These Mushroom Hunters are Putting the Fun in Fungi

The New Jersey Mycological Association hosts weekly foraging forays during the warm and wet months wild mushrooms are in season.

A puffball mushroom.
A puffball mushroom.
Photo by John Bessler

Lois Keim wanted to get more mycological. She’d read everything she could about mushrooms. But that wasn’t enough. So one cloudy Saturday morning, she drove nearly an hour from her Alexandria Township home to Stephens State Park in Hackettstown, where she joined a group of equally curious mushroom hunters led by experts who could show her more.

The mushroom hunt—or foray—attracted experienced hunters and newcomers alike, including a Livingston family excited to try a new weekend activity, and an East Windsor man who was hunting mushrooms with his mother in mind. She used to forage for fungi for her homemade mushroom soup. I was another of the group’s rookies.

The New Jersey Mycological Association (NJMA), a statewide group dedicated to educating the public about fungi, hosts the weekly forays during the warm and wet months wild mushrooms are in season—typically May through October. Each foray is held in a different location, covering an array of state parks and wooded areas. Some participants are interested in learning how to identify edible mushrooms prized by foragers such as chanterelles, morels, oyster mushrooms, Chicken of the Woods and Hen of the Woods (also called maitake). Others are invested in studying the Garden State’s mushroom diversity in order to better understand the environments in which they grow.

The group spent about two hours following the park’s trails and carefully placing mushrooms into the wicker picnic baskets we brought from home. The best samples were found off the paths, growing beneath trees and on their bark. Poison ivy was frequently evident. With a delicate dance, we avoided the obnoxious plants.

Afterward, we returned to a designated area to identify our findings, using mushroom guidebooks provided by the NJMA. We each entered the genus and species names of our finds on identification cards for the whole group to see.

Some prized finds that summer day included golden chanterelles, coral mushrooms and a giant puffball the size of a toddler’s head. I found a slimy-looking jelly fungus growing on the side of a fallen tree, as well as a lactarius piperatus mushroom, commonly known as the peppery milk-cap, which lactates a milky liquid when picked. Encouraged by NJMA experts, I tasted the liquid, which exuded the flavor of a spicy radish.

“Many people find their way to mushrooming because they like to eat mushrooms,” said NJMA president John Burghardt. But the forays are not really about finding food. “Attending one or even a few forays won’t equip newcomers to eat mushrooms safely,” he added.

Burghardt’s advice: Never eat a mushroom without first properly identifying it. “There are no simple rules for what is safe,” he said, “and many times choice edibles have deadly look-alikes.”

So what’s the point of hunting mushrooms if you can’t eat your discoveries? “Some people just want to know what’s in their backyard,” said NJMA member and foray leader Nina Burghardt, John’s wife. The Burghardts survey sites all over Jersey for fungi nearly year round.

Before the foray was even over, Keim was eager for her next mushroom hunting adventure. “I am determined to find a Hen of the Woods this fall,” she said.

NJMA is hosting forays every weekend in October—the last ones of the year—in Lakewood, Woodland Township, Jackson, Waretown and Woodbine. The forays are free and open to the public. All forays begin at 10 am. For more information, visit their website.

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