It’s a legend among the brave souls who consume wild mushrooms: There are old mushroom pickers and there are bold mushroom pickers, but there are no old and bold mushroom pickers.
So Mom was right when she lectured you as a kid—know what it is before you put it in your mouth. It’s especially sound advice when foraging for wild mushrooms, as many of the edible variety can have poisonous look-alikes. Experienced foragers from the Arizona Mushroom Club advise an edibility test—which is “good for anything you’re not familiar with, whether it’s a mushroom, berries, or any plant,” says the club president, Chester Leathers, a microbiology professor emeritus at Arizona State University. “Even if you know someone is an expert and has eaten the mushroom before, it’s still a smart idea to use this test.”
When seasonal rains arrive and spores start sprouting, mycologists start planning field trips. Leathers advises, “Find a mushroom that looks good and smells acceptable and start with a teaspoon of it prepared the way you intend to cook the entire batch—sautéed, boiled, or fried. Other than that experimental bite, eat only known foods for the next eight hours. If you experience a queasy feeling in your stomach, watery eyes, diarrhea, or heart palpitations, cease and desist. If no symptoms appear, try another sample a bit larger and again wait for any reaction. If the tests keep coming up negative, you can be reasonably confident the mushrooms in question are safe to eat.”
Arizona isn’t typically associated with these mysterious mycological marvels because they generally grow in wetter climates and are associated with coniferous and deciduous forests, but “blue skies, spectacular sunsets, scorching deserts, and torrential thundershowers can combine into an environmental setting in which various forms of fungi are found,” writes Jack States in Mushrooms and Truffles of the Southwest.
Andrew Weil, the founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, is a fan of foraging. “I’m a lifelong mushroom lover who enjoys the thrill of the hunt, the process of identification, the cooking and savoring of their deep, complex flavors. Add to this fact that many mushrooms have potent medicinal and tonic properties and you can understand my enduring mycophilia,” he says.
Arizona mushrooms provide an edible smorgasbord found in a range of varying habitats. Mixed conifer vegetation zones, characterized by pines, fir, spruce, and aspen, give up tasty morsels like the iconic lobster mushroom, Caesar’s amanita, Barrows’ bolete, and oyster mushrooms. There are a lot of options to choose from; the Arizona Mycota Project estimates that 23,400 fungal species occur in the state. Project participants say that thousands of species of fungi might remain to be discovered in Arizona.
“Success at collecting edible mushrooms in the arid Southwest depends on local rains in the summer monsoon season—it’s not nearly as assured as foraging in the forests of the Pacific Northwest in fall,” says Weil. “Still, in the right place at the right time, you can find numerous edible species in the region, occasionally in abundance.”
Mushroom clubs and special events are conduits for adventure where the joy of first discovery can turn into a lifelong addiction. It continues to be a source of excitement as well as edibles for retired Arizona Game and Fish biologist Jim Warnecke of Phoenix, a long-time mushroom club member who insists that forest-fresh fungi beats store-bought stuff. “I’ve hit some bumper crops that have yielded nearly 250 specimens over a weekend. Last year in the White Mountains, lobster mushrooms were prevalent near the Sunrise ski area. We hit one hillside where we filled three grocery bags and then went out and did it again the following week.”
When foraging, concentrate on areas around trees and logs where discoveries include chanterelles, golden-orange mushrooms with wavy caps and distinctive ridges underneath. Considered a delicacy, “They’re great in omelets and sauces,” says long-time Scottsdale club member Chantel Pascale, who learned about the joys of mushrooming while growing up in France.
“My mission is to educate and inspire folks to go out and enjoy the fungi in the woods,” says Warnecke, who is working on a film to that very effect, titled Arizona’s 11 Most Edible Mushrooms.
Warnecke has a preference for the moist high country on Mount Graham during the early spring or the fall rainy season when morels await discovery. “There are definitely two seasons that are environmentally defined. In springtime, April to May, morels like the black morel or fire mushroom represent about 90 percent of the find. The summer season that follows the monsoon rains and goes through September produces a flush of several varieties that can be dehydrated and vacuum-packed. You can take a fresh four-by-four-inch bolete, chop it up, and eat a couple of them in a meal, but if you dehydrate them, you can get half a dozen in a jar that make great sauce, mushroom soup, or stroganoff.”
“There are some fungi that grow in desert washes after rains, but for diversity, abundance, and deliciousness, I head for one of the Southwestern Sky Islands, like Mount Lemmon in the Santa Catalina Mountains,” says Katja Schulz of the Tree of Life Web Project. “Some years you’ll only find a few here and there. At other times the hills go crazy with mushrooms in all colors of the rainbow. Some of the edibles found at high elevations include the oyster mushroom, the hedgehog, and the white king bolete.”
Eager to try my own luck at foraging, Warnecke and I laced up our boots for a high country hike in White Mountain country outside Show Low-Pinetop. Walking down old skid trail logging roads, dodging puddles from an earlier rain, Warnecke was like a bloodhound on scent. “You can actually smell mushrooms,” he said. “They have an earthy smell unlike the ones you find in grocery stores.”
We poked through wet leaf forest litter, hoping to find bright spots like the tops of king bolete, easy to spot because they resemble a peach cut in half. “The stalks are bulbous and you want to get down and wiggle them, then trim off the mud, and put them in a net bag,” said Warnecke.
Looking uphill from previous logging areas, we locate some easy-to-spot gourmet yellow chanterelles. “You can spot these from a distance because of their bright color as they grow along a root line. They need lots of moisture and don’t come up every year, but they’re a prize when they do,” said Warnecke.
Another of Warnecke’s favorites is finding a flush of lobster mushrooms pushing up through pine litter. “I call them my 50-mile-an-hour mushroom because you can spot them while driving by.”
Farther down the track and right next to the roadway we discover what look like little rockets. These are shaggy manes, grayish-white in color, that grow in groups in disturbed soil and old fire areas.
“If you get lucky, sometimes at the base of an old stump, you’ll find a big convoluted thing that looks like a brain or a cauliflower the size of a small basketball growing there,” said Warnecke. “These are unique, like nothing you’ve seen before. Cut into sections, the cauliflower mushroom can be good for three to four meals.”
On most mushroom forays, seekers will do many pass overs, ignoring a number of species before finding the right one to harvest. “When in doubt, throw it out,” Warnecke said.
If trekking in the trees doesn’t appeal to you and you want your shrooms picked and packed, Andrew Carhuff, chef and owner of Old Pueblo Mushroom Growers, the only commercial cultivator in Tucson, says, “Our goal is to create a mushroom source for Tucson and southern Arizona and to contribute to the local food movement.”
Old Pueblo Mushroom Growers specializes in gourmet oyster mushrooms, some 50 pounds a week, grown in organic grain and straw logs and sold to local restaurants and at farmers’ markets. Moving soon to a five-acre spread in Aravaipa Canyon, Carhuff plans to add cultivation of shitakes.
The chef’s advice? “Sauté them with butter or garlic, mix in greens like kale, and enjoy the freshness.” ✜
Lee Allen is a life-long forager in search of education & edibles.