The risks and rewards of our growing love of mushroom foraging
On a mushroom enthusiasts’ page on social media, a would-be forager posts an image of a mushroom they’ve recently unearthed, now sitting on a chopping board.
“ID please?” reads the caption above.
Underneath the image are a variety of responses:
“Looks like Macrolepiota dolichaula.”
“Bloody tasty,” comes one reply.
“The vomiter,” someone else pitches in.
“White gills, green spores.”
A back and forth ensues between multiple posters, with neither side willing to back down.
This is a pretty common scene on social media pages, but is especially heightened at this time of year.
As we head into autumn in Australia, mushroom season is underway, according to mushroom lover and expert Alison Pouliot.
“Most fungi produce their mushrooms in autumn as the soil temperature starts to cool and moisture content increases,” she says.
Dr Pouliot spends half her year in Europe, where she says there is a deep culture of mycophilia — a positive relationship with mushrooms — which is reflected in both public and institutional attitudes to foraging.
In places like Switzerland for instance, there are mushroom inspectors known as the pilz kontroller, stationed in villages.
“These are really highly trained people. You go along with a collection of mushrooms and they pluck out your poisonous ones and send you home with your edible ones.”
Although Indigenous Australians have one of, if not the longest traditions of mushroom foraging in the world, many Australians may have inherited a distinctly British hangover in their attitude to fungus.
“A lot of us originally came from British heritage, which was traditionally regarded as mycophobic,” Dr Pouliot says.
“Because [mushrooms are] so ephemeral — they pop up and they’re gone — [in Britain] they were associated with things that were considered negative, like crime and witchcraft.”
A common symptom of that attitude in Australia is the belief that unlike other countries, we have an overabundance of deadly species.
But the evidence says that’s not true, according to Dr Pouliot. The reality is only a small percentage of our fungi species are poisonous, while a bigger portion are just not very palatable.
Australia’s deadliest mushroom for instance — the death cap, Amanita phalloides — isn’t a native at all, and was accidentally introduced from the Northern Hemisphere in the 1960s.
But there seems to be a shift underway in Australians’ attitudes to fungi. Maybe it’s access to more information online, or the bumper early-season mushroom crops popping up on the back of torrential east-coast rains.
Whatever it is, social pages are abuzz with foragers, many of them completely new to the craft, asking for help with identification.
Foraging is ‘taking your life into your hands’
On another fungus page, a curious poster has uploaded an image of mushrooms glowing in the dark in the branches of a palm tree.
Again different identifications flow in, with one commenter offering an anecdote of having eaten them off the side of the road once.
To the scepticism of the others who have joined the chat, he insists that their consumption resulted in a grin “bigger than a Cheshire cat”.
That was despite also admitting he hadn’t really known what species they were.
“That’s an irresponsible post,” one user comments.
“Don’t try this at home kids,” says another.
Although our mycophobia might be holding us back from enjoying the benefits of mushrooming, Dr Pouliot says caution still needs to be heeded.
“When you’re foraging, you’re essentially taking your life in your own hands.”
Along with her colleague Tom May, she’s recently released a field guide to safely picking mushrooms in Australia.
Learning to correctly identify 10 edible species, she says, actually means learning to recognise about 100, so that you can distinguish them from their lookalikes.
Are you depriving native animals of food?
But it’s not all risk and no reward, and it’s the reward that seems to be drawing so many people into the world of mushrooming.
As well as being able to forage a meal, mushrooming allows people to interact with nature on a deeper level, Dr Pouliot said.
“What’s great about foraging is that people develop a wider interest in fungi [and] I think it extends people’s interest in nature more widely.”
For those willing to take the time and learn, the fungi kingdom slowly opens its secrets, says Dr May, a mushroom ecologist at the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria.
Alongside Dr Pouliot, he’s advocating for the evolution of a “slow-foraging” culture in Australia, and hopes that by assisting people to identify edible fungi, he can help open a doorway to a deeper curiosity of mycology.
