Mushroom foragers know how easy it is to make a mistake, and that’s why they’re pushing for licensing

By: - May 6, 2021 6:30 am
Chicken of the woods

Chicken of the woods mushrooms, shown here, are sometimes confused with poisonous jack-o’-lantern mushrooms. (Courtesy of Eric Milligan)

Eric Milligan knows a toxic mushroom when he sees one. For the past eight years, he’s cultivated edible mushrooms on his Tamworth farm. And when he’s not farming, he’s out in the woods, foraging wild varieties in the surrounding mountains. On a good year with enough rain, Milligan can bring in up to 700 pounds in a weekend.

But every so often, someone comes to Milligan’s mushroom farm peddling something that could land an unsuspecting diner in the hospital.

“It’s been several times that I have needed to call restaurants and say, ‘Hey, you know that mushroom you just bought from Joe Schmoe? I hope you didn’t serve anybody,’” he said. “’They came here trying to sell me the leftovers, and they’re not selling edible mushrooms.’”

Once someone tried to sell him porcini mushrooms, but Milligan noticed that the variety had gills. “Those aren’t porcini,” he told the would-be seller. Another time, a forager tried to sell him northern tooth fungus, which aren’t edible. The forager had misidentified the fungi as albino chicken mushrooms.

“If you intend on selling that wild mushroom to either a direct end user, to a grocery store, farmer’s market, or to a restaurant, you need to know what you’re talking about,” Milligan said.

According to a 2017 paper, there are anywhere between 2.2 million and 3.8 million species of fungi. Estimates of how many of those species are poisonous vary between 1 percent and 3 percent, although some people can have allergies to nontoxic varieties. Of those, only a few varieties are lethal. 

A morel mushroom
A morel mushroom. (Courtesy of Eric Milligan)

Milligan and other mushroom experts have been pushing for New Hampshire to instate a licensing program to certify foragers. Now lawmakers are considering House Bill 345, which has had bipartisan support in the Legislature.

Proponents are billing it as an additional food safety measure, but the bill would also provide a legal framework for selling wild mushrooms that the state currently lacks. Federal rules in the food safety code require anyone selling wild mushrooms to get approval from a regulatory authority. This bill would satisfy that requirement and allow foragers like Milligan to sell wild mushrooms legally.   

When Rep. Jerry Knirk became aware this was a problem, he started working with Milligan to figure out a solution.

“We became aware that mushroom foragers couldn’t even sell because it was not legal,” said Knirk. This is the bill’s second time through the process, after it “died a COVID death” in the last session.

The bill doesn’t require people who are foraging for personal consumption to get a license. For foragers who want to sell their fungi, a license would cost $75 and would be valid for five years.

Mycologist Rick Van de Poll has supported efforts to establish the licensing program in New Hampshire.

“There’s plenty out there that can possibly make someone sick,” he said. But that’s not always because a mushroom is toxic. About 10 to 12 percent of mushroom reactions are due to individual allergies, said Van de Poll, who sat on the North American Mycological Association’s toxicology committee for a decade.

Van de Poll knows how easy it can be to misidentify a mushroom – it happened to him when he first started studying fungi. 1976 was a rainy year, and with the rain came the mushrooms. Van de Poll was working at an ecological center in southern New Hampshire near Mount Monadnock.

Instead of 4,000 hikers on the weekend, the rain brought 4,000 mushrooms, said Van de Poll. And he had found a bolete mushroom that he wondered about eating.

“Boletes were supposed to be good,” he said. “I didn’t know that there were, like, 100 (kinds of) boletes.”

The one field guide he had gotten his hands on wasn’t much help either.  

Porcini mushroom
A porcini mushroom. (Courtesy of Eric Milligan)

Then Van de Poll committed what he calls the cardinal sin of mushroom mycophagy: He didn’t consult an expert. Plus, he ate the bolete raw on a salad. Unfortunately, Van de Poll’s mother saw the beautiful blue mushroom on the salad and the two had a meal that they both came to regret. She ended up in the hospital to have her stomach pumped; he suffered through it at home.

“That was one of my entry points,” he said. Some people would have renounced mushrooms, but Van de Poll decided to dedicate his life to learning more.

The early error didn’t take away the taste for mushrooms. Van de Poll estimates that he’s eaten about 300 kinds of mushrooms since then. But he’s cautious now, and on alert for misidentified mushrooms, which he finds every so often even on the shelves of grocery stores, like a toxic jack-o’-lantern mushroom that was mislabeled as chicken of the woods. Jack-o’-lanterns aren’t deadly, but if you eat enough of them they’ll make you “violently ill,” he said.

“We also had a number of people who are jumping into this to make a buck,” he said. A license is a way to ensure they get some education about the species they are foraging. And the Department of Health and Human Services can issue fines to people who get it wrong.

Some rare varieties of mushrooms go for up to $50 a pound. Milligan said that interest in foraging peaked during the pandemic, even though he wasn’t offering foraging classes at that time.

Corey Fletcher, the owner and chef of The Revival Kitchen and Bar in Concord is among those who will pay top dollar for wild mushrooms. He was involved in the study commission that led up to this proposal, which he supports as an extra layer to keep people safe. Mushrooms are among his favorite ingredients. Fletcher particularly likes chanterelles, candlewoods, and black trumpets.

“For me, it can’t be summer if I don’t have a corn and chanterelle mushroom risotto,” he said.

Even though he already had 25 pounds of wild mushrooms on hand at one point, he couldn’t resist buying more when they were offered.

“Sometimes my staff puts me in check and they’re like, ‘We don’t need any more mushrooms,’” Fletcher said.

But he has a hard time saying no. “It’s like you get a chance to drive a Ferrari, are you going to not drive it?”

He works with a handful of foragers he’s been buying from for nearly a decade. Fletcher trusts their experience, and at this point, he’s able to identify the mushrooms he’s buying, too.

“I’ve turned away a lot of fly-by-night foragers that may or may not have the same experience foraging,” he said.

At this point, Fletcher has started foraging himself, returning to the same spots where he’s found mushrooms growing year after year. If he’s unsure, he’ll take a picture and send it to Milligan or another more experienced forager. (Milligan said that if it’s rainy, he can get as many as 30 or 40 such text messages a day.)

For his part, Milligan’s foraging approach is a bit more involved: rainfall data, geological survey maps, and technology called lidar, which stands for “light detection and ranging.” This allows Milligan to peer through the tree canopy at the topography to better understand glacial routes and the kind of soil in a particular location. All of those factors determine where a specific type of mushroom might grow, like matsutake, which prefers podzolic soil – a kind of gray, silty soil.

“It’s like a treasure hunt and an Easter egg hunt had a baby, but the treