More revelations of the mushroom people

Norm Andresen’s Mushroom Finder

Norm Andresen Photo by Ken Litchfield

Norm Andresen
Photo by Ken Litchfield

Wondering which edible mushrooms are found here in Central and Northern California? Says MSSF foray coordinator Norm Andresen, “That depends on the forest and the season. On a morel hunt, one looks for morels but might instead find Gyromitras, boletes, or false morels. Oaks are an excellent mushroom producing tree, so knowing the tree means that you know the mushrooms that will be around it.” There are approximately 12,000 fungal species in California. He says, “It is confusing to have common and Latin names together, but that’s how it plays out. Not everything has a common name.”
Here is Norm’s key to finding mushrooms according to biota:

Oak woodland: chanterelles, candy caps, Russulas, boletes
Tan oak woodland: matsutake, black chanterelles, Russulas, hedgehogs
Douglas fir forest: Russulas, chanterelles, truffles, slippery jacks
Pine forest: boletes, chanterelles, hedgehogs, slippery jacks
Madrone, manzanita: matsutake, white chanterelles, Russulas
Cypress: Agaricus, blewits
Grasslands: Agaricus, puff balls
Eucalyptus: sulfur shelves, Lacaria

A Foraging Question & Answer

Mushroom Joe Photo by Michelle Lindsay

Mushroom Joe
Photo by Michelle Lindsay

He’s all about fun and frolic. Still, MSSF’s cultivation chair, Ken Litchfield, recommends that foragers exercise caution. He says, “There are lots of controversies surrounding mycological topics and foraging is one of them.” It’s important to forage responsibly. The following Q&A with two experts will help clarify what that means.

Norm Andresen (NA), an engineer at Tesla Motors, became interested in mushrooms as a child. These days, as the foray chair of MSSF, he spends much of his free time giving lectures and taking people on forays all over California. “You aren’t going to find anyone who is more knowledgeable or generous on forays,” says Litchfield.

“Mushroom Joe” Soeller (JS) is a member of Bay Area Radical Mycology (BARM), where he’s documented the group’s mycoremediation projects. An avid cultivator, he recently completed a lab internship growing medicinal mycelia. He’s led informal trips for Slow Food East Bay, the San Francisco Art Institute, and BARM, where they look, learn, and enjoy but generally do not eat the mushrooms.

Q: How does one learn to identify mushrooms, so they can lead others on trips safely?

NA: Learning to ID is a long process, which takes years. For me it has involved personal study, classes at San Francisco State, and being mentored by fellow enthusiasts.

JS: I went absolutely nuts and drilled the experienced gurus on everything they knew when I got started with the San Diego Mycological Society. You can spend your whole life reading reference books and seeking knowledge on mycology and continue to find fresh material.

Q: How important is it to go with an expert?

NA: As with all wild foods, you have to work within your knowledge base. There are poisonous birds, frogs, seeds, berries, nuts, roots, leaves, fish, and mushrooms. The process of being safe is “learn first, eat later.”

JS: Until I trusted my own ability, I always waited to eat a mushroom until I witnessed an expert eat it and survive. We know Cantharellus cibarius, the chanterelle, is an edible mushroom because during some period of our ancient past some dude ate it and survived. Some were not as fortunate with other mushrooms. I imagine in the past, when humans were curious to know which foods were edible and which were poisonous, a typical conversation sounded something like, “Hey Bob, I ate the last mushroom, it’s your turn.”

Q: Is it legal to pick mushrooms, and where can you forage legally?

NA: Foraging is frowned upon in most state parks. It’s easier to obtain permits in city and county parks. I lead trips to such places as Joaquin Miller [the only park in Oakland that allows foraging], Lands End, and McLaren Park in San Francisco. We start finding mushrooms in late November or December in the East Bay. In the coastal areas, like Point Reyes, the mushrooms start coming up with the summer fog drip and continue through the rainy season. Soquel State Forest [Santa Cruz Mountains] can be good, usually in January and February, and it’s legal. At Salt Point [in Sonoma County] it is legal to pick up to five pounds of mushrooms. It’s a good spot but very popular.

JS: You can even find an abundance of mushrooms around San Francisco. I’ve walked students of SF Art Institute through Golden Gate Park, which has a wonderful variety of flora and an interesting variety of mushroom species. For BARM, I led people around the UC Berkeley campus. We started at Sather Tower and didn’t get much farther. [There was plenty to see.]

Q: When is the right time to start poking around outside?

NA: In California, anytime. Because of our varied topography and climate, we can find good mushrooms just about any day. You may have to travel to the mountains or coastal fog zones, but mushrooms are out.

JS: The general rule of thumb is the fall and the spring. The other rule of thumb is after the rains. [He notes that there are exceptions.]

Q: How do you know what’s going to be up and when?

NA: Mushrooms seem to have mast years, when one or another species is plentiful, and others are a no-show. This last year it was candy caps, they were everywhere. But chanterelles were a no-show. It seems that the trees that feed the mushrooms have some choice as to which will be fed sugar, and the mushrooms have various niches. One may be better at supplying phosphorus or nitrogen to the trees, so they get the lion’s share this year. It is a fungal market place and the trees are the shoppers. Who would have thought in the forest you are walking on a shopping mall under the ground?

