“You can’t make firm rules about mushrooms,” says the 40-year-old naturalist, interviewed recently at his cottage surrounded by woods in New York’s Catskill Mountains. “Mushrooms defy any kind of generalization. They are much more mysterious and hard to pin down than almost anything else in this world.”
Mushrooms Can Be Foraged Anywhere Forests Exist
Wherever there are forests, there will be mushrooms, notes Guy, who has foraged in areas such as the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and Hillsborough State Park, north of Tampa, Fla. Any type of old-growth forests will have the greatest diversity of mushrooms, he explains. Tasty, edible mushrooms can also spring up in fields, pastures and unsprayed lawns. “They are found anywhere in the world; the dryer regions would have much less.” Some types of shelf mushrooms (those that grow on trees) don’t even need rain, he says. They take moisture out of the trees.
The best time to look for mushrooms is a few days after it rains, especially if it has been raining for many days. Those that pop out immediately, dry out just as quickly and are not the type one would want to eat, adds Guy. “They are made almost entirely of water and will disappear. Mushrooms that people like to eat take a little longer to grow because they have more substance to them.”
“Mushrooms add an extra dimension, a flavor enhancing quality to food,” he says. Among his favorites are porcini mushrooms, wonderful in soups and stews. The porcini is easily identifiable because its under section is characterized by a spongy texture rather than gills.
Health Benefits from Mushrooms
On the medicinal end, Guy eats hen of the woods mushrooms when he feels sick. They stimulate the immune system, he says, noting that research has shown mushrooms also have anti-cancer, anti-viral, and anti-bacterial properties. “This is well known for thousands of years in Chinese and Japanese medicine.” Rich in minerals and vitamins such as calcium, iron, phosphorus and vitamins C, D and B, mushrooms provide additional health benefits including anti-inflammatory, analgesic and anti-oxidant qualities.
As to their other properties, mushrooms are usually seasonal, although some grow throughout the year, even into winter, Guy says. “I’ve sometimes found oyster mushrooms that will be frozen, ready to be picked and eaten.” Now, approaching spring, people begin looking for morels that grow almost exclusively at this time of year. Chanterelles and porcini mushrooms are typically found mid to late summer, while hen of the woods and chicken mushrooms are more available in fall and winter. But, again, he reminds us, these are all generalizations.
Although foraging on private property is usually prohibited, “It doesn’t stop me,” says Guy, whose foraging was inspired by his interest in “everything in this world, particularly the wild and mysterious things out there.”
Guy says he has likely eaten more than 50 varieties of edible mushrooms found near his home. “I learned about them by reading about their characteristics. Some mushrooms are tricky, they’ll look like others, and some are deadly.” Before embarking on a foraging adventure, it’s important to know the few deadly ones, he says. They include the death cap and destroying angel, both closely related. Superficially, they can be confused with store-bought white mushrooms. “To me they have an almost ghostly appearance.” He says they grow out of what looks like an egg casing below the ground. The easiest way to identify them is to dig at their base and look for the egg-like form from which they emerged. “They really kind of hatch.”
Another deadly mushroom is the orange-colored lawn Galerina that grows on suburban lawns. Guy recommends a good guide, such as the “Audubon Field Guide for Mushrooms,” to familiarize oneself with the poisonous mushrooms. An alternate option, he suggests, is to forage with someone expert on this topic.
Despite his knowledge of mushrooms, Guy admits the identification of mushrooms is an elusive and impossible art to master. “If I had no idea what it was, I wouldn’t eat it,” he says. “There is a huge diversity of mushrooms, and they refuse to follow any type of rule. Most of them haven’t been studied well; their whole life cycle is unknown to science.”
Still, except for a very small number, mushrooms contain healthful properties for humans and add to the health of forests, says Guy. “They serve as pathways for water and nutrients to flow between all the parts of the forest, uniting it together beneath the soil.”
Note: Originally, the photo identifying the poisonous Fly Agaric mushroom was inadvertently mislabeled as yellow/gold chanterelle mushroom. This mistake has since been rectified.