Mushroom hunting is a great hobby that, thankfully, more and more people are getting into. It’s a great excuse to go for a walk in the woods, to learn about native flora, and can potentially result in free food!
Foraging in general became very popular during the pandemic as people were looking for a way to get outside and to connect. Mushroom hunting has been especially popular in the Pacific Northwest states because this region is fertile mushroom ground.
Still, many people would like to learn how to identify and forage for mushrooms, but don’t know where to start or don’t feel confident enough to. Understandable- because there is lots to learn- but in this article, I’ve put together all the basic information to get you on your way to bountiful mushroom harvests!
One of the biggest obstacles for most people to even get into mushroom hunting is the fear of picking a toxic mushroom. This is one of the greatest concerns for foraging any kind of wild food.
And it’s a valid concern! You should be aware of the risks and don’t eat just anything you find. However, through learning how to easily identify the edible and highly toxic mushrooms, you can gain confidence about your finds.
When it comes to eating wild mushrooms, you should be 100% sure of your find if you’re going to eat it. But the only way to build up your knowledge so that you can be 100% sure is to go out and start trying to identify!
Many people don’t realize that you can go out mushroom hunting but not actually bring any mushrooms home- it’s great to go and just practice finding them. Plus, experienced foragers come home empty-handed all the time.
Mushroom hunting is more about learning the mushrooms, and eating them is just a bonus! So, don’t second guess yourself too much and just get out there!
It’s good to have some zeal about mushroom hunting, but it’s important to have some resources to guide your research. There’s so much depth to the information available about mushrooms, plus so much new information that’s still coming out!
First off, it’s useful to have the Washington Poison Center’s number in the worst-case. scenario: 1-800-222-1222. Hopefully, you never have to use this but it’s better to have it than to not.
Every October in Seattle, the Puget Sound Mycological Society hosts the Annual Wild Mushroom Show. It’s the largest exhibit in Washington state that displays and educates people on wild mushrooms found in the area.
There’s also the PNW Mushroom Foraging and Identification Facebook group. This brings together people from the whole region to share their finds and help identify others.
One of the best things you can do to get started is to join a club or organization in your area. This allows you to meet other people, both experienced and novice, to ask questions, find good hunting spots, and go on guided walks. Here are the groups for Washington:
- Puget Sound Mycological Society
- South Sound Mushroom Club
- Northwest Mushroomers Organization
- Spokane Mushroom Club
- Southwest Washington Mycological Society
- Snohomish County Mycological Society
- Yakima Valley Mushroom Society
New groups can form at any time (or you can start your own!) so keep your eyes out for new organizations if you’re looking for something closer to your area.
Laws and Rules About Collecting Mushrooms
Along with identifying the right kind of mushrooms, you need to follow the laws on collecting them. Throughout Washington state, the rules and requirements for harvesting vary. So, it’s important to be aware of these when you decide to go mushroom hunting.
All across the state, it’s prohibited to forage on Native American reservations. Also, you will need a permit for the commercial harvesting of mushrooms.
The National Forests in Washington allow mushroom hunting, but each has unique regulations. For example, the Gifford Pinchot National Forest requires a free permit while Colville National Forest requires a $20 permit.
This Mushroom Rules PDF from PSMS is an extensive resource with information for each of the national forests, national parks, and state and city parks. It covers where a permit is needed, if there’s a specified season, the harvesting limit, etc.
It’s illegal to collect mushrooms from camping grounds, conservation areas, or natural area preserves. You need explicit permission from the owner to collect mushrooms from private property.
Go to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources page for more detailed information or to find more resources.
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, it helps to “tap the cap” to release the spores. The spores in mushrooms are somewhat like the seeds in fruits- it’s how they reproduce so helping them release their spores supports new mushroom growth!
When you’re ready to pick the mushroom, grab it from the base and gently pull so you don’t tear the mushroom. Some foragers bring a pocket knife to snip mushrooms but this isn’t necessary.
Be mindful and keep your eyes open! Mushrooms are all connected by an underground mycelial network. 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.
There are thousands of mushrooms that are technically edible– that don’t contain toxins- but don’t taste very great. There’s a smaller group of mushrooms that are edible and tasty, and these are called “choice edibles.”
Washington has many species of choice edibles that are loved by foragers and chefs alike. One important thing to note with eating wild mushrooms is that they must always be cooked. Even if a mushroom is classified as edible, in its raw form it can contain toxins that cause indigestion.
King Bolete (Boletus edulis var. grandedulis)
The King Bolete is a tasty and impressive-looking mushroom that can be found all along the Pacific Northwest- even up to Alaska! This mushroom is one of the more well-known species of the Boletus genus, which includes other Boletes and Porcini mushrooms.
