I step onto a trail in the New Mexico mountains. My eyes rake from side to side, tracking over fallen logs, peering at piles of pine needles. I'm a mushroom forager, something I never thought I'd have the guts to be.
As I kneel in the dirt, feeling under mushroom caps for their gills, I think about this warning from the New Mexico Mycological Society: "The consumption of wild fungi is widely recognized as an inherently dangerous activity that can result in serious illness, permanent disability, or death."
I'm risk-averse. I fret about flying. I poke along at the speed limit when I drive. I carry a rain jacket in my hiking backpack even on clear, cloudless days. I've heard the stories of death caps and destroying angels. Yet here I am wading across the East Fork of the Jemez River to reach a prime white king bolete nestled into the underbrush on the other side. I've now eaten porcini, oyster mushrooms and puffballs I've found in the woods, despite my worries.
I've always been a nature lover and an avid hiker, but now there's a hunting-for-lost-treasure dimension to my outdoor adventures. I slow down. I revel in the details of blue beetles crawling over fungus and rubbery brown wood ears emerging from the branches of dead oaks. Finding fungi gives me a thrill, one that carries over into the kitchen as I'm brushing away dirt, slicing and sauteing. This is me pushing the boundaries of my comfort, daring to eat wild mushrooms.
Most people get their fresh mushrooms from the grocery store, where you're likely to find white button mushrooms or portobellos. I lived in New Mexico for 20 years before realizing foraging was even a thing here, but it's a hobby enjoyed all over the world.
Your access to edible mushroom hunting grounds will depend on location and conditions. In my state, the sweet spots tend to be in high-elevation forests, but I've also seen oyster mushrooms growing on cottonwoods in the Rio Grande river valley. Not sure where to look? Check in with a local mycological society to get oriented or find a mushroom guidebook for your corner of the world. Arora's book lists the likely habitats and locations for each mushroom.
Here in New Mexico we had a spectacular 2022 season of soaking monsoon rains, which triggered mushroom explosions across the state. According to the Albuquerque Journal, the New Mexico Poison & Drug Information Center had logged 42 cases of mushroom poisonings in 2022 by the end of August. I was not one of them. My secret to survival? Fear mixed with an ungodly amount of research.
My passion for foraging started in the summer of 2021 near the Jemez River just outside the Valles Caldera National Preserve in northern New Mexico. My partner and I sat on a boulder eating sandwiches, looking at the craggy gray canyon walls and the towering ponderosa pines. A thin young man with a canvas bag over his shoulder walked up to us and pointed at the ground below our dangling feet.
"You going to eat that?" he asked. I looked down and saw the dark reddish-brown cap of a mushroom the size of two fists. "No, go ahead," I said, like we were at a dinner party and there was only one mini quiche left on the serving platter.
He kneeled and flicked a knife across the stem, rising up with a fat mushroom in his hand. It was a porcini, a mushroom that can star in risotto and pasta dishes. He kindly walked us through what he was looking for: dark cap, sponge underside rather than gills, white flesh that didn't turn blue when cut or bruised. Inside his bag, he showed us more porcini and a cluster of ear-shaped oyster mushrooms.
I was astonished. He might as well have pulled a jackalope out of a hat. Porcini in New Mexico? It's a notoriously dry state full of cactuses and high-desert landscapes. I never thought it could be a paradise for damp-loving mushrooms. He left us with one more bit of advice. Go get a book called All That the Rain Promises and More, a pocket guide to Western US mushrooms.
This will be fun, I thought. I already love to learn about new flowers and plants and birds. I've been curious about the natural world around me ever since I was a kid watching ants build hills and listening to my mom call plants by their Latin names. So I'll learn to ID some mushrooms, I figured, but I won't eat them. Because wild mushrooms are scary. They have names like deadly galerina and poison pie and dung bell. Shudder.
But I kept thinking about that porcini. Sure, I'd seen dried ones at fancy grocery stores, but I'd never seen a fresh one before. On the hunter-gatherer scale, I was never going to be a hunter, but I could see myself as the gatherer, the conquering hero arriving not with meat, but with mushrooms. So I got the book. Then I began to identify. Then, I ate (after cooking thoroughly).
For years, I've gone hiking every weekend, so it's natural to me to meld my foraging sessions with hikes I would be taking anyway. That means day trips covering up to 10 miles, usually on national forest land. It's not that I've changed my behavior much to become a forager, but that foraging fit beautifully into what I was already doing.
When I find a potentially edible mushroom, I poke it and prod it and compare it to the guidebook and take it home and google the ever-loving heck out of it until I'm dead certain I've made a proper ID. Your mushroom mileage will vary depending on your location. Wisconsin in the US is famous for its morels, a funky shroom that looks like squished-up honeycomb. Germany's forests are known for boletes, mushrooms like porcini with pores under the caps.
Here are some of the memorable mushrooms I've identified in New Mexico.
Call it a king bolete or a boletus edulis or a porcini. Call it delicious. I've found mine in the Jemez Mountains in the Santa Fe National Forest, a wonderland of canyons speckled with ponderosa pines, firs and white-jacketed aspens. I've had my best porcini-hunting luck at elevations of over 8,000 feet (2,440 meters) in shady areas under conifers.
