Mushroom hunting, Houby hunting, mushrooming, mushroom picking, mushroom foraging, and similar terms describe the activity of gathering mushrooms in the wild, typically for food. This practice is popular throughout most of Europe, including the Nordic, Baltic, and Slavic countries, as well as the Mediterranean Basin. Mushrooms are also collected in Australia, Japan, Korea, and the Indian subcontinent, as well as the temperate regions of Canada and the United States.
A large number of mushroom species are favored for eating by mushroom hunters. The king bolete is a popular delicacy. Sulphur shelf (also known as chicken mushroom and chicken of the woods) is often gathered because it occurs in bulk, recurs year after year, is easily identified, and has a wide variety of culinary uses. Pine mushrooms, chanterelles, morels, oyster mushrooms, puffballs and polypores are among the most popular types of mushrooms to gather, most of these being fairly simple to properly identify by anyone with practice. Much more care, education, and experience is typically required to make a positive identification of many species, however, and as such, few collect from more dangerous groups, such as Amanita, which include some of the most toxic mushrooms in existence.
Many field guides on mushrooms are available, but the ability to identify and prepare edible mushrooms is often passed down through generations, especially in the Slavic countries.
Identification is not the only element of mushroom hunting that takes practice; knowing where and when to search does as well. Most mushroom species require very specific conditions. Some only grow at the base of a certain type of tree, for example. Finding a desired species that is known to grow in a certain region can be a challenge.
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A Czech adage warns that "všechny houby jsou jedlé, ale některé jenom jednou." Translated, that "every mushroom is edible, but some only once." Some mushrooms are deadly or extremely hazardous when consumed. Some that are not deadly can nevertheless cause permanent organ damage.
Common safety advice includes:
"Little brown mushrooms" (or LBMs) refers to any of a large number of small, dull-coloured agaric species, with few macromorphological uniquely distinguishing characteristics. As a result, LBMs typically range from difficult to impossible for mushroom hunters to identify. Experienced mushroomers may discern more subtle identifying traits that help narrow the mushroom down to a particular genus or group of species, but exact identification of LBMs often requires close examination of microscopic characteristics plus a certain degree of familiarity or specialization in that particular group.
"Big white mushroom" (or BWM) is also sometimes used to describe groups of difficult to identify larger and paler agarics, many of which are in the genus Clitocybe.
The Amanita muscaria's psychotropic properties have been traditionally used by shamans in Siberia in their rituals. However, its use for such purposes today is very rare, despite the mushroom's abundance. Instead, the Psilocybe semilanceata is sought after for its hallucinogenic properties, the latter being more desirable with fewer side effects than those of A. muscaria. The use of P. semilanceata is however significantly hindered by its small size, requiring larger quantities and being hard to spot. Other Psilocybe species are abundant in the American south and west, as well as Mexico, where they have been used by traditional shamans for centuries. In the west, one can often find mushroom pickers in cow pastures in a stereotypical stoop looking in the grass for psilocybes. This can be quite dangerous, as many species grow in pastures and amateurs often misidentify psilocybes.
The popularity of mushroom picking in some parts of the world has led to mushroom festivals. The festivals are usually between September and October, depending on the mushrooms available in a particular region. Festivals in North America include:
Nuclear fallout from the Chernobyl disaster is an important issue concerning mushroom picking in Europe. Due to the wide spread of their mycelium, mushrooms tend to accumulate more radioactive caesium-137 than surrounding soil and other organisms. State agencies (e.g. Bellesrad in Belarus) monitor and analyze the degree of radionuclide accumulation in various wild species of plants and animals. In particular, Bellesrad claims that Svinushka (Paxillus ssp.), Maslenok (Suillus ssp.), Mokhovik (Xerocomus ssp.), and Horkushka (Lactarius rufus) are the worst ones in this respect. The safest one is Opyonok Osyenniy (Armillaria mellea). This is an issue not only in Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia: the fallout also reached western Europe, and until recently the German government discouraged people gathering certain mushrooms.
The situation is treated with black humor in some Russian jokes.
Many mushroom guidebooks call attention to similarities between species, especially significant if an edible species is similar to, or commonly confused with, one that is potentially harmful.
