The state of California has an amazing variety of climates and wild areas, providing lots of fertile ground for mushrooms all over the state. Its deep forests, diversity of trees, and complex ecosystems support all kinds of mushroom growth.
However, mushroom hunting is much different in northern California than in the southern part of the state because they don’t have the same kinds of trees, weather patterns, or landscapes.
If you don’t have any experience, you might not even know how to start foraging for mushrooms. That’s why we put together this guide to give you tips and resources for learning how to identify the types of mushrooms you’ll find, where to go, the laws you need to follow and much more!
Most people are too intimidated to start learning about mushrooms because they’re worried they’ll accidentally pick a toxic one, consume it and get very sick. Thankfully, there’s actually only a handful of really toxic mushrooms in the whole world and you’re much more likely to grab an edible, or at least non-toxic, mushroom.
However, this doesn’t mean you should go crazy picking and eating any mushroom you find. You should only ever pick a mushroom if you’re very sure of your find. You should check by comparing with photos online or, better yet, ask an experienced mushroom hunter to confirm.
Also, you don’t need to be an expert to go looking for mushrooms. Most people never go foraging because they think they need to be able to identify everything they find, but that’s totally not the case!
The best way to get started is by studying one or two easy to identify and edible mushrooms and only looking for those. Remember that everyone with expertise started off not knowing anything- you have to start somewhere and then build up your knowledge!
Resources for Mushroom Hunting in California
A great way to get started is to get a field guide specifically for California mushrooms so you can start to learn how to identify species in the areas near you. The website The Fungi of California has an extensive catalog of mushrooms (and other fungi) that have been found in California, each with detailed descriptions.
One of the best things for beginner foragers is to join a local group of other mushroom hunters and enthusiasts. Through a local group, you can go on guided walks, learn about local spots, and meet very experienced mushroom hunters.
Here are the mushroom-hunting groups that are in California:
- Mycological Society of San Francisco
- Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz
- Humboldt Bay Mycological Society
- Sonoma County Mycological Association
- Mycological Society of Marin
- Los Angeles Mycological Society
It’s especially recommended that you join a group if you live in southern California, where the hot and dry weather makes it particularly hard to find mushrooms.
You can also look into joining foraging classes led by ForageSF, which leads walks guided by expert foragers or botanists.
Lastly, check out the yearly Wild In Marin Annual Fungus Festival near San Francisco. The festival has talks on identifying mushrooms, how to cook edibles mushrooms, crafting with mushrooms, and includes guided walks!
Laws on Collecting Mushrooms
All over the U.S., it’s legal to collect mushrooms from national forests. There are five national forests in California: Sierra NF, Stanislaus NF, Mendocino NF, Plumas NF, and Shasta Trinity NF.
You can go mushroom hunting in state forests with a permit. The permit is free to get and allows you to collect up to one gallon of mushrooms per person and per day, for personal consumption only.
It’s illegal to collect mushrooms from state parks except for Salt Point State Park- where you can collect up to five gallons of mushrooms per person and per day. This is for personal consumption only and this limit should be respected, as this state park is considering prohibiting mushroom collection.
Lastly, you can go mushroom hunting on private property with explicit permission from the owner. Of course, this means that you can collect from your own property too!
General Foraging Etiquette
Along with the laws on mushroom hunting. there are some general rules that we follow to forage in a responsible and respectful manner.
The main rule, which goes for foraging of any kind, is to only take as much as you’ll use. It can be really exciting to find something edible- especially as a beginner- and you may be tempted to take as much as you can. But, keep in mind that what you’re collecting is also food for forest animals and it doesn’t help anyone if it’s rotting in your fridge!
Specifically for mushrooms, always “tap the cap” to release the spores in the cap, so that more mushrooms can pop up! The spores in mushrooms are like the seeds in fruits- it’s how they reproduce and if you pull a mushroom before it’s released its spores, there won’t be more for others.
When you’re ready to pick the mushroom, grab it from the base and gently pull so you don’t tear the mushroom or disrupt the mycelium (its root system). Some foragers even bring a pocket knife to snip mushrooms, although this isn’t necessary.
Lastly, be mindful and keep your eyes open! Mushrooms are all connected by an underground mycelial network, so if you spot one mushroom, it’s likely that there are several more around it- be careful not to step on another while you’re going in to collect!
Common Edible Mushrooms
There are tons of mushrooms in California that are edible, but you might not want to eat all of them. Most mushrooms don’t have toxins in them- or at least not in high amounts- but there are only a handful that are really tasty and have a good texture.
These are called “choice edibles” and are the mushrooms you should begin studying if you want to go mushroom hunting to collect mushrooms for dinner.
King Bolete (Boletus edulis grandedulis)
These mushrooms are called King Bolete mushrooms since they’re the biggest (and tastiest) Boletus species. Porcini mushrooms actually grow in the Mediterranean but the King Boletes of the pacific northwest look similar and taste almost exactly the same.
These mushrooms are stout and have thick stipes (stems) that are usually cream-white or light beige. They have light brown, tannish caps that get softer as they get older.
If you find a Porcini/ King Bolete mushroom with a really squishy cap, just leave it. The younger and firmer ones have a much better texture for eating and are less likely to have bugs inside.
An easy way to identify King Boletes is to check the underside of the cap- Boletes have sponge instead of gills under the caps. If you think you’ve found a King Bolete but you see that the mushroom has gills you can be sure that’s not it!
You’re most likely to find King Boletes under Pine trees, specifically Bishop Pines (Pinus muricata) or Monterey Pines (Pinus radiata).
You might find some popping up during the spring or summer, but these mushrooms need at least two inches of rain. They’re most commonly found in the fall after the first full rain when the soil is deeply soaked.