The Rocky Mountain variety tends to sport a mahogany-colored cap and no gills. Grill 'em. Dry-saute 'em. Dehydrate 'em. Eat 'em. They have an earthy flavor with nutty overtones. New Mexico also hosts a white form of porcini known as the white king bolete or boletus barrowsii. They're chonky, pale and just as good to eat.
I've found mushrooms that look similar, but cutting them revealed flesh that quickly turned dark blue, a telltale sign my eyes were deceiving me and I'd found something other than a porcini.
I about lost my mind the first time I spotted a fly agaric/fly amanita/amanita muscaria beside a trail in the Jemez. This is the classic Mario mushroom, a bright red cap sporting white flakes. This is a brilliant mushroom screaming DO NOT EAT ME. But wow it's pretty. These beauties are well known in the foraging world for their good looks and poisonous nature. It's smart for new foragers to get acquainted with them. Fortunately, they're easy to spot.
While some might be tempted by this mushroom's alleged hallucinogenic effects, David Arora, author of my guidebook, says it has "potentially dangerous and unpredictable toxic effects." The University of Colorado, Boulder lists nausea, vomiting, dizziness, hallucinations, delirium and seizure among the possible reactions to ingesting the mushroom. That's a big nope from me.
The Sandia Mountains stretch upward just to the east of Albuquerque. They turn watermelon red at sunset. Along a mountain biking trail on a cool Sunday afternoon, I discovered a place I marked as "Oyster City" on my map. Ear-shaped, cream-colored mushrooms ranging from the size of quarters to as wide as my palm popped out from fallen, decaying conifers beside the trail. I found them within the week after a major monsoon rain in August when I was hiking on my own, though I've also roped my partner into mushroom-spotting with me when we traverse trails together.
Oyster mushrooms are notable for their nonexistent or extremely small stalks and overlapping, shelflike growth pattern. I cut them close to the logs and carried them home in a mesh bag to be sauteed with butter, garlic and onions to enhance their mild flavor.
I brought home a puffball mushroom from the Sandias like I had reeled in a prize-winning bass. I hefted it on my shoulder and paraded it up the street to show the neighbors. The 6.5-pound beast appeared on a grassy slope high up off a trail that leads to an overlook. Western giant puffballs look like overproofed rounds of bread dough with rough, wide warts across the top. No one would accuse this mushroom of being pretty, but its sheer size makes it gawk-worthy.
Puffballs have firm, white interiors and don't taste like much, hence their reputation as the tofu of the mushroom world. I skinned, sliced and grilled the mushroom and used it as a base for pizza, though no one would mistake it for actual bread crust. I'm planning to cube, bread and air-fry the next puffball I find.
Start your own mushrooming journey
I'm still a newb myself, but I've got some tips for aspiring foragers:
Get a guidebook. All That the Rain Promises is a good starter for anyone in the Western US. It's small enough to carry with you. It has great photos and kooky stories that highlight the whimsical side of the foraging world.
Supplement your knowledge. Apps like iNaturalist can help you work out what kind of mushroom you're looking at. All That the Rain Promises came out in the early '90s. It says aspen boletes, an orange-capped beauty that flourishes under aspen trees, have excellent edibility despite turning dark when cooked. Lots of people eat these without issue, but more recent information suggests some people have a bad reaction to them. I choose not to eat aspen boletes based on this.
Be wary. You can learn to identify mushrooms without feeling obliged to eat them. There are plenty of dangerous mushrooms out there. Some people may have unexpected sensitivities or allergies to mushrooms, even ones that are widely accepted to be edible. There's an old saying: Every mushroom is edible, but some are only edible once.
Hook up with more knowledgeable people. Join a local mycology club. Take a class. The New Mexico Mycological Society, for example, holds meetings and sponsors field trips for members.
Mark your treasure map. I drop pins in my Google Maps apps with my mushroom finds. I marked the spot where I found a single lobster mushroom (the bright-orange result of a parasitic fungus overtaking a host mushroom) in the Jemez so I could go back next year after the summer monsoon rains start and look for more. We're now moving into colder weather in the state, and with that comes the end of the mushrooming season.
Gear up. Collecting mushrooms doesn't have to be complicated. A good pocket knife will get you started, but you might want to upgrade to a fancier curved mushroom knife. I use an Opinel No. 8 with a brush on one end that I used to clean dirt off my finds. I also carry a mesh shoulder bag that allows the mushrooms to get air and not risk getting slimy inside a plastic bag.
I have some mushroom ambitions. I want to discover a stash of bright-orange lobster mushrooms. I want to collect club coral mushrooms – also known to grow in New Mexico – and see if they really do taste like dessert. I'm already plotting a camping trip to Taos in northern New Mexico for next autumn so I can seek out funnel-shaped chanterelles, prized for their delicate taste with apricot overtones. And decades from now I want to be a wild, white-haired lady who pops up from the undergrowth in the Jemez Mountains, bag full of mushrooms. I'll find some random hiker, point at a porcini at their feet and say, "You going to eat that?"