Fungi under foot
Mike Potts noses through a forest of old-growth Douglas firs bearded with lichens looking for little yellow specks poking through the duff when his eyes glimpse a yellowish-white fungus that appears to ooze out of a downed log.
The mass of icicle-like spines protruding from the log are obviously not chanterelles, the most sought-after fall mushroom in the south Cascades. But this fistful of fungi turns out to be hericium. Some call it bear’s head. Potts calls it delicious.
“They’re very tasty,” says Potts, an expert mushroom hunter. “I love collecting these and cooking these. They smell amazing. And they’re beautiful.”
Chanterelles may be the best-known delicacy of the fall forests in Southern Oregon, but there are a handful of other edible mushrooms out there if you know what to pick and what to leave.
Hericiums, deer mushrooms and coral mushrooms all present themselves to the discerning chanterelle hunter and are not only deserving of space in the mushroom basket but also are good additions to join chanterelles in saute pans.
Coral fungi look like small coral formations in the ocean, but these kinds of coral jut out of the forest duff in many of the same areas where foragers find chanterelles and they can be easier to spot.
Some subspecies of this mushroom can make you a bit sick, and the odds that this one is plenty good aren’t good enough for Potts quite yet.
I’m a more cautious mushroom hunter,” Potts says. “I don’t experiment with a lot of these.”
But he might.
“I’ve met people who have no idea about mushroom names or anything, but they’ve been eating these for years,” he says. “They smell great. I’m probably missing out for not trying them yet.”
One definitely not for tasting is rubroboletus, which proves the adage that when it comes to forest fungi, bigger definitely is not always better. Potts finds a rubroboletus the size of a plate under a yew tree. It’s sometimes called Satan’s bolete and not just because of its red blush.
“This might be considered deadly toxic if you consumed enough,” Potts says.
Chanterelles typically get the nod among forest foragers because of their smooth taste and the ease of collecting them.
Chanterelles thrive in the deep duff of old-growth Doug fir forests, and they can pop up in logged areas, game trails or the edges of pastures. Because of their vase-like shape and golden color, they are easy to identify if you know what you’re looking for.
Most are yellow with smooth caps except for cream-colored white chanterelles making them relatively easy to differentiate from lookalikes such as scaly and woolly chanterelles, which have scaly or fuzzy caps.
To find chanterelles, look for specks of gold pushing through the forest floor. Gently pull back the duff and find your prize.
Often chanterelles literally come up under foot, with an accidental drag of a heel exposing the fungus.
“Sometimes it takes stepping on them,” Potts says. “Everyone steps on them.”
In the Cascades, chanterelles are commonly found from about 4,000 feet above sea level to around 5,500 feet. They start popping up first at higher elevations and work their way down later in the season. The hunt in the Cascades doesn’t really end until snowfall covers them. Chanterelles are also prevalent in coastal forests and in some areas can be found within earshot of the surf.
Another edible fungus in local forests is the deer mushroom, which grows on downed wood. They have a brownish cap, a long stem called a stipe and pinkish gills.
“It’s an edible, and it’s pretty good,” Potts says. “And there’s nothing else that looks like that guy.”
In the end, chanterelles still dominate the harvest for fall mushroom hunters, who often take long hikes during which they forget to look up and see the forest around them.
“Sometimes you just have to stop walking,” Potts says.