Golden Chanterelles (Cantharellus californicus)
If you’ve ever seen Chanterelles in a store, they were likely Golden Chanterelles, as these are the most popular. But, there are many species of Chanterelles, and several that are edible!
Chanterelles can’t be cultivated because they require a tree to grow in partnership with, so the only way to get some is to forage!
Chanterelles are trumpet-shaped, with their stipe blending into their wavy cap. This species has a bright orange cap with orange-white gills and stipe. They have a toxic lookalike: the Jack O’Lantern mushroom that’s also bright orange, so be sure to know the difference!
Golden Chanterelles are pretty commonly found in northern California, under Oak trees and Coast Live Oaks in particular. They pop up in the fall after rain and can be found through the winter up to spring.
Morels (Morchella spp.)
Morels are another favorite among edible-mushroom foragers for their nutty flavor and meat-like texture. In fact, they’re one of the most highly regarded culinary mushrooms in the world!
Morels also have a unique look that makes them easier to find. Their caps have deep ridges that make a kind of honeycomb pattern- something very specific to Morels.
Their caps can be light brown, white-brown, or black-brown, depending on what species of Morel it is. The stipe is usually cream white and all Morels are small mushrooms- only three to four inches tall.
These interesting mushrooms like to grow in areas where the soil has been disturbed, like where there were forest fires or old fruit tree orchards. Morels really need moisture to pop up, so they’re not very common in southern California and are only found in late winter to spring.
Common Toxic Mushrooms
Along with learning about edible mushrooms around you, it’s just as important to learn the basics about the highly toxic mushrooms too.
Amanita ocreata and phalloides
Two of the deadliest mushrooms in the world can be found all over the U.S. and should be avoided at all times. These are the Destroying Angel (Amanita ocreata) and Angel of Death (Amanita phalloides).
Their names may sound a bit dramatic but they both contain toxins that cause liver and kidney failure, leading to death. And they look as dramatic as they look: both are completely white and large mushrooms, reaching several inches heigh and with a cap several wide.
However, when they’re young, before the cap has fully opened, they resemble puffball mushrooms. Because of these two, I have a rule to simply never pick any white mushrooms.
Many species of the Galerina genus grow throughout California and many of these are toxic- like the Galerina marginata. Galerina mushrooms are tiny and grow in “troops”, often found growing in the same area but not in tight clusters.
These mushrooms have a long and skinny stipe, topped with a delicate, domed cap. They look like tiny little umbrellas!
The Galerina marginata is brown but colors can vary depending on the species. Unfortunately, these mushrooms are pretty indistinguishable- which is exactly why you need to be sure you know what you’re picking.
Similar to Galerina mushrooms, not all species of Lepiota mushrooms are toxic but there are some that contain deadly amounts of toxins. For this reason, it’s best to stay away from all mushrooms of this genus until you can certainly identify the different species.
Anyhow, there aren’t any species of Lepiota that are choice edibles, so you don’t have any reason to be picking these mushrooms.
Lepiota mushrooms are small to medium, averaging three to four inches tall. The colors vary from white, beige, brown, or purple depending on the species. Many species have a distinct, darker color at the center of the cap.
Where to go Mushroom Hunting
For starters, you need to go hunting on lands where it’s allowed, as I explained in the earlier section. But once you get there, where do you go? It’s just as important to know where to look and go once you’re in the forest.
In general, look in areas with lots of “forest litter”, this means fallen leaves and branches that cover the first floor. The forest litter keep moisture and warmth locked in the soil, which creates perfect conditions for mushrooms to pop up.
In California, mushrooms often grow near Oak, Pine, and Douglas Fir trees for those that grow on living trees. There are also many mushrooms that grow on dead wood that’s fallen.
Although, when searching for a specific mushroom you should research its habitat. Some mushrooms will only grow with a specific species of tree.
When to go Mushroom Hunting
The ideal mushroom season really depends on if you live in the northern or southern half of the state since the weather is so different in the two parts. Also, every mushroom has its season that will be more precise than the general “mushroom hunting season.”
In California, mushrooms can be found from fall through late spring. Sometimes, mushrooms will pop up in the summer in northern California if there’s enough rain or humidity.
The mushroom season is much shorter (or doesn’t even happen) in southern California because that part of the state is so dry. Mushrooms need moist soil and often southern California doesn’t get enough rain to allow mushrooms to grow.
However, if you do get some rain- go out hunting, this is your best chance! Rainy winters in southern California can be ideal.
In northern California, mushrooms will pop up throughout the fall and continue into the winter until temperatures drop to freezing. Once temperatures warm again in the spring- the mushrooms come back! They’ll continue fruiting during the spring and into the summer as long as the weather remains cool and humid.
Get Out into the Field!
There’s so much to learn when it comes to foraging mushrooms, so I can’t cover it all here. But remember, you don’t need to know everything there is to know!
By sharing information about local mushrooms and mushroom hunting opportunities around you, I hope to give you more confidence to go out and start mushoom hunting.
You can- and should- begin by just walking through a forest and trying to identify some Chanterelles or Morels, for example, without picking any to eat. Or even better, join a group and go on guided walks to practice identifying.
Either way, what’s important is that you make an effort to start building your knowledge and keep at it. Being a plant expert doesn’t happen overnight! (Speaking from personal experience!)
Editor’s Note: While A-Z Animals does its best to ensure the accuracy of its content and photography, do not eat wild mushrooms without firsthand knowledge from a local mycologist or mushroom expert as many types of mushrooms look similar.
- 9 Wild Mushrooms Found in Fall
- 10 Wild Mushrooms Found in Winter
- What is the Best Month for Mushroom Hunting?
- The 10 Best Culinary Mushrooms
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Paula Savelius/Shutterstock.com
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