Fall Mushroom Hunting in The PNW

Published by emilyatspecklefarm on

Fall mushroom hunting in the Pacific northwest, specifically Western Washington, is excellent. There are many choice edibles with no toxic look-a-likes here that make mushroom hunting easy for even the most uncertain of new mushroomers. This fall is turning out to be an excellent mushroom year. I encourage anyone to go get a book and hit the forest and field!

 There is a lot of fear and misinformation around mushrooms that make many people terrified at the thought of touching let alone eating a wild mushroom. I think an image of witches around a cauldron may come to mind for some people. There are only a few deadly toxic mushrooms that can be easily avoided by knowing how to properly identify them, proceeding with common sense and a better safe than sorry mind set.
When in doubt you can always chew (and spit out) a small piece. You cannot die from the taste of a mushroom and this is often a good way to rule out a potentially less choice but non-toxic look-a-like relative of a choice edible. For instance, Chanterelles should have a slightly peppery flavor and a “creamy” texture. If it tastes bitter you don’t have an edible mushroom.
 I wouldn’t necessarily apply this to medicinal mushrooms.  I have a very limited experience with medicinals but can vouch that some taste downright vile. This DOES NOT mean I think you should walk around the forest tasting random mushrooms. That’s a great way to poison yourself.  If you have never hunted mushrooms before you need to first become familiar with the toxic ones in your area. There are many online sources (some very unreliable, try to rely more on those associated with a college, mushrooming club, published author or government agency) and books that will teach you how to identify mushrooms. Once you are familiar with the toxics, start learning the edibles.

The Fly Amanita (Amanita muscaria) is a common mildly toxic mushroom. So beautiful but not so edible.



Coral mushrooms are sometimes choice edibles, sometimes have a mild laxative effect and others are varying degrees of toxic. They are very hard to correctly identify since many are so similar.


You will want books if you get serious about mushrooming. All That the Rain Promises and More: A Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms and Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora are the two we highly recommend. Start out with All That the Rain Promises. It is water proof and covers just enough mushrooms to be useful while being small enough to pack around comfortably. 
No matter how well written and useful, books can’t replace the knowledge an experienced mushroomer will be able to give you. I cannot stress enough how valuable a real human mentor is when learning to forage. They will know the areas, seasons, species and you will have an opportunity to learn how they prepare them which to me is the biggest challenge about foraging, especially with mushrooms.

 If you can’t find a mushroom hunter who will take you under their wing you will have to do more book reading and there will be a few meals were you wonder if you will spend the next few hours miserably sick.
 I am both joking and serious folks.
 If you are careful and use common since you will not be in any real danger but our society has such strong rooted fungiphobia that it’s natural to be mildly terrified after your first “on your own” meal of wild mushrooms.
Which brings me to an important point: If you are ever trying a mushroom for the first time that has any reported reactions/ sensitivities (meaning it makes some unlucky people sick) you would be very foolish to eat a meal’s worth right away. You should first cook some, however you plan to eat it, only a mushroom per person at most, eat it and wait four hours. If you are one of the unlucky folk with a sensitivity you will know. You won’t die as long as you made sure before eating your test meal that there are no deadly toxic look-a-likes.  By taking this annoying and sometimes stressful precaution you are saving yourself a possibly very unpleasant experience that could conceivably sour someone on wild mushrooms all together. 

Where to find them?

Depending on the species you are looking for there are many plant and tree species as well as other mushrooms you can use as guides to locate areas that might support them. In the PNW mushrooms are so plentiful that if you can get into a healthy, reasonably undisturbed forest you will find something edible. Looking for stands of mixed species trees with open under brush is usually your best bet for having the most diverse species and being the easiest to hunt. I’m not going to get into specifics of fungal-plant relationships since I really don’t pay attention to it when hunting or in books. Instead, I learn the “type” of forest to look for as a whole instead of any specific plant.  If folks are interested there are many excellent books and we (meaning you have to ask for it!) could probably talk AJ into writing a post on the subject. 

How to pick a mushroom?

This is a topic of great debate and depending on the mushroom I have different preferences. I prefer to cut mushroom that grow on trees or that will grow back from the same “stump” per say and pull/twist out ones that grow on a stalk in the ground. 