There are treatments to reduce or eliminate the toxicity of certain (but not all) poisonous species to the point where they may be edible. For instance, false morels are deadly poisonous when eaten raw or incorrectly prepared, but their toxins can be reduced by a proper method of parboiling. Prepared in this way, this mushroom is widely used and considered a delicacy in many European countries, although recent research suggests that there may still be long-term health consequences from eating it.
Commonly gathered species, grouped by their order taxa, are as follows: mushroom species mentioned in each group are listed at the end of the paragraph using the following convention: Latin name (common English names, if any).
The Macrolepiota genus, usually the Macrolepiota procera, and, to a lesser extent, the M. rhacodes are highly regarded, especially in Europe, being very palatable and very large, with specimens of M. procera as high as one metre being reported.
While the family of Amanitas are approached with extreme caution, as it contains the lethal Amanita phalloides and Amanita virosa, those confident in their skills often pick the Amanita rubescens, which is highly prized in Europe and to a much lesser extent in Russia, accounted by some not to superior taste, but to its relation to the Amanita caesarea, which is not found in Russia, but was considered a delicacy worthy of the emperor in Ancient Rome.
This order is often viewed as the order of "noble" mushrooms, containing few poisonous species, identifiable with relative ease, and having superior palatability. The most notable species is the Boletus edulis, the "mushroom king", an almost legendary, relatively rare mushroom, edible in almost any (even raw) form, and commonly considered the best-tasting mushroom. (It is common to confuse the Russian name, literally "white mushroom", with champignons, often known in English as "white mushrooms".)
The Leccinum genus includes two well-known mushroom species named after the trees they can usually be found next to. The Leccinum aurantiacum (as well as the Leccinum versipelle), found under aspen trees, and the Leccinum scabrum (as well as the L. holopus), found under birch trees. The secondary mentioned species, are significantly different in cap colour only. Both types are very sought after, being highly palatable, while more common than the B. edulis.
The Suillus genus, characterised by its slimy cap, is another prized mushroom, the Suillus luteus and Suillus granulatus being its most common varieties, and while abundant in some parts of Eurasia, is a rare occurrence in others. It is easy to identify and very palatable.
The Xerocomus genus is generally considered a less desirable (though mostly edible) mushroom group, due to common abundant mould growth on their caps, which can make them poisonous. The Xerocomus badius, however is an exception, being moderately sought after, especially in Europe. Some scientific classifications now consider species in the Xerocomus genus as members of Boletus.
The Cantharellus cibarius, a common and popular mushroom, especially in Europe, is a choice edible and unique mushroom. It is very rarely infested by worms or larvae, has a unique appearance, and when rotting, the decomposed parts are easily distinguishable and separable from those that are edible.
The Gyromitra esculenta is considered poisonous, but can be consumed if dried and stored for over a year, according to Slavic literature, and can be used to supplement or replace morel (see Morchellaceae below) mushrooms, while Western literature claims that even the fumes of the mushroom are dangerous. It is similar to morels both in appearance and palatability.
The morel, Morchella esculenta is highly prized in Western Europe, India and North America. It is significantly less prized in Slavic countries where, like the Gyromitra esculenta, is considered marginally edible with mediocre palatability. Boiling the mushroom and discarding the water is often recommended.
Members of the genus Lactarius, as the name suggests, lactate a milky liquid when wounded and are often scoffed upon by Western literature. The Lactarius deliciosus is however regarded as one of the most palatable mushrooms in Slavic culture, comparable to the Boletus edulis. Also considered as similarly palatable are the species Lactarius necator and particularly Lactarius resimus. Thermal treatment may however be necessary in some cases. Slightly less appealing due to its bitter taste is the Lactarius pubescens.
The Russula family includes over 750 species and is one of the most common and abundant mushrooms in Eurasia. Their cap colours include red, brown, yellow, blue and green and can be easily spotted. The Russula vesca species, one of the many red-capped varieties, is one of the most common, is reasonably palatable and can be eaten raw. The edible Russulas have a mild taste, compared to many inedible or poisonous species that have a strong hot or bitter taste - but notice that the deadly poisonous Amanita phalloides, Amanita virosa and many other poisonous mushrooms have mild taste! The Russula emetica (the sickener) is known to cause gastrointestinal upset and has a very hot taste when a small bit is placed on the tongue. Due to their abundance they are however often regarded as an inferior mushroom for hunting, since they may be eaten if parboiled.