Mushrooms come in all manner of shapes, sizes, colors, and varieties— in fact, there are over 14,000 species of mushrooms currently in existence. Some are edible, some are medicinal, others are hallucinogenic, and a few are even deadly. So how can you safely forage for mushrooms?
Disclaimer: Please do thorough research and consult experts before you forage for mushrooms to ensure you can identify which are safe to consume. A pocket guide on mushrooms can come in handy (more on that below)!
There are seven must-have essentials to forage for mushrooms: a mushroom bag, foraging knife, mushroom brush, gardening trowel, mushroom pocket guide, magnifying glass, and paper for spore prints. When used correctly, these tools ensure you’re prepared for any mushroom you come across.
Understanding how to properly use these seven essential tools to forage for mushrooms will make the experience easier, quicker, and safer.
Must-Haves For Mushroom Foraging
Whether you’re searching for organic additions to your food or just want to explore your local flora, foraging for mushrooms is engaging and fun. Though identifying certain mushrooms undeniably becomes easier with experience, both beginners and seasoned experts alike benefit from using the right tools.
Mushroom Pocket Guide
Mushroom pocket guides allow you to quickly and easily learn about the mushrooms near you and any specific specimens you find in the field. If you’re unsure about a mushroom you found, the safest path of action is to consult your pocket guide and make sure it’s not dangerous.
Depending on the mushrooms in your area, pocket guides can be the difference between collecting the perfect find or accidentally bringing home a dangerous fungus.
What are Three Go-To Mushroom Pocket Guides for Foragers?
There are three go-to mushroom pocket guides that every forager can benefit from, whether you’re just starting out or have been collecting mushrooms for years.
The three must-have pocket guides are:
- National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms by Gary Lincoff: With comprehensive information and pictures of over 700 mushrooms, this field guide is one of the more (if not the most) popular guide.
- Mushrooms Demystified by David Aurora: This field guide has information on over 2,000 species. But foragers beware: the images are black and white, and this guide is a bit bulkier than the others on this list.
- Peterson Field Guides: Mushrooms by Kent and Vera McKnight: Similar to Mushrooms Demystified, this field guide has information on a whopping 1,000+ mushrooms, but the illustrations are mostly pencil (i.e., black and white).
Each field guide has both pros and cons, but all are extremely useful. They’ve been tested and used by foragers for years and are consistently ranked as the best options. Gary Lincoff and David Aurora have both written multiple books on mushrooms, but the two listed above are by far their most popular and practical.
Depending on your region, you may benefit from guides that are specific to geographic regions. There are guides for North American species, western mushrooms, coastal regions, the Midwest, and more.
Mushroom Mesh Bag for Foraging
One of the most important items for mushroom foraging is having a bag to carry your finds. Mesh bags are the preferred carrying case for all mushrooms, primarily because they allow spores, insects, dirt, and other debris to fall off the mushroom out of your bag.
Mushroom bags are useful for everyone who forages, whether you’re collecting a few pounds of mushrooms or just a few specimens. Having a mesh bag is the first tool to being prepared for foraging.
There are a few key elements that you should look for in any foraging bag. We’ve already briefly touched on air circulation, but there’s more than that to a good mushroom foraging bag.
What Makes a Good Mushroom Foraging Bag?
The best mushroom foraging bags allow for air circulation and are sturdy, decently sized, and easy to carry.
As we’ve already touched on, air circulation is important to preserve your mushrooms long enough to get them home. Besides this, mushroom bags are typically sturdy but not abrasive, so that they can hold your mushrooms without damaging the specimens.
Thin mesh materials usually work best for this. Avoid plastic if at all possible, since this material can cause the mushrooms to sweat and deteriorate.
Though you can use any mesh bag for mushroom foraging, make sure it’s sturdy enough to hold any specimen you may come across. Try to use a bag that’s at least 10” deep and 10” in diameter. This should fit almost any mushroom you come across, no matter its size.
Your foraging bag should preferably have a reinforced bottom so that the weight isn’t entirely focused on the center of the base. Depending on how many mushrooms you collect, this can be vital.
Additionally, you should keep practicality and your own comfort in mind. Your foraging bag should have handles or straps so that you can carry it comfortably for miles, if need be.
Mushroom Foraging Knife
A mushroom foraging knife allows you to easily collect mushrooms without damaging them or the surrounding area. They’re essential for responsibly foraging and preserving the mushrooms in the best condition on site.
What is a Mushroom Knife?
A mushroom foraging knife is, as the name suggests, a type of knife used for collecting mushrooms and other flora. It looks similar to a pocketknife in size and design, except that it features a curved pruning blade.
Typically, mushroom knives come equipped with a soft bristle cleaning brush on the other end. Depending on the quality of your knife, the handle may have an engraved or embossed metric scale. Some even come with compasses and safety sheaths or carrying cases.
How to Use a Mushroom Knife?
Mushroom knives are used to cut the mushrooms above the ground, which better preserves them and prevents tearing and other damage that may be caused by digging them out. As an added benefit, using a mushroom knife also prevents you from inadvertently damaging nearby plants.
Once you select your mushroom, use the curved pruning blade to cut the mushroom as close to the ground as possible. Use the brush on the other end of the knife to briefly clean the mushroom before placing it in your mesh foraging bag.
If you’re looking for mushrooms of a certain size, you can use a scale to measure them prior to using your knife. Some knives have a scale engraved on them, but you can also carry a ruler or measuring instrument.
What Qualities Make a Good Mushroom Knife?
The best mushroom knives have a sharp pruning blade, are easy to use, and are smaller in size. Combined, these qualities create an effective and efficient knife for mushroom foraging.
Your pruning blade needs to be sharp so that you can collect mushrooms without damaging them. If you have to saw at the mushroom or otherwise struggle to remove it from the ground, you may as well resort to just digging it out.
Besides this, your knife should also be easy to use. Your main focus should be on the mushrooms themselves. To accomplish this, you need tools that are going to make foraging easier, not harder. You should be able to slip out your blade and collect the mushroom quickly.
Part of this is having a smaller sized knife that’s easy to carry. Your mushroom knife should fit in your pocket or mesh foraging bag.
Whether you use an individual mushroom brush or one that’s attached to your mushroom knife, a brush is an important part of foraging. It allows you to clean your mushrooms prior to carrying them, helping disperse spores and other debris.
What is a Mushroom Brush?
A mushroom brush is a soft bristle brush used for cleaning your foraged mushrooms. They’re typically smaller and inexpensive, with bristles that are firm enough to clear away dirt but soft enough to not damage the mushroom itself.
You can test this by rubbing dirt on your own hand and testing the brush on it. The majority of the dirt should be removed, without the brush scraping or gouging your skin.
The brush should have a handle that fits easily into the palm of your hand, so that you can firmly grasp it while cleaning the mushrooms. Like a mushroom knife, it should be able to easily store in your pocket or mesh foraging bag.
How Do You Use a Mushroom Brush?
Gently move your brush over the mushroom so that the bristles can clean the cap and stem as necessary. The mushroom brush should remove dirt, spores, and other loosely attached debris. Mushroom brushes are designed with dense but soft bristles so that they don’t damage the mushroom.
While useful, this means that you won’t be able to thoroughly clean your mushrooms in the field. Instead, wait until you get home or somewhere with running water.
There, you can place the mushroom under running water and gently run the mushroom brush over it again. This will help remove more stuck-on debris without ruining your specimens.
How Do You Clean a Mushroom Brush?
You should lightly clean your mushroom brush after each use in the field and do a deep clean semi-frequently to remove debris build up and bacteria. Depending on how often you forage for mushrooms, this can mean cleaning your mushroom brush weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, or even bi-monthly.
After a day of mushroom foraging, you should run your brush under hot water and remove any visible dirt or other debris. After that you can boil it to ensure it is sterilized and clean or just shake off the excess water and let it air dry.
For a deeper cleaning, here are a few methods you can try:
- White Vinegar: Soak the bristles in distilled white vinegar for at least two hours and then rinse and let the brush dry.
- Bleach Solution: Soak the bristles in a pint of water with a teaspoon of bleach (roughly half a capful). Alternatively, you can use one cup of water and half a teaspoon of bleach. Let the bristles soak for 15 minutes, rinse, and then let the brush air dry.
- Dish Soap: Like any natural hair brush, a few drops of dish soap will also effectively clean (but not necessarily sanitize) your tools. Wet the brush, lather the bristles, and then rinse and let dry. Make sure all the soap washes out.
Choose the method you’re most comfortable with. Make sure to pay particular attention to the base of your brush, where more dirt may accumulate.
Small Gardening Trowel
A small gardening trowel is an often overlooked but essential part of mushroom foraging. It allows you to easily remove mushrooms when cutting them isn’t sufficient or practical. Instead of tearing the mushroom, a trowel will cut through the roots and allow you to easily pull it up from the ground.
Most trowels range in size, but it’s best to use a smaller trowel when foraging for mushrooms. If desired, you can even invest in a mini gardening trowel. Mini gardening sets and tools have become increasingly popular as people look to create smaller versions of gardens.
With so many different types of mushrooms growing around the world, magnifying glasses can play a critical role in identifying the mushrooms you find and what they can be used for. Edible, medicinal, and poisonous mushrooms can often look alike. But with a magnifying glass, you’ll be able to see the key differences between the species.
Folding magnifying glasses, also called hand lenses and similar to a jeweler’s loupe, are the best options for practicing safe mycology. They’re portable, easy to use, and provide you with just enough magnification to get the job done. Glasses with 5x or 10x magnification are the most popular choices.
Why Bring a Magnifying Glass When Foraging for Mushrooms?
A magnifying glass allows you to accurately identify any mushrooms you find in the field, so that you can confirm they’re safe to interact with prior to collecting them. Accidentally collecting the wrong mushroom can be annoying at best and dangerous at worst.
There’s more to identifying mushrooms than just looking at their size, shape, and color. The scales, gills, rings, pores, and other parts of a mushroom can all look similar or even identical to each other at first glance.
Without a magnifying glass, you may have to collect the mushroom just to examine it and confirm it’s a safe species. If it’s not, you’ve needlessly damaged the mushroom and may have placed yourself in a potentially harmful situation.
How to Use a Magnifying Glass When Foraging for Mushrooms
When foraging for mushrooms, use your magnifying glass after spotting the mushroom but prior to cutting it, if possible. Use the glass to examine the specific characteristics of the mushroom that may be difficult to see with your naked eye.
If you’re looking for one mushroom species in particular, or just a specific type of mushroom, use the magnifying glass to differentiate between the specimen you found and similar ones. Field guides can provide you with details to look for.
It’s possible that you may have to actually cut the mushroom or use your gardening trowel to closely examine the mushroom. Though not preferable, since it potentially means needlessly disrupting that environment, this isn’t uncommon.
Paper For Making Mushroom Spore Prints
Making a spore print is often an important part of identifying a specific mushroom. Most guidebooks use spore prints as a diagnostic characteristic, so being able to produce a print in the field is helpful for identifying a species.
What Paper Works Best fFor Making Mushroom Spore Prints?
Typically, white paper is the most popular choice for making mushroom spore prints. Any thicker type of paper will work, such as cardstock, art paper, or book weight or text weight paper.
The paper you use can be light or dark, depending on the mushrooms you’re looking for and the expected color of the spores. If you’re unsure or just want to be prepared, you can bring wax paper, clear paper, or glass or plastic slides.
Many foragers who make spore prints prefer to bring a variety of paper, just in case they come across a new or unknown type of mushroom.
How to Make a Mushroom Spore Print
There are several ways to make a mushroom spore print. Each method depends on the mushrooms itself, whether it has gills, pores, or takes another form.
Here are a few ways to make spore prints depending on the mushroom you find:
- Mushrooms with Gills: Place the mushroom cap, gills down, on a white piece of paper. Place a drop on the cap to release the spores and cover it for at least two hours.
- Mushrooms with Pores: For soft mushrooms, use the method described above. For hard mushrooms, wrap them in a wet paper towel or washcloth overnight prior to placing the cap on paper (spore-bearing surface side down).
Keep in mind, these aren’t necessarily the only way to create a spore print. However, they are useful and are the method recommended by the North American Mycological Association.
What are Mushroom Spore Prints Used for?
Mushroom spore prints are used for a wide variety of purposes, though the primary one is as a diagnostic tool for field foraging. Besides this, they are also often used in artistic mediums.
Mushroom spore prints make great mementos of your foraging or fun art prints for your home. You can experiment with the prints themselves, frame your field prints, or do something totally unique. Spray them lightly using a preservative and they can last for years.
Some people have even been known to make ink using the spores from Coprinus species.
If you want to safely and properly forage for mushrooms, there are seven essentials you’ll need to invest in. These are a mesh bag, foraging knife, mushroom brush, small gardening trowel, mushroom pocket guide, magnifying glass, a paper for spore prints.
Each of these plays a fundamental role in foraging for mushrooms, whether it’s identifying the mushroom, collecting it, or preserving it for the trip home.