Foraging For Oyster Mushrooms

Maddy Harland
Saturday, 8th January 2011

This delicacy isn't hard to find when you know what to look for, and Maddy is quick to put it to good use

There is a treasure in the woods near me: a semi-rotten beech tree that hosts oyster mushroom mycellium. Every year, after a very cold snap (usually in January) the mycellium runs and its fruiting bodies appear. Behold! Sumptuous oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus).

Last weekend on our regular walk Tim and I went and checked the tree and saw that there was activity and so we made a note to come back weekly with a sharp knife and a bag for spoil. Today I took a Cutco knife called a 'Bullwhip'. It is American and was kindly given to me by my brother Nick who knows I have a penchant for good knives. Good man! He bought it in an auction years ago but never used it. It holds a fiercesome edge and is ideal for foraging. (Vegans cover your ears – it is also great for breasting pigeons – the pigeons who have eaten all of my annual and perennial winter brassicas.)

The tree is just at the beginning of its fruiting cycle so I only took enough for two people.

Oyster mushrooms are easy to identify. They grow on beech and have a beautiful fluted shape. They are a usually white on top but they can go a shiny grey colour when exposed to frost. They have white gills. These gills run all the way down the stem. There are other oyster genus and they are not poisonous either. They just don't taste so good. Apparently, there is a poisonous look-alike found in Australia and Japan, called Omphalotus nidiformis. For a great identification guide, have a look here.

I also have a few identification guide books for my foraging trips. They are also marvellous inspiration. My two loves are Richard Mabey's Food For Free and Wild Food by Roger Phillips. The latter I couldn't live without as it has great pictures and delicious recipes. I also have a useful Easy Edible Mushroom Guide that can slip into a coat pocket. Finally, if you really want to get into mushroom foraging and not make any fatal mistakes I highly recommend Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's DVD Mushroom Magic. I find seeing edible fungi in its rightful location on film very helpful.

I am a self taught forager and cautious. I would not wish to imitate the behaviour of two women who spotted 'mushrooms' at Vennor Botanical Gardens on the Isle of Wight, picked them and took them home to eat. One died. They had mistakenly harvested Death Caps (Amanita phalloides). Apparently, they were rather tasty. Talk about a Last Supper.

The other precaution you can take is to be intimate with your foraging patches and observe them all year round. Then you get to know when certain trees will fruit and how the forage grows year on year. This is working with the cycles of nature in true permaculture style. I also never decimate a crop. I want to come back next year and pick again and I also want to share my treasure with the local wildlife.

Foraging is akin to finding your joy and beats shopping. Once the weather gets warmer, I am going to try the stinging nettle pesto recipe. Sounds delicious and it costs virtually nothing to make.

Next: how to dry and store oyster mushrooms

Further resources

A guide to fungi foraging

Making a living from growing mushrooms

Maddy Harland is the editor and co-founder of Permaculture magazine and Permanent Publications.

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