Q: Are organized trips expensive?

NA: MSSF forays are free, although you have to pay your own way on camping trips.

JS: I just ask for donations. But mushroom foraging can be expensive. Some older and experienced mushroom guides will charge $75 a head. For thousands of dollars some guides will take you to Tibet to seek a medicinal mushroom that grows from caterpillars.

Q: Are forays fun?

NA: I am doing it for the love of the interest, the glory of the hunt, and the joy of being in the woods with fellow enthusiasts. They always are smiling when they have a mushroom in the hand.

JS: The walks can be fun but it’s more of an educational tour. My intention is to remove any ambiguity surrounding the activity. The entire notion of mushrooms can be nebulous, frightening, and foreign, so I start from scratch and teach students via metaphor and anecdotal experience. The last thing I would want to do is communicate something in an obscure way that could lead an individual to consuming something that is hazardous to their health.

By Ray Lanier, co-owner, Mushroom Maestros

The Laniers: Ray, Patty and Juliette

The Laniers: Ray, Patty and Juliette

I acquired Paul Stamets’ book The Mushroom Cultivator back in 1987. I was 17 years old, but had tried growing mushrooms earlier than that. Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, I had never met a mushroom farmer and had no mentor. I failed a lot. It seemed like I was becoming an expert at growing all sorts of random molds and bacterias.

When you grow mushrooms you have to engage all of your senses and not just follow a recipe. The mushrooms will start speaking to you. When you become so intimate with the organism that you know what it needs, you have entered into a new realm of understanding. Your skin senses the temperature and you just know without looking at the thermometer whether the mushrooms are too cold or too hot.

It was during this period that I met another kid who was into mushrooms and we pressed on together. He was an interesting, precocious sort of kid. He had dropped out of high school and was living in abandoned buildings—a sort of Jack Kerouac adventure—at a very early age, and somehow also had developed a love of mushrooms. So there he was, Michael Marsh, my first mushroom buddy. His passion for mushrooms was already much broader than mine and suddenly I was stomping through the Georgia woods to look for morels, agaricus, boletes, and chanterelles.

I read and reread Paul Stamets’ book, literally falling asleep over it again and again. It changed my life. The techniques worked, and I found I was growing mushrooms. It was in 1993, I think, that my friend Eddie and I traveled to the Pacific Northwest to see Paul’s place and take his seminar. Paul had an impressive set up for grow rooms and laboratory space. I remember Eddie and I cooked prince agaricus and salmon wrapped in aluminum foil and stuck it on the rental car engine to cook. That is a trip I will remember for the rest of my life.

Today I have a family mushroom business. The reason I do it is so that we can be together and learn together. Without my wife I would not be able to run the dishwasher, much less a business. Our daughter has grown up working with us side by side. We do everything together as a family and I feel that having Juliette also helps my teaching skills because I have had to explain everything I am doing to a seven-year-old child, who asks great questions about why everything is the way it is.

Coral Oyster Mushroom Photo by Holly Bazeley

Coral Oyster Mushroom
Photo by Holly Bazeley


“Our daughter loves mushrooms . . . Well, some of them,” says Patty Lanier of Mushroom Maestros. “Juliette is seven and is still developing her mushroom palate. Her favorite is a tiny little mushroom called the nameko [orange, shiny, slippery, and fleshy, it’s often used in soups]. She also loves oyster mushrooms cooked in coconut oil and sea salt until they are a little crisp on the edges. Take those and add them to pizza or a grilled cheese sandwich and kids big and small will love them.”

Makes 2–3 hearty or 4–6 modest servings

2 tablespoons coconut oil (or more as needed)
1 small yellow onion, chopped
1 pound fresh or 2 ounces dried oyster mushrooms, reconstituted
1 or 2 eggs, scrambled
3 cups cooked brown or white rice
½ teaspoon white pepper
2 tablespoons soy sauce (or more to taste)
1–2 tablespoons molasses or brown sugar (or more to taste)
2 tablespoons lime juice
⅛ cup chopped cilantro
2 or 3 scallions, white parts only, chopped
Crushed red pepper (optional)
1 small grated carrot (optional)
6 slices of cucumber (optional)

Heat 1 tablespoon coconut oil in a skillet or wok. Add the onion and fresh or dried/reconstituted oyster mushrooms and cook until tender and starting to caramelize. Remove to a plate. Add another tablespoon coconut oil and heat to a hot temperature. Add pre-cooked rice, stirring until the grains separate. Add the mushroom and onion mixture and continue to cook at a lower heat. Combine the white pepper, soy sauce, molasses or sugar, and lime juice in a bowl, mixing well. Pour this mixture over the rice and stir until absorbed by the rice. (Feel free to add a little garlic at this point, if you wish.) Stir in the scrambled egg and chopped scallions. Cook just a minute longer, removing from heat before the scallions lose their crunch. Sprinkle with cilantro and crushed red pepper to taste. Garnish with grated carrots and cucumber slices.