Successful Mushroom Hunters Pay Attention to the Details

Sep 7, 2018

Northern Wisconsin is full of many different types of wild mushrooms in September. Some edible, some poisonous, and everything in between. How to tell the differences between them is in the details.

Mackenzie Martin went into the woods to learn more.

We’re looking for mushrooms in the forest at Kemp Natural Resources Station in Woodruff and someone just found chaga. It’s a type of mushroom that you can make tea out of. It typically grows on birch trees.

Chaga, a mushroom that grows on birch trees that you can make tea out of.
Credit Mackenzie Martin / WXPR

“Chaga is one of those odd ones,” says Anne Small, the coordinator for the Northstate Mycological Club. “It looks kind of like a burnt piece of wood. That one has been researched a fair amount as far as its anti-cancer properties and anti-inflammatory properties.”

The Northstate Mycological Club is in its 22nd year this year and they now have over 60 active members. A group of them meet each week at a different trail around the Northwoods during our peak mushroom season, which is late July to the end of September.

Right now, Small says she is looking forward to finding some “hen of the woods” mushrooms that grow from the root system of oak trees. Small says they’re delicious and one of her favorite edibles.

“They’ve kind of got a nutty flavor,” she says. “But it’s chewy, so I often make jerky out of it.”

It almost goes without saying, but it’s recommended that if you’re going to eat a wild mushroom, you should be really really sure it’s what you think it is.

Dan Lindner is a research plant pathologist for the U.S. Forest Service and he says these days it’s really easy to take a picture with your phone, send it off, and within 10 or 15 minutes, people will be giving you advice on what they think it is. He says sometimes those people are very knowledgeable and sometimes it’s scary what they’re identifying mushrooms as.

“You can kind of crowd source it and hope that if 8 of the 10 people tell you one thing, it’s probably that,” he says. “But if you’re going to put something in your body that has the potential to be poisonous… For me, I like to be book smart, internet smart, and local mushroom club smart.”

Take for instance the chanterelle mushroom, a common edible mushroom found starting in late July in the Northwoods. They look pretty distinctive at first glance, but in reality, there are multiple mushrooms that look a lot like them. There’s a false chanterelle and there’s also the one called the jack-o'-lantern, but you can tell differences between them based on the gills and what they’re growing on. How poisonous are these doppelgängers?

“The jack-o’-lantern can make you very sick,” says Anne Small. “I don’t know if they’ve actually had any deaths due to it, but it’s definitely not one you want to try.”

Northstate Mycological Club Coordinator Anne Small holding a destroying angel mushroom.
Credit Northstate Mycological Club

Small says there tends to be two different types of mushroom hunters. Most join the Northstate Mycological Club because they want to eat them, but a number of them also have an overall appreciation in learning as much as they can. Small is one of the latter. She grew up in the world of fungi and just never left.

“Ever since we were little, we spent a lot of time outdoors. We were hardly ever indoors when we were kids,” she says. “My mother was a naturalist in general, so she kind of introduced us to the whole world of natural things.”

Her mother, Cora Mollen, is the author of Fascinating Fungi of the North Woods. Small was raised in St. Germain and still lives there. She says growing up, her mother was interestingly never a huge fan of eating mushrooms, but she liked to use them for other things.

“There’s one called a burnt sugar milky,” says Small. “My mom used to dry them and put them in her car on the dashboard. That was like an air freshener in the car. It has this smell of basically burnt sugar and every time you got in the car, you could smell that burnt sugar milky. Telling people that, people think we’re a little odd using mushrooms as air fresheners, but mushrooms have so many different uses.”

Small says most mushrooms smell like your typical mushroom, but in addition to brown sugar, mushrooms can also sometimes smell like almonds, fruit loops, apricots, and coconuts.

For beginners, it’s recommended to start by just learning one or two species and their lookalikes or it can get overwhelming with the amount of mushrooms that are out there.

Mushrooms this small are easy to miss at Kemp Natural Resources Station in Woodruff.
Credit Mackenzie Martin / WXPR

“There’s hundreds of species within just this little few acres that we’re sitting at right now. If you think about it, that’s pretty amazing,” says Small. “A lot of times, they’ll come up in the matter of a week. So you just don’t notice them. There’s so much in a human’s day to day life that they don’t see and there’s a whole world of things going on just outside of your door if you take the time to look. And that goes for insects and fungi and plants. I mean they’re all doing their own thing while we’re doing our own thing.”

For more information on the Northstate Mycological Club, you can go online here: https://www.northstatemycologicalclub.org/

There is a hike near St. Germain on this coming Monday, September 10th at 1:00 p.m. Then there is a hike near Rhinelander on Monday, September 17th also at 1:00 p.m. You can only find out exactly where the hike will be by getting in touch with the club, though. Anne Small says mushroom foragers in general like to keep their spots relatively secret.

This story is part of our We Live Up Here series, where we tell the stories of the people and culture of northern Wisconsin. Some music for this story came from Podington Bear

This story was funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.