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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spring rains bring treasures for those who look as the mushroom hunting season picks up

The spring rains bring many things to the warming countryside, ushering in the rush of bright balsamroot flowers and purple sage, high flowing rivers as the dwindling winter snows melt off the mountaintops, and the early bushy blooms that portend berries in the summer yet to come.

For those in the know, those warm rains are also a sign that the year’s mushroom season has begun. As the overnight freezes have subsided, mushrooms have been sprouting from the wet soil in darkened forests, blooming mountainsides and everywhere between.

And with them, the treasure hunt has begun.

There are a lot of motivations for the recreational mushroom hunter. Some home chefs seek strange ingredients that cannot be found in a grocery store, or just don’t want to pay a small fortune for the available species. For many others, like Tom Sahlberg, a Spokane-area resident, mushrooms simply add another layer of joy to their existing love for the great outdoors.

“I’m hiking with a purpose,” he said. “Even if I don’t find what I’m looking for, I spend an amazing day in nature. But when I can find something that I don’t know, but learn about?”

That’s what it’s all about, Sahlberg said. He’s already been on the hunt for over 25 hours this season, with expeditions ranging from Mica Peak to Kettle Falls.

He’s proud of his hauls, including the several pounds collected from a recent successful morel hunt. But it’s his expanding understanding of the species since he began mushroom hunting at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic that he seems proudest of.

Like many avid foragers, Sahlberg was introduced by a friend with more experience. They had gone out in search of morels, and if that was the metric of their trip, it was a failure. But every morel-less search bore other fruits – namely, Sahlberg’s own curiosity at the other species he had surely come across along the hikes of years past but had never considered so closely.

“First year, I knew probably five to 10 species, last year I learned another 10-15, and I’ve foraged and eaten three new ones this year,” he said.

Sahlberg’s favorite find is the chicken of the woods, an orange and yellow meaty fungus that helps to decay trees and is often abundant when found, though it can be sometimes confused with species like the Jack-o’-lantern mushroom, which, while unlikely to be lethal, can cause very unpleasant symptoms when eaten.

For many, sharing that knowledge with others is a key source of the hobby’s joy. Spokane resident Ginny Abdallah grew up eating the random vegetation and mushrooms found in the woods near her childhood home – perhaps a bit carelessly, she jokes now – and cherishes teaching the next generation about the various species that dot the region.

It’s not just her own children that she gets to educate, either; she also leads educational field trips into the woods for the local alternative schooling Garfield APPLE program.

“I think that they get a greater appreciation for the things that surround us on the outside, as opposed to what’s around us in our house, and also knowing things the other kids don’t know,” Abdallah said. “They learn a lot about safety, too.”

Abdallah, who forages much more than mushrooms, also finds it empowering to know that she could feed her family if the world around her broke down. While unlikely, for the horror-loving forager who has appeared over a dozen times as an extra playing a zombie on the TV series Z Nation, it can simply be fun to indulge in a post-apocalyptic fantasy and feel she’d be able to care for her family even in the end times, she said.

The mushroom community can be a tight-knit but occasionally cantankerous group of people, sometimes squabbling about the particulars of mushroom hunting decorum and best practices. A well-known debate that has largely died out in recent years, for instance, entailed whether a forager should pull a mushroom out of the ground or cut it at the base, arguing that one or the other could harm the health of the underground mycelium system.

“I’ve seen a lot of urban myths surrounding mushrooms, but the biggest one is cut vs. pull,” Sahlberg said. “The truth is, anything that is not the mycelium base is the fruit of the larger network – just like you could pick an apple with the stem or not, it’s not going to affect how that apple tree produces next year.”

There is one rule universally agreed upon, however: do not eat something without absolute certainty about what mushroom is being eaten. Newcomers to the hobby are encouraged to go with a well-versed friend, or even better, with a trained guide.

Some coveted species, like the morel, are distinct enough to have relatively few lookalikes, but even they can be confused by the uninitiated with the more brainlike and globular Gyromitra, which can be dangerous if improperly handled. Others, such as the almond-scented prince Agaricus, can be more easily confused with deadly poisonous species of Amanita, which bear discomforting names like death cap and destroying angel.

Many of the most dangerous species are not known to appear in the immediate vicinity around Spokane but can be found in Western Washington and other parts of the country.

