Mushroom hunters take to Montgomery County parks
Mycological Association draws enthusiasts for trek
When a rainy June segued into a temperate, dry July, there may have been only one group of people in the Washington area sighing in frustration at their television weather reporter.
As any mushroom enthusiast can tell you, most mushrooms like rain. And though July is the ideal season for the coveted chanterelle mushroom, an edible mushroom with a bright melon color, the recent dry weather has made those delicacies elusive. Nonetheless, a group from the Chevy Chase-based Mycological Association of Washington sporting wicker baskets, hats and walking sticks took to the shores of Lake Bernard Frank in Derwood last weekend, determined to uncover the fickle fungi.
Areas near bodies of water, such as streams or lakes are often the best spots to search, they said.
"I was hooked 20 years ago, the first time I did it," said Takoma Park resident Sara Friedman, who first started hunting mushrooms in New York and attended Saturday's hunt. "It's more like an obsession than a hobby."
Trekking through the woods Saturday, foray leader Mitch Fournet lead the group to spots where he's uncovered chanterelles in the past. There were none to be found, but other fungi, like the bolete — mushrooms that typically have pores beneath the mushroom caps instead of gills — abounded.
The hobby appeals to people who are "inquisitive, a little bit adventurous, and a little quirky," according to association board member Bruce Boyer, 67, of Clifton Va., An appreciation for nature is also a common thread, Boyer said.
"Every time I'm in the woods, I'm out looking for mushrooms," Boyer said. "It keeps you physically fit and mentally fit because you're learning new things — and once in awhile, you bring back a shopping bag full of things to eat."
The Mycological Association of Washington meets monthly at the Chevy Chase Library and hosts the mushroom "forays," which take place all over the Washington metropolitan region.
Similar to bird-watching, mushroom hunters love to flip through guide books and correctly identify different species. And because some species of mushroom are poisonous, identification is of the utmost importance. After years of practice, some mushroom enthusiasts can identify more than 100 species. Many can indentify a mushroom by genus just by a quick glance —a velvety cap, for example, is often the calling card of a bolete.
Unlike bird-watchers, however, mushroom enthusiasts get a tasty treat to take home with them when the hunt is over. Mushrooms, such as chanterelles and the ever-popular morels are both varieties of edible mushrooms. They are especially coveted because they form relationships with trees and plants in the wild, making them difficult to cultivate.
"They're phenomenal mushrooms to cook with — nothing has a texture like a morel," said Laurent Coune, a Potomac resident who often hunts mushrooms near the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. "On the one hand, they are kind of spongy and airy, but on the other hand, the flavor is meaty, and like most mushrooms it lends itself well to whatever flavors you are cooking."
While the MAW hosts group forays, many mushroom hunters go it alone — and some can be secretive about their favorite hot spots. Mushrooms typically sprout up again and again in the same spot, so giving away a spot can mean there might not be any mushrooms left upon return. "You want to keep your spot secret because you're the one who put all the leg work and effort into finding that spot," Coune said.
The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Historical Park has traditionally been a destination for mushroom hunters, especially during morel season in April and May. While it's always been a popular activity toward the western end of the park, Scott Bell, natural resources program manager for the park, said it has recently become more popular in the park's southern stretches.
"I think just because we have more cooking shows, people are being exposed to these types of mushrooms and people are becoming a little more interested," Bell said.
Like other parks, the C&O Canal Park limits the amount of mushrooms visitors can take out of the park. Officials there also urge caution when it comes to mushroom hunting.
"Before you eat any mushrooms you should be very familiar with those type of mushrooms," Bell said. "We always caution folks, make sure you know what you're picking."