Autumn is a beautiful season full of colour and feelings of warmth as the days grow shorter and the weather cools down. One of my favourite places to experience the essence of autumn is in the New Forest in Hampshire which, as you can imagine, is just stunning at this time of year. We spent a weekend there camping a couple of weeks ago and decided to join a local foraging guide from Hedgerow Harvest to learn all about mushroom identification. The New Forest has a rich diversity of fungus species including some really rare ones, making it a great place to go to see mushrooms in the autumn and throughout the year. Although foraging is discouraged by the forestry commission, it is possible to join a licensed foray leader for an even like this one. I’ve been keen to delve more into mushroom identification and foraging as it’s something that has always fascinated me, but brings very real risks if you don’t take the time to learn some crucial skills.
We met at our guide, James, at our pre-arranged meeting place and dealt with the initial COVID-19 procedures before heading out into the woods together to look for mushrooms. We would spread out, making sure we were straying off the path to increase our chances of finding a mushroom, and when we found one we would identify it together. James would pick a specimen for us to look at, but we were there to learn about identification and not to gather huge numbers, so we didn’t pick any ourselves.
The first thing we did was to learn a rigorous, systematic process of identifying fungi using a trusted identification guide that has a key. We were using the River Cottage Mushrooms guide by John Wright, but there are others available as well. Generally, you want a book with a key that can take you through a step-by-step process. We started by looking at the environment around the mushroom, asking questions like is it a wooded area or open field, what are the trees growing around it, is it growing on wood or directly in the ground? Next we looked at the mushroom itself. What colour is it? Does it have gills (the lines that run underneath the cap) and what do they look like? How big is it? What are the features of the stem? What kind of texture does it have? We also learned about making a spore print and the importance of being able to identify the spore colour of a fungus. Spore prints take a fair bit of time to do so we relied on the knowledge of our expert guide for the sake of time, but they are a key skill that we can now apply in our own foraging. At this point we were ready to use the key in the book to narrow down our identification. All of these questions were crucial to making sure we could use the key in our guide properly. They also make you deeply engage with your environment and notice what you otherwise might not have done, and this is a huge part of the beauty of foraging for me.
It was amazing to me how many mushrooms were around once I had “got my eye in” as they say. They do a perfect job of being there in plain sight, and yet managing not to be seen! Thankfully I can have a keen eye when I want to and I was very proud of myself for finding a single, tiny little cep (also known as porcini or penny bun mushrooms) in the undergrowth which was the only one we found all morning. We came across plenty of the gorgeous purple little amethyst deceivers, hedgehog mushrooms, winter chanterelles, porcelain mushrooms and some oyster mushrooms on old beech trees. Even though we weren’t picking them, it was such a good feeling to find so many edible mushrooms and to learn about their correct identification.
We also found some beautiful turkey tail mushrooms growing on a fallen log which, although they aren’t edible as such, are being explored for their medicinal potential as an infusion or tea. Perhaps the most interesting fungus we found was the green elfcup or green woodcup mushroom that stains infected wood with a green colour known as “green oak” which has been prized in decorative woodworking such as Tunbridge ware. Although finding the green-stained wood isn’t uncommon, it’s quite unusual to see the fruiting bodies of green elfcup so we were lucky to find some.
Importantly, we also learned some valuable tips for identifying toxic, even deadly species like fly agaric and the true-to-their-name deathcaps. Generally, the combination of a prominent volva, which is a bulbous shape or cup at the base of the stem, and the presence of a ring around the middle of the stem is a sign of something to leave well alone. I do think fly agaric mushrooms are really stunning though with their fairy-tale red and white tops. Most of the ones we found were heavily munched by slugs so I didn’t manage to get a good photograph. I’m sure you can imagine what I mean though!
I came away with a newfound confidence in mushroom hunting with no less of the respect for the dangers, of course, and there are some really awful stories out there where people haven’t taken enough care. It’s really not something to take any chances with. For me, I love the experience of finding something new and working through the process of learning more about it, just like I do with plants, and even if I pick and eat nothing at all I still get so much out of that exercise. It’s fun to look at it as an ongoing journey of learning!
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