There are few activities more rewarding than going out into the woods and finding a tasty treat, especially when that treat is a fungus. Forays are when a group of fungi-enthusiasts embark into the forest in search of mushrooms, both edible and not. These trips are especially fruitful in the spring and fall when the weather brings constant moisture. One doesn’t have to travel far to find flavor-filled wild mushrooms—these delectable delights can be found all over the Syracuse area.
Melanie Desch, a mycologist at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF), offers a few tips and tricks for beginners. First, she explains, one needs to identify 3-4 easily recognizable species. Fungi such as chicken-of-the-woods, hen-of-the-woods, and puffballs are just a few examples of edible mushrooms that even the least experienced of mycologists can identify. Chicken-of-the-woods looks like large orange shelves growing on the bark of trees and can be found between early spring and autumn. Hen-of-the-woods, a similar tasting fungus, is known to enhance the immune system. It is milk-white and brown, grows in a large cluster, and can be found growing at the base of decomposing trees. Edible puffballs grow as large, hard masses and are found in open fields.
Desch says that there are plenty of edible mushrooms around the area, but that they are often mistaken for poisonous ones. Thus, her second tip is to bring an experienced mycologist with you on a foray. Desch suggests that people interested in hunting for edible mushrooms should begin by joining the CNY Mycological Society, a local group that leads monthly mushroom forays.
Local edible hotspots include Oakwood Cemetery, Heiberg and Highland Forest, and Rome Sand Plains. Though these locations are all relatively close to one another, their differences in terrain and ecology are what allow different types of mushrooms to thrive. Oakwood Cemetery is characterized by rolling hills and large grassy areas with few trees. This habitat is perfect for fungi such as puffballs and hen-of-the-woods. Both Heiberg and Highland Forest contain large hemlock stands. Here, one would find chanterelles, herecium, and boletes. These forests contain more ectomycorrhizal species—fungi that form symbiotic relationships with trees. Finally, Rome Sand Plains are home to many rhizopogon species, which are found growing in close proximity to White Pines.
Desch’s biggest word of advice is to not eat anything in the field. No matter how confident you are in your identification, it is always best to take note of where you found your specimen and to double check with a field guide or online. The more you explore and look for mushrooms, the easier it will be to identify them. And besides, what is better than finding exquisite and expensive mushrooms in the wild for free?