“You don’t want to pick a lookalike, although we’re lucky (in this region) that you’re probably not going to find anything deadly,” Abdallah said. “There’s Amanita pantherinoides, those can make you ‘trip’ and poop, but you’re likely not going to find anything that can kill you.”

Even once a mushroom has been well-identified, people should exercise caution when eating a species, particularly for the first time. Very few mushrooms can be safely eaten raw, and many others need to be very thoroughly cooked or undergo even more complicated processing to be edible. People sometimes are allergic to particular species, as well.

The recent story of Peter Dayton, a Missoula man and experienced forager, is forefront on the minds of many foragers this season. At 69, he died in April after eating morels, which he had been foraging and consuming for years without issue. Some questions remain about what specifically killed Dayton, but a prevailing concern is that they may not have been fully cooked.

The mushroom hunting season is largely split in two, with distinct spring and fall crops. For most prized species, the summer sun is too harsh and the ground too dry for much to grow outside of hidden well-shaded mountain glades and creekside ravines. Winter snow and freezing nights spell the end of most species’ season, with a few exceptions, such as the woody shelf mushrooms that often grow on rotting logs whether fallen or still-standing. They usually make poor dinners but are sometimes prized for various medicinal qualities.

A mushroom’s season can also vary drastically based on geography and elevation. A mushroom that appears during a sunny California March may not appear in a Washington mountainside until May, for instance, where winter lingers longer and the height of summer is delayed. Covetous mushroom hunters may be guarded with their treasured mushroom patches, wary of revealing locations or directions that are too specific, but will commonly share the elevation and general region of their finds, clues that the right conditions have arrived for a particular variety.

Chanterelles are among the best-known fall foragables, a typically golden, trumpet-shaped mushroom prized by foragers and chefs alike. Of the five states that have named an official state mushroom, Oregon and California claim a species of chanterelle.

Washington is yet to name a state mushroom, though the state Legislature has previously considered adopting another fall variety: the pine mushroom or matsutake, a large but shy species that can be found hiding under the mountain duff beneath the trees. Prized in Japan as a delicacy, the matsutake is typically positively identified by its distinct smell, infamously described by famous mycologist David Arora as a blend of Red Hots and gym socks.

Some kinds of mushrooms seem to straddle the seasons. The stately porcinis, which can grow as large as a child’s head and are topped with a cap often compared to a deep brown brioche bun, are mostly found during the fall, for instance, but a variety recently determined to be a distinct species, colloquially called the spring king, can be found nestled beneath pines much earlier in the year. The species more commonly found in the fall was named Utah’s state mushroom last year.

Spring’s poster child may be the odd honeycomb-shaped morel, with its pitted and hollow cap. Like with chanterelles and porcinis, morels are an umbrella term for a variety of species, the exact boundaries between which are still being explored, and it is not unusual to find black and blond varieties interspersed during a hunt, with the occasional gray and fuzzy specimen hiding among its frequently larger cousins.

While it is Minnesota alone that has claimed a species of morel as its state mushroom, varieties can be found across North America, Europe, Asia and beyond. The morel can be found in rich soil in forests and particularly near creeks, but it is also one of the strange species that can proliferate in areas devastated by a forest fire, such as last year’s Oregon Road fire that ripped through communities around Elk.

Hunting for morels during the spring following a forest fire can be a contradictory experience, unnerving and oddly hopeful. Morel flushes are most common in the areas where a fire burned fiercest, so hot that not only the trees burn but their roots as well, leaving holes in the blackened dirt

Unlike the isolated fires deep in mountains and surrounded by state or national forests, wandering through areas where a fire ripped through a populated area the previous summer can be tricky, as a forager needs to be especially cognizant of what land is private and where they’re allowed to wander. But more pressingly, it is a deeply somber experience. The Oregon Road fire killed one person and destroyed hundreds of homes, and it can be difficult to justify a jovial outing in a scarred landscape where so much devastation occurred.

But the morels that emerge from the soot and ash are a harbinger of life returning to a deadened place, as are the miniscule cup fungus dotting the ground and the vivid fireweed blooms.

With this weekend’s rainy forecast, next week’s harvest will likely be bountiful.

There are relatively few areas in the Oregon Road fire’s footprint open to public access, with a scattering of publicly owned lands without public access and most properties under private ownership. Foragers should be cautious that they have received the proper permits or permission to enter a property.