Following late summer rains our woodlands often come alive with fungi – mushrooms and toadstools. Perhaps one of the most obvious is the poisonous fly agaric – the red toadstool with white spots of fairy tales – but there are others that are wholesome and tasty and offer a welcome addition to a seasonal diet.
Through autumn many people take the opportunity to connect with nature and forage responsibly for Scotland’s fungi species. As well as being beautiful in their varied colours and shapes, some fungi such as field mushroom, chanterelle, hedgehog and penny bun or cep are also very tasty. A mindful forage for food from nature while on a walk is an absorbing, meditative process, with tasty rewards but make sure that you have done a bit of homework first!
Mushrooms are the fruit bodies of fungi – the majority of the fungus is underground and lives as thread-like hyphae. This means that picking the mushrooms doesn’t harm the fungus any more than picking blackberries from a bramble world, but it can still have effects to the fungus’ reproduction and potentially damage its structures underground.
There are therefore some guidelines I would recommend to safe-guard these wonderful organisms. These sustainable foraging guidelines are adapted from the Scottish Wild Mushroom Code. The code is a good source of information, and contains a bit of extra advice for scientific forays.
• Only pick what you will use – as well being important for the future of the fungus species, there are many animals that rely on autumn fungi as a food source, including red squirrels and a range of insects and slugs.
• Know what you are picking – it is important that you are confident in identifying what you are picking. As well as avoiding poisonous species, this will help you avoid Scotland’s rare and special species, whether you are collecting for the pot or for scientific research.
• Spread your gathering – taking from a wider area makes it less likely you are harvesting all the fruit bodies from an individual fungus, as well as helping you connect with nature as you share in its larder.
• Tread carefully – mushrooms are only fruiting bodies; the majority of the fungus is underground and so excessive trampling and disturbance will damage them, reducing mushroom crops in future years.
• Only pick the best – young unopened mushrooms haven’t had the chance to spread their spores yet, and older mushrooms can still spread spores despite not being the tastiest, so stick to picking the middle-aged mushrooms .
• Nature reserves – please seek advice from the land manager if you want to pick from nature reserves.
• Commercial foraging – some people supplement their living by gathering food from nature and supplying restaurants, and food retailers with seasonal foraged produce. To forage for commercial purposes one must have the landowner’s permission. Foraging small quantities, for personal use is allowed as part of our access rights.
Many ‘mushroomers’ will also have advice for sustainable fungi foraging: most use knives to cut the stalk of the fungi, and these knives often have a soft brush attached so they can be brushed over on site, returning any spores to the ground. They often use wicker baskets to allow the spores from the mushrooms they have picked to fall out of the gaps, thus aiding the mushroom’s final purpose before they are consumed. Personally, I am also of the hope that some of the small flies may fall out of my colander of chanterelles…
Of these tips, identifying the mushroom correctly so you don’t poison yourself is one of the most important ones. Species such chanterelle, puffballs and wood hedgehogs can be good starting points for beginners.
Only harvest what you know. One of the best ways to learn, is to learn from others; take an outing with a forager – a list of proficient foragers can be found in the directory of the Association of Foragers. Many of them offer foraging outings and share their knowledge through excellent on line resources – Mark Williams at Galloway Wild Foods offers one of the most comprehensive resources on his website.
Some edible mushrooms can also be cultivated at home, but many of the mushrooms found wild in Scotland cannot yet be cultivated for commercial use. This is because species such as chanterelles and morels are mycorrhizal, forming symbiotic associations with particular tree species in a union that has been referred to as the ‘wood wide web’ – accordingly, these species are tied to particular conditions and cannot be found outside of their habitat.
Overall, foraging can be a fantastic way to connect with nature, increase your knowledge and add some healthy ingredients to your diet. If you are keen to learn more before you venture outdoors, check out NatureScot’s online resources, which include our colourful guide to Foraging for Wild Plants in Scotland and our Food from Nature workbook for children in both English and in Gaelic.
NatureScot also organises Foraging Fortnight in partnership with Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), which takes place in September each year and which co-ordinates and promotes a range of events including foraging excursions – check the website for a range of resources and for details of Foraging Fortnight 2023, when they are released.
By: Kat O’Brien