Southern forests are some of the most biologically diverse on the planet. Intact forests not only provide the people of our region with clean drinking water, healthy air, and a place to recreate, they also happen to be an amazing place to gather food and herbs.
Our forests are a global hot spot for medicinal herbs like ginseng and goldenseal and for a huge variety of mushrooms. Local folks have been foraging for mushrooms for generations in the Southern Appalachians and now more and more people are getting in on the fun by identifying mushrooms and collecting them for delicious wild-crafted food.
There are over 10,000 mushroom species in North America, and only 5 or 6 are deadly poisonous. Some of the most common species, and the easiest to identify are morels, chanterelles, lobster mushrooms, milky cap mushrooms, and chicken-of-the-woods.
For first-timers, it is recommended that you forage with an expert and consult a book for every mushroom you gather from the wild. Keep in mind that mushrooms will absorb toxins from the environment. Even a perfect morel will be unsafe to eat if it has been exposed to toxic substances such as pesticides, herbicides, or car exhaust.
• In general, the more mature the forest, the more mushrooms you’ll find.
• Some mushrooms are more common under specific trees. For chanterelles, go to deciduous woods. Boletes often prefer pine forests.
• The best time to search for mushrooms is about five days after a good rain.
• Avoid areas where mushrooms could have soaked up toxins, like a golf course, well-manicured (pesticide-laden) lawn, or places downwind of a coal-fired plant.
• The first time you are eating a new edible species, cook some, but eat only a tablespoon. Any bad response—like nausea or an upset stomach—will usually happen within two hours.
• Cook wild mushrooms well: When a guidebook says a variety is edible, it’s talking about the cooked version of it.
When all is said and done, the point is to have fun. Go grab a guide, a friend and enjoy walking in the woods. Southern forests have a lot to offer and while you are at it you might find some delicious treats!