Why? There is some concern that leaving a broken stalk attached to the mycelium (the actual fungal creature, the mushroom is just the fruit, if you will) can cause disease to set in and kill part of the fungus. I am slightly skeptical of this theory since mushrooms naturally rot anyway. However I can see how it might be like leaving rotten fruit on a tree, which can invite a higher pest load and causing unnecessary stress in the long run. So I error on what I consider to be the side of caution.
 For tree growing mushrooms we cut them since the mycelium can sometimes be literally pulled off the tree and I don’t want to disturb it. There are some ground growing mushrooms that supposedly grow back from the same spot, potentially the same “stump” (cauliflower mushroom- Sparassis  sp –radicata locally).  Weather or not that is true; we cut those off at the ground instead of pulling them out.  Ironically, as you can see in the photo, AJ is cutting a Pig’s Ear instead of pulling it. AJ and I started off at opposite ends of the spectrum, I thought we should cut all mushrooms and AJ thought we should pull all of them. We have since rubbed off on each and to some degree even reversed our stances. When you are identifying a mushroom you should pull it. With some species the way the mycelium attach to the mushroom is an important trait for identification.


To limit frustration and waste, clean your mushrooms as much as possible in the field. This is something we are always forgetting to do and often pay for it by having mushroom tidbits and dirt strewn all over our apartment. 
Bring a soft brush , towel and sharp knife with you mushrooming. The sooner you clean them the less dirt and random natural tidbits will get ground into your mushrooms which mean you will be able to limit, or skip altogether, involving water. If you have to wash mushrooms use a heavy stream of cold water and your fingers or a brush to get them clean as fast as possible. 
Washing should be your last resort. 
It takes flavor away from them, makes cooking more challenging, shortens their keeping time as well as lengthens their drying time. If you wash mushrooms lay them out to dry on towels and make sure they are turned so water can’t pool anywhere in them. There are some species, in some cases, that actually need to be soaked. Usually because of maggots, bugs intent on staying, rocks, ash or sand.

We took this mushroom hunting trip back in September, the day after my birthday. We were on the hunt for the renowned edible Boletes.
 AJ had become more than a little obsessed with boletes.
 Through all his researching and pouring over maps he found an area that looked worth while for bolete hunting. The trip there was beautiful. It was one of those rare, clear and sunny days with the mountain in full view. 
The hills we drove through were especially beautiful. I made AJ stop so I could take this photo. I was awestruck by the texture and color of the trees with the cows grazing in the shadow of the mountainous forest. I might paint this someday.

Our disappointment at not finding the boletes we were after was mitigated by all the other choice edibles we did find. We found some boletes; just not the edibles we wanted. 



We found a nice mess of chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius-if you want to be picky there are multiple species but I am really not interested in all the squabbling over species divisions). These are one of the easiest mushrooms for a beginner to hunt. They have very clear traits which make them easy to identify and there are no deadly poisonous mushrooms you could even remotely confuse with them. 

You can tell a chanterelle by it’s color, shape and gills. They range from a deep orangish yellow to a pale-yellow/ beige color. There are also purple/black/blue ones which are rare, edible close relatives. They generally form a cone like shape with a slight depression where the cap attached to the stock. Often the edges are very wrinkled and folded but sometimes they will be uniform. The gills are branching and follow down the stall unlike most gilled mushroom whose gills are unbranching and stop where the cap meets the stalk. The stalks should always be solid. If you find one with a hollow stalk it may be very old or not a chanterelle at all.  

                      Tiny baby chanterelles!

Pigs Ear Mushrooms

Besides chanterelles we also found pig’s ear mushrooms (Gomphus clavatus) a chanterelle relative. These guys are another choice edible that’s easy to identify and a rather rare find. They have a very distinct fluted shape and scalloped edges. As with chanterelles, the gills are branching and travel down the stalk.