“Slow foraging’ means only taking what you need to eat fresh, and leaving plenty behind for some of the 40 mammal species that eat mushrooms,” Dr May says.
“Many fungi are food for mammals. We’ve got truffle-like fungi that are eaten by marsupials.”
Fungi also break down timber and debris in forests, recycling them into soil.
“If people are going to be collecting fungi from the wild, you need to be aware of this and be judicious in the way you collect,” he says.
While picking mushrooms may deprive some animals of food, the more significant function of fungi is subterranean.
For every mushroom we see on the surface — called the sporing body — there’s a complex and often massive network of threads known as mycelium operating underneath it.
Some of these mycelium have intricate symbiotic relationships with specific tree species, Dr May says.
“It’s a mutual exchange. The plants are photosynthesising and the sugars they make are taken by the fungus.
“The fungi are really good at extracting nutrients from the soil, like nitrogen and phosphorous, which are taken [by the plant].
“If you walk through the forest and just notice a few mushrooms or bracket fungi, you can’t see that interaction happening.
“[But] understanding that biology helps you in foraging because certain fungi are associated with certain trees because they’ve established this relationship.”
For everything we know about fungi, there’s still a lot we don’t know about how our foraging could impact plant and animal species, Dr May says.
Which is all the more reason we should tread lightly.
The mystery and ‘magic’
Another social media post, another foray into dubious advice.
“You can even chew and spit a small piece of death cap or any other poisonous mushroom and be totally, absolutely fine,” one person is advising another.
In Australia alone, we’ve identified about 15,000 species, but it’s projected there are more than 100,000.
Even within those 15,000, toxicity is unknown for many. It should go without saying, but suggesting amateur mycologists put unknown specimens in their mouths is bad advice.
For the mushrooms that are well studied, science is still trying to figure out why many have developed the compounds they have, Dr May says.
“Even for the death cap, in its biology we don’t really understand why that mushroom is so toxic to humans and other vertebrates.”
Then there’s things like psilocybin — the psychoactive compound in Psilocybe subaeruginosa, or one of the so-called “magic” mushrooms, which are illegal to possess or cultivate Australia.
While its benefits to the mushroom are unknown, a growing body of research suggests psilocybin may have significant applications in treatment of mental disorders like depression, anxiety and PTSD.
“[Psilocybin] looks very interesting in terms of the clinical trials running at the moment,” Dr May says.
If it proves fruitful, psilocybin will join the ranks of penicillin, cyclosporin, and a suite of other medicinally beneficial drugs to be extracted from fungi.
Ironically, fungi is also a source of antifungals. In the battle for space underground, some mycelium have developed agents to fight off the encroachment of other fungi species into their territory.
“To me, that’s one of the reasons it’s important to preserve this biodiversity, is this reservoir of drugs,” Dr May says.
A little knowledge is dangerous’
Speaking to people about fungi, there’s an infectious sense of excitement at the unknown potential of it all.
One of those people is Peter Wenzel. He runs Fungi Co in Canberra, which includes taking people on guided forages, and designing syllabus for schools.
He says interest in mushrooms has exploded, from a foraging perspective but also from a medicinal interest.
“These medicinal mushrooms, that’s the real kicker I think. We get calls all the time about things like lion’s mane.”
He’s not only interested in eating mushrooms though, and rattles off a range of innovations using fungi as a biomaterial, including leather, plastic, and even house bricks.
“I mentored a year 10 student and she made mycelium bricks. She looked at how many newtons of force it took to crush it,” he says.
“She’ll be doing things in 10 years’ time that will blow my mind — that I can’t even think of. They’re the seeds we’re trying to grow.
“We’re on the cusp of a fungal revolution.”
Dr May and Dr Pouliot are similarly passionate about the future of fungi, but they say we need to take our time to develop an Australian mushrooming culture — for our own safety, and the environment.
“It’s the old adage — a little knowledge is dangerous,” Dr Pouliot says.
“What we can do is offer a philosophy where we minimise harm to the environment and human health.”