These mushrooms are several inches tall, with thick stipes (their “stem”) that seem puffed out. They have rounded light brown caps. A firm cap indicates that it’s a younger and healthier mushroom, ideal for picking.
An easy way to identify Bolete mushrooms is to look at their underside- Boletes have sponge under the cap rather than gills, like most mushrooms you’ll find. The underside of the cap will literally look spongey and this is a great give away that you (probably) have a Bolete.
King Boletes can be found in damp forests, often with Pines. Specifically, they’re known to symbiotically grow with Bishop Pine (Pinus muricata) and Monterey Pine (Pinus radiate).
King Boletes might be found in the spring or summer if there’s enough humidity in the air and ground. Their main season is mid-fall when the fall rains bring consistent moisture and they can sprout prolifically.
Morel Mushrooms (Morchella spp.)
Morel mushrooms are one of the most highly sought-after species in the world because of their delectable rich, nutty flavor and meaty texture. They’re a favored culinary mushroom and a true wild species, which means they can’t be cultivated- only foraged.
You might already recognize Morel mushrooms by their iconic look. These tiny mushrooms, only 2-3 inches tall, have a funky cap that almost looks like a honeycomb. The cap has deep ridges that give Morel caps a unique texture from other mushrooms.
The appearance of Morels varies depending on the exact species. Some have a creamy white color, others are more yellow, and some are almost black (these are called “Fire Morels”).
There are several species in the Morchella genus and they’re all edible!
These mushrooms love moisture and warmer temperatures, so their season is the spring, after warm spring rainfall. They might be found in the summer too, as long as there’s good moisture and the temperatures aren’t too hot!
Morel mushrooms are known to be found in places where not many other things grow. Particularly in areas that were recently burnt, but also disturbed places like old orchards or logging areas.
Oyster Mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus)
You’re likely also familiar with Oyster mushrooms, as they’re very popular culinary mushrooms and can easily be grown at home! These mushrooms have a neutral taste that makes them easy to add to any dish.
Oyster mushrooms grow horizontally in large clusters with wide, flat caps. They have long, pronounced gills on the underside. Often, Oyster mushrooms are pearl-white but there are species that are gray-brown, pink, and yellow!
Oyster mushrooms are decomposers that grow on dead or dying wood. In Washington, they’re often found growing on dead Alder trees or stumps.
These mushrooms prefer cooler temperatures, so they’re often found in fall up to the first frost. But, they need moisture, so if you’re having a dry fall you might not see as many Oysters.
Lion’s Mane (Hericium eranacius, H. coralloides, H. americanum)
Lion‘s Mane is another well-known edible mushroom but it’s also used for medicinal purposes in many plant medicine and homeopathic practices. As this mushroom becomes more popular, more people know the name Lion’s Mane but it actually refers to several mushrooms of the Hericium genus.
It’s also a very recognizable mushroom. Lion’s Mane mushrooms don’t look like your standard mushrooms with a stipe and cap. Instead, these mushrooms grow to form a large block that looks like it has shaggy hairs- hence “Lion’s Mane.”
Lion’s Mane mushrooms are typically a clear-white but as they age they become more yellow or brown.
These mushrooms grow on dead or decaying wood on the forest floor or on stumps. They’re often found lying low on fallen pieces of wood or the base of dead trees.
Common Toxic Mushrooms
As important as it is to learn to identify the edible mushrooms you’re hunting for, you also need to have a strong idea of the ones to absolutely avoid. Learning to correctly identify the edible and toxic mushrooms in your area helps you be even more confident of what you’ve found.
Deadly Galerina (Galerina spp.)
The name Galerina can refer to many mushroom species in the Galerina genus because there are several toxic species. However, not all Galerina mushrooms are toxic but until you learn to identify individual species it’s best to avoid them all.
Many species of Galerina mushrooms are kind of indistinguishable, looking like any other brown mushroom. Their generic look emphasizes the need to be completely sure of your find before eating.
Many Galerina mushrooms are quite small, only 2 to 3 inches tall with a cap about 2 inches in diameter. They have skinny stipes and conical caps, resembling tiny umbrellas!
They often grow on dead or decaying and damp wood. Soaked logs on the forest floor are prime for Galerina growth.
Ingesting the toxic species causes kidney or liver failure but the effects don’t kick in for 4 or 5 days, at which point the toxins are too deep in your system.
Death Cap (Amanita phalloides) and Destroying Angel (A. ocreata)
There are several toxic mushrooms in the Amanita genus, but these two are highly deadly. They’re known all over the world as fatal mushrooms that are not to be meddled with.
