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Wild mushrooms: How do I know it's good to eat?

Experts tell all on an autumn harvest – mushrooms aplenty!

Our mothers gave us sage advice like: “You’ll understand when you’re older.” And those times you were directed to change your underwear before going out. They probably told us not to eat wild mushrooms as well.

For centuries mushrooms or toadstools (there’s no difference) have added zest and flavour to a meal. Mushrooms are an excellent source of the antioxidant Selenium which works with vitamin E to protect cells from damaging free radicals.

Some studies also indicate that antioxidants are some of the best nutrients for preventing and fighting cancers. Like almonds, mushrooms are becoming more popular for their cancer-fighting and disease protecting properties.

From a nutrition perspective, most people think bananas are the high potassium food, but it may surprise you to learn that mushrooms out rank bananas on the potassium chart. Potassium helps the body process sodium and lower blood pressure.

People with hypertension or a high risk of stroke can enjoy tremendous health benefits from a regular dose of mushrooms. We can’t pick bananas but we can pick wild mushrooms throughout the north.

Back roads picking

Picking wild mushrooms safely requires a working knowledge of the types of wild mushrooms commonly found in the area especially if you plan on consuming your pickings.

Once you’ve established a knowledge base, picking wild mushrooms can be a rather satisfying way to spend a spring or fall afternoon off of the back roads. It is not so different than fishing and hunting and you have to know what you are looking for.

VillageMedia went in search of experts because our mothers would have told us to do so. And yes there are hallucinogenic or “magic” mushrooms.

Jeremy St. Onge is an academically trained biologist with a long-standing interest in wild foods including wild mushrooms. In 2019 he and Delphanie Colyer dedicated an entire year called The Big Wild Year (BWY), to eating only wild foods. Wild mushrooms provided a significant portion of their food in that year as soup filler, side dishes and a multitude of flavourings.

“We were lucky to get some really big harvests leading up to and during the BWY,” St.Onge reminisces, citing one afternoon’s picking that resulted in about 40 pounds of boletes and other mushrooms.

“We mainly dehydrated them in our food dehydrator to store them for later use, although we also pickle, sautee-and-freeze, and can mushrooms in a hot water bath depending on the varieties and quantities we find.”

The North Bay couple vowed to eat only wild food for 12 months and they did. The BWY meant hunting their own game, catching their own fish, and gathering berries, seeds and mushrooms.

They tracked their physiology and blood test results with the help of a kinesiologist and a doctor. They have some pretty good records of weight loss and positive changes to cholesterol, blood triglycerides, blood pressure, blood glucose and resting heart rate. They know “their stuff’ when it comes to wild mushrooms.

The couple agrees, “You should try to find a mentor!” (Other than your mother.) “There is a saying that 'There are old ‘shroomers and there are bold ‘shroomers but there are no old, bold ‘shroomers!' Find someone who knows what they are doing and who has survived it,” says Jeremy. Also, never identify mushrooms based on picture matching. “You simply cannot confidently identify them based on what you see in a picture. No one picture will show you the array of characteristics that you need to make an informed decision.”

Delphanie says, “There are not a lot of openly practicing mushroom pickers in Ontario, but interest is surging. It is not really part of the common culture, although you frequently come across people ‘from the old country’ who pick mushrooms. Often it is just one or two kinds that they remember from home."

They have seen an increased interest in local wild mushrooms in conjunction with the explosion of interest in local foods and food security.

“Mushrooms grow everywhere! I even had a student show me a picture of mushrooms that she found growing out of her couch,” said Jeremy. “But for edible ones, you often find them associated with particular habitats.” Mushrooms vary with coniferous and deciduous forests. “We watch for dying poplar trees for oyster mushrooms when the weather turns cooler (near freezing).”

A common observation is the proliferation of mushrooms during the fall and sometimes it is as frequent as day-to-day. The cooler weather and fall rains play a major part in mushroom fruiting, although most mushrooms have a particular season and it can vary throughout the year and from year to year.

On cooking, Jeremy says, “You really can’t go wrong with sautéed mushrooms on toast. It is a wonderful way to experience their full flavour. From there, you will learn the tricks of matching flavours and textures with different dishes. I liken a dislike of mushrooms to someone saying that they don’t like fruit: mushrooms species can be as different from one another as apples are from oranges are from dragon fruits.”

“They can be crunchy, slimy, spongy, chewy. They can be mild, powerful, subtle, and sublime,” Delphanie said. “Some of our local species have other uses such as for starting fires or dying textiles.”

Rubber boots and a bucket or basket work best for collecting.

They said, “It is very important to bring a brush to clean them before you put them in your bucket. Otherwise, the soil gets into all its crevices. It is usually quite easy to pick them ‘clean’ to minimize your kitchen tasks afterwards. A small, sharp knife is good for trimming them as you pick them. We sometimes also pack a loupe (magnifying glass) to look for particular features such as scabers (little hairs or scales) on the stipe (stem in mycology).”

For beginners and to gain confidence in identification concentrate on the chantarelles, white oyster mushrooms, and the “stump” or honey ‘shrooms. “Leave ten per cent at each site for sustainability.”

Jeremy’s favourite mushroom guide, Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora, or try or And the last piece of advice, “Only the squirrels and deer really know their mushrooms for sure."

Beware of the depicted Yellow Orange Fly Agaric. These are considered slightly poisonous and could be hallucinogenic when consumed. It is known the toxins turn off fear receptors. Apparently, the Vikings took to eating these before their invasions. Beware.