On the hunt

The art of foraging wild mushrooms

Foraging for mushrooms is growing in popularity as a recreational hobby, and it is safer than you might realize.


The first question people ask me when they find out that my fiance and I forage wild mushrooms is some variation of “How do you know they aren’t poisonous? That’s not safe!” I quickly and kindly assure them that they are actually statistically more likely to get sick from what they are eating at the grocery store. So let’s talk mushrooms.

A mushroom is a fungus that is alive. Although it is not considered a plant nor an animal, molecular evidence shows that fungi are more closely related to animals than plants. Humans have consumed mushrooms for as long as we know. Today, mushrooms are farmed commercially, but foraging for mushrooms is growing in popularity as a recreational hobby.

Statistics regarding harmful mushrooms

There are currently over 100,000 species of mushrooms identified and out of these, around 100 are poisonous to humans. These 0.1% of the mushrooms that are poisonous contain certain toxins which can cause a variety of symptoms. The vast majority of mushroom poisoning is classified as “benign gastrointestinal upset.” However, there can be more serious and rare manifestations of mushroom poisoning that include liver failure, kidney failure and neurologic compromise.

The symptoms of mushroom poisoning are related to the toxin ingested, something we have learned about in medical school, like amatoxin causing liver toxicity, psilocybin causing hallucinations, muscarine causing cholinergic toxicity, coprine causing a disulfiram-like reaction when combined with alcohol or gyromitrin-depleting GABA, causing potential seizures.

Breaking down the risks

Let’s put some numbers to it. Each year in the United States, there are about 6,000 reported concerning mushroom ingestions, 1,300 hospitalizations, 120 serious adverse outcomes and seven deaths.

The majority of the reported cases are children under six years old eating everything they can get their hands on, not understanding the consequences. Other causes can be misidentifications during attempts to consume hallucinogenic mushrooms and other general misidentifications. There is no doubt that you get sick from eating the wrong mushroom.

For comparison’s sake, let’s now look at what we buy at the grocery store. Salmonella causes more foodborne illnesses than any other bacteria. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that every year in the United States, salmonella causes about 1.3 million infections, 26,500 hospitalizations and 420 deaths. Salmonella is most commonly found in meat and eggs, with chicken as the major source. It is estimated that 1 in every 25 packages of chicken at the grocery store is contaminated with salmonella.

Some basic tips for the new mushroom forager

  1. Get out there and look for fungi – it is therapeutic to be in nature for any reason, but going on a mushroom hunt adds extra fun! Regardless of whether you intend to eat them or not, mushrooms are beautiful, and you don’t have to eat them to enjoy looking for them.
  2. Learn from locals. Your best bet is to check out and talk to your local farmers market mushroom forager or look into your local Mushroom Society!
  3. Start with the Foolproof Four, wild mushrooms that are fairly widespread and easy to identify: morels, chicken mushrooms, giant puffballs and yellow chanterelles.
  4. Use multiple resources (with photos and descriptions) for identification purposes and ensure that all identification points match your mushrooms.
  5. Only eat a wild mushroom if you are 100% sure of its identity. All wild mushrooms must be thoroughly cooked before eating. Never sample a raw wild mushroom!
  6. When trying a new wild mushroom for the first time, eat just a small portion; some people react badly to mushrooms that others can eat with no problem.

Learning how to forage safely

No one is born with the innate knowledge on how-to forage mushrooms, just as we are not born with the medical knowledge we are learning as well. If you are on your medical journey and you are learning the intricacies of the complex human body, I am confident that with interest and motivation, you too will be able to learn to safely forage mushrooms.

Disclaimer: Proper identification is your responsibility. Never eat any wild food without cross-referencing multiple reliable sources and double-checking for positive identification. You must be able to correctly identify your findings; otherwise, you should not eat them.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

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How photography became my self-care during medical school

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