They’re both large mushrooms, often reaching 5 to 7 inches tall with caps about 3 to 5 inches in diameter. However, Amanita mushrooms go through an “egg phase” when they first begin to emerge from the ground were they look like white puffball mushrooms.
The Death Cap is a white mushroom with a cap that’s yellowish- or greenish-white. The Destroying Angel is also white with a slight cream or even pink tint.
Both of these mushrooms can be found in damp forests with rich forest floor nutrients, often in the coastal rainforests. The Destroying Angel in particular is known to live at the base of Coast Liveoaks (Quercus agrifolia).
Jack O’Lantern (Omphalotus subilludens, O. olivascens)
It would do you good to properly identify the Jack O’Lantern mushroom, as it looks similar to the edible Pacific Golden Chanterelles (Cantharellus californicus). Both mushrooms are commonly found in the Pacific Northwest and Chanterelles are highly desired edibles.
There are actually a few species of the Omphalotus genus that are called Jack O’Lantern because they share similar traits.
The “Jack O’Lantern” mushroom has a stipe that merges right into the cap, with long gills stretching along the underside of the cap. The cap is bright to faded orange and edges are wavy. But it’s not called a Jack O’Lantern because its orange color- these mushrooms are slightly bioluminescent at night!
Although the amounts vary per species, Jack O’Lantern mushrooms contain a toxin that causes terrible indigestion. Much different feeling from the tasty Golden Chanterelle!
Thankfully, Golden Chanterelles are in season in late summer to early fall, while Jack O’Lanterns come later in the fall. Regardless, be aware of these lookalikes when you come across an orange mushroom!
Where to go Mushroom Hunting
It’s important that you first read the section on mushroom hunting laws and regulations, so that you go to a place where it’s legal. But once you’re there, you need to know where to look!
Many of these national parks and forests are huge so you could wander around for hours and not find anything because you don’t know where to go and where to look.
Mushrooms need nutrients to consume so they can pop up, so they’re often found growing on the forest floor where there’s lots of debris. “Forest fluff” like fallen leaves, branches, and grass help nourish mushroom growth.
Also, there are many species of mushrooms that grow symbiotically with various tree species. So, it’s common to find mushrooms growing at the base of healthy trees or others decomposing dead wood. If you’re searching for a certain species, research to see if it grows with a specific tree.
The Olympic Penninsula is a trusted region for mushroom hunting and in particular for finding King Boletes. The constant moisture and cool fall temperatures here are ideal for mushroom growth!
You don’t need a permit to mushroom hunt in Olympic National Forest and you can collect up to one gallon of mushrooms per day. The Hoh Raindforest and Upper Dungeness trail are also loved locations.
North Puget Sound
In the North Puget Sound region and north of Seattle, there’s also tons of fertile mushroom hunting grounds. Snohomish County and various parts of Whidbey Island are known to be great spots.
Of course, many parts of Washington are rich with mushrooms because the climate is ideal. South of the Cascades mountains is great for Chanterelle hunting and Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest is said to be rich with Morels. The best way to find local spots is to join a group and ask experienced foragers!
When is Mushroom Season?
There is no set “mushroom season” because the peak time varies highly depending on the species you’re seeking. Generally, spring and fall tend to be the months where the most mushrooms are found.
This is because all mushrooms need lots of moisture, so spring showers or warm fall rains really support mushroom growth. Also, changes in temperature often trigger mushrooms, which is why the transition seasons are peak mushroom time.
It’s possible though to go mushroom hunting in the summer in Washington, as long as there’s enough moisture. Summer rainfall or several days of mist and fog can be enough!
There are some mushrooms that thrive in colder temperatures and can be found throughout the winter. These are rarer though, as most mushrooms will die after the first frost.
Well, to be honest, that’s not even close to being all the information about mushroom hunting in Washington. Like I said in the beginning of this article, there’s so much depth to the world of mushrooms and so much you can learn.
Don’t let this intimidate you though! I find it very exciting that there’s so much to learn because this is a hobby I want to learn about and develop for the rest of my life. Having more to learn gives you something to look forward too!
Even if you’re not interested in becoming a forager-for-life, you can still go mushroom hunting without knowing everything there is to know. If you just want to hunt mushrooms for free food, there’s no problem with that! Pick one or two mushrooms to study very well and just focus on them.
However you go about it, be smart, be safe, and enjoy this gift of nature!
- Mushroom Hunting in Oregon: A Complete Guide
- Mushroom Hunting in California: A Complete Guide
- 8 Different Types of Poisonous Mushrooms You Should Avoid
The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/Alika Obrazovskaya
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