Fall Foraging for Families

Tips to inspire a love of mushroom hunting in Chicagoland.

Mushroom hunting is a great way for families to spend time outdoors while learning about nature. With their otherworldly variety of colors and forms, mushrooms are fascinating subjects for a photo safari. For those who enjoy foraging and eating wild mushrooms, they have the added benefit of finding something tasty as well.

Here are five tips to help your family get started.

Avoid the Poisonous Ones.

Of the hundreds of mushroom species found in Illinois, about a dozen types are considered choice edibles. Since some edible species can have poisonous look-alikes, it’s best to learn foraging from an expert. It’s simple to tell the look-alikes apart once you’re trained. Illinois’ gourmet mushrooms can be easily differentiated from their similar looking imposters in the same way that you’re able to tell a zucchini from a cucumber or a tomato from an apple. It just takes training and a bit of practice.

Foray with an expert.

The Illinois Mycological Association is a nonprofit mushroom hunting club that hosts frequent forays to look for wild mushrooms. A yearlong family membership is only $25. IMA members collect a sample of each mushroom they find during a foray, and then expert foray leaders identify each specimen. Some venture off on their own, while others walk alongside the foray leader.

Check out a few books.

While robust field guides listing hundreds of species might be great for experts, newbies interested in identifying gourmet mushrooms while avoiding toxic ones might like a guidebook that’s leaner and more specialized. The best book for those just starting out is The Complete Mushroom Hunter: An Illustrated Guide to Finding, Harvesting and Enjoying Wild Mushrooms by Gary Lincoff. Another good option is Edible Wild Mushrooms of Illinois and Surrounding States: A Field-to-Kitchen Guide by Joe McFarland and Gregory Mueller.

Spy the deadly, spooky and unusual.

Most mushroom enthusiasts become passionate about all mushrooms. And when mushroom hunting with children, sometimes it’s the toxic or even deadly species that capture their attention the most. One common fall species is Omphalotus illudens, the jack-o’lantern mushroom. This bright orange mushroom is bioluminescent, and it’s fun to observe its glow by lengthening the exposure time on a camera with manual settings. Don’t eat Omphalotus though, because it’s one of the species that causes extreme gastrointestinal distress.

Attend an event.

The Annual Mushroom Show at the Chicago Botanic Garden (10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Sept. 4) exhibits 50-100 varieties of mushrooms foraged from area forests. Or join professional forager Dave Odd Sept. 10 for Eat The Neighborhood: Olympia Fields, where attendees learn about at least 50 edible plants and mushrooms near Elliot Woods Park.

Rebecca Fyffe is a science writer, urban wildlife manager and mushroom hunting hobbyist. She is the past president of the Illinois Mycological Association and the director of research at Landmark Pest Management, a science-based green pest control firm in Chicago.

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