crosscut Escapes is a product of Cascade Public Media.

I'm Ted Alvarez and we'll be back with another episode next week.