Never mind the cherry blossoms, DC is a city of mushrooms. Neighborhood trees, root boxes, gardens, planters and parks often shelter common and sometimes unexpected mushroom species to hunt, identify, and appreciate. When temperatures and rains are favorable, a few easy-to-spot edible mushrooms—oyster, wood ear, and chicken of the wood—appear throughout the year.
Once temperatures rise and spring rains fall, the first morels are certain to pop. Shortly after that, wine caps. Another month or two yet, chantarelles, meadow mushrooms, puffballs and boletes. Late summer and fall see hen of the wood, honey, lion’s mane, blewits, enoki, and many others. For those who like to spot, but not eat what they find, jack-o-lanterns, bleeding tooth, devil’s fingers, and an array of green, purple, and red mushrooms populate wooded lots (and sometimes backyards) through the summer months. For DC mushroom hunters, the first days of spring are filled with an anticipation of the season to come.
In Search of Mushrooms
“I’ve been known to stop my car because I saw one,” says Tara Geiger, who lives in Brightwood and has taught wild mushroom hunting and identification with Drew Drozynski for the DC Urban Gardener’s Network. A few years ago, she spotted a lions mane mushroom in the branches of an oak in Northwest. “It was up, 30 feet off the ground,” Drozynski confirms. “And huge!” Geiger adds.
“In the spring, I tell people that I’ll go online and just pull up pictures of morels, just to kind of get my brain used to recognizing that pattern—so, when I go in the woods, they pop a little better,” says Mitch Fournet, who leads mushroom forays with DC’s Mycological Association of Washington (MAW). John Harper, the current culinary chair of MAW keeps a small model of a morel on his desk to help him with pattern-recognition on forays. The tan morel replica bears distinctive, squiggly ridges on its long cap.
For those itching for a new focus on pandemic walks, mushroom hunting can provide a fascinating lens through which to learn about local ecosystems. Anne Hiller, of Reston, began mushrooming in spring 2020 as a way to learn more about local ecology. “My son really loved it,” she said, as they took walks together. “We just picked things and took them back home and looked them up in our book.”
Soon after Hiller took up spotting local fungi, her mother also developed “mushroom eyes,” a nickname for the gaze that discerns mushrooms from undergrowth. Hiller recounts showing a picture of black trumpets to her mother and son. “Two hours later, they came back from their walk with a huge bag, asking ‘are these black trumpets?’” They’d found so many, Hiller was able to dehydrate the black trumpets they’d picked for later use.
Other mushroom hunters admit that they faced some skepticism when beginning to mushroom hunt. “My friends and family—they’re like—you are completely insane!” Pamela Arya, McLean, remembers. She took up foraging after finding a huge chicken of the woods when hiking in Catoctin Park. She now hunts around the DMV with other enthusiasts she has met via Facebook forums.
Geiger confides that she regularly hears similar worries about disturbing and picking mushrooms. Many people are squeamish about touching or eating something toxic or eating fungi that have not come from a grocery store. “Don’t be afraid to pick them or smell them or touch what you find,” Geiger says.
“It’s like rock climbing,” Drozynski says. “If you follow the protocols and you learn how to do it, it’s a quite a safe activity.”
Herndon resident Rahima Shafiq Ullah appreciates “connecting” and gaining “a different sense or understanding of the natural world, rediscovering knowledge people used to have.” She first learned more about mushroom foraging through a nature program near Charlottesville, VA called The Living Earth School. Also, Ullah says, “It’s just fun to notice the mushrooms. What do they look like? Where do they grow? What’s happening to the area around them?”
Drozynski and Geiger acknowledge the mindfulness benefits of mushroom hunting. They say hunting for mushrooms slows them down and requires them to be more “tuned in” to the environments they visit. “We used to hike nine or 10 miles when we’d go out,” Drozynski notes. “Now we hike one, but we are thorough.”
“You know when you’re close to mycelium,” Geiger says. She describes a subtle change in humidity that is often her first tell she may be onto a find. Serious mycologists also know that learning to find mushrooms requires a broad knowledge of the ecosystems and conditions particular species prefer. Some species only grow on dead wood, others from soil. Morels grow near ash, elm, and oak. Oyster mushrooms thrive in shady areas and on fallen deciduous hardwoods, especially tulip poplars. Chicken and hen are most often found on dead oak.
One species that is reported to grow in the region, but which has eluded the MAW foray leaders: Umbrella Polypore. “Others have found it in this area,” says Fournet, who has 20 years of experience hunting and identifying the region’s mushrooms. “I think I found one in the fall on top of a log, but it was so buggy and messed up. If you touched it, it crumbled.”
Getting Started Mushroom Hunting
The Mycological Association of Washington (http://mawdc.org/) is just one of the many resources available to those learning to hunt mushrooms in DC and the greater DMV. Its 600 members include amateur mushroom hunters and professional mycologists who study and educate, forage, photograph, and cook wild fungi they have found. The organization has moved its monthly meetings onto Zoom for the pandemic, but Fournet is preparing to host the first in-person forays in coming months (with all of the necessary precautions and restrictions). In the meantime, MAW’s monthly meetings are open to the public, bringing guest experts to those who want a deeper dive into the ways of mycelium.
Geiger and Drozynski suggest starting with five mushrooms that you know you can identify 100 percent and building a knowledge base from there. The MAW field experts recommend collecting in baskets or mesh bags as this allows spores to spread. It is also important to cut the stalk of a mushroom with a knife when collecting, because that leaves the mycelium hyphae, which spread like roots, in the soil or the wood, allowing the mushroom to fruit once more.
Before you pick, always be sure that you are allowed to harvest from an area. Rock Creek Park, for instance, allows no foraging or picking and will ticket/fine rule breakers. Regulations in MD and VA differ between parks and jurisdictions—so it is always best to check the website of the location you are visiting.
Cautions and More Resources
Never eat a raw wild mushroom. Identification of any mushroom you find is crucial before eating it. Mushrooms near roadways or potentially contaminated soils should be avoided because the mushrooms may absorb and accumulate harmful chemical compounds and contaminants.
Mushroom hunters should also know how to properly cook what they’ve found. Some common species need to be cooked thoroughly to avoid gastric distress. Experts recommend tasting only a small portion if you haven’t eaten that variety before. Even mushrooms that are generally considered safe to eat may cause mild digestive upsets or other reactions due to individual sensitivity. Harper notes a few people having had issues with wild mushrooms that others have no problem eating, such as Honey Mushrooms, Chanterelles, Morels, Chicken of the Woods and Wine Caps.
Just in case, it’s important to keep the information for the DC’s National Poison Control Center or the North American Mycological Association’s “next steps and remedial actions” at hand (see side bar). MAW also reminds mushroom hunters to take serious precautions against ticks, all year round, and offers information about identifying ticks should you find one on you.
Raking leaf litter or using a leaf blower to clear the forest can dry out and kill mycelium under the soil. Leaving an area bare after disturbing leaves is also very bad for mushrooms and their habitat.
“Pick-shaming,” the belief that picking a species may be detrimental to populations or an ecosystem, is also unnecessary. Unlike picking a wild flower, which keeps a native variety from re-seeding its population, picking a mushroom distributes spores, making it more likely that the species will spread and thrive. “It’s like picking an apple from an apple tree,” Drozynski notes.
Michelle LaFrance is an English Professor at George Mason University who lives in SW. You can read her piece on making dandelion wine here (https://www.hillrag.com/2020/05/18/in-search-of-dandelions/ ). She thanks John Harper of the Mycological Association of Washington, Tara Geiger and Drew Drozynski of the DUG Network for their knowledgeable feedback on this article.