Lobster Mushrooms

There were masses of lobster mushrooms (Hypomyces lactifluorum+Lactarius sp.,Russula sp.) that someone has picked and then tossed. It may have been that the person who picked them decided they weren’t sure what they were or that they were too old to keep. Either way it makes me angry to see pounds and pounds of wasted mushrooms. If you are unsure of a mushrooms safety or species take three or so individuals of varying ages to identify them. There is no need to pick, kick over and crunch every single mushroom in sight. 

Lobster mushrooms are Lactarius and Russula species that become infected with another fungus (Hypomyces lactifluorum) that makes them into a firm seafood flavored mushroom. They become red or orange colored.  With an often upturned shape and only slight ridges, if at all, visible where the gills of the host species would have been. They can also be green instead of red or orange. We have never seen a green one so I assume they must be rarer since we regularly see the typical orange ones, the red type a little less frequently.

These mushrooms are highly perishable and you will often find them already so rotten they crumble when you touch them. look for these as “shrumps” little hills where the mushroom is still under the soil but sometimes you can see a little orange or red edge peeking out. 

Lobster mushrooms are usually a little more on the dirty side and you often have to wash or cut out the ground in dirt. Do not wait until the next day to clean and use these mushroom! I had read that they would keep fine for a few days but I lost half a mess of lobster mushrooms because I waited until the next day to dry them. I can see a very fresh, young one lasting a day or two. However finding that sort of lobster mushroom is very hard because they are often entirely buried and even then I am sure you would lose notable quality keeping them around for that long.

In general, it’s a good policy to cook wild mushrooms. Many have chemicals when raw that can cause mild stomach upset. There are some that are fine raw, however until you are confident in your identification abilities and are familiar with their properties, it’s best to stick with cooking your mushrooms.  Since this post was already so long I’ve decided to divide the cooking and preserving information into another post. Keep an eye out, it will be coming soon!

Clock wise form top left: Pig Ear(Gomphus clavatus), chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius), lobster mushrooms (Hypomyces lactifluorum+Lactarius sp.,Russula sp.), Cauliflower (Sparassis radicat?), Scaly Chanterelle *not generally regarded as safe to eat!* (Gomphus floccosus)


This post is participating in the Homestead Barn Hop, Healthy Tuesday, Real Food Wednesdays, Frugal Days Sustainable Ways HomeAcre and From The Farm blog hops, check them out to find other great blogs like ours!


Kelly Weatherly · October 25, 2013 at 3:41 pm

Thank for the interesting and informative post. I also live in the PNW but have never been sure enough about mushrooms to forage. I found this post on From the Farm blog hop.KellyCrackerdog Farm

    Emily Swezey · October 25, 2013 at 5:16 pm

    I hope you will give it a try! There are so many tasty mushrooms out there and they can be SO easy to find. Thanks for visiting and commenting, come again soon!

Black Fox Homestead · October 31, 2013 at 12:00 pm

Fascinating. I don’t even know what varieties one would expect to find in our area. Thanks for sharing this at the HomeAcre Hop. The hop is live this morning and we’d love to have you back. 🙂 Have a great day.

    Emily Swezey · November 1, 2013 at 4:12 am

    Most of these are found naturally across the entire hemisphere in the right habitats. Thanks for visiting!

Becca · November 6, 2013 at 6:31 pm

They’re so cool looking! What a variety. Thanks for sharing your post at the hop, Emily!

    Emily Swezey · November 6, 2013 at 6:49 pm

    Thanks for hosting and for visiting Life From Scratch!

Raven · November 10, 2013 at 4:08 pm

I found your post through ‘Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways’ blog hop! I LOVE mushrooms, and I am eager to begin foraging for them, since I live in Upstate SC in the mountains, and mushrooms are EVERYWHERE! Thanks for the beautiful pictures and information, it makes me even more excited to learn more about mushroom foraging in my area!

    Emily Swezey · November 11, 2013 at 4:07 am

    I’m so glad you enjoyed this post! My husband mentioned that there are red chanterelles on the east coast, we don’t have those here. Maybe you have some in your area! Thanks for visiting, please come again soon and good mushrooming to you!

Keith Knittle · September 22, 2018 at 4:39 pm

Nice article. Do you recommend one book on picking mushrooms in the Pacific NW? My wife and I would like to know how to identify the good ones and be 100% sure of their safety.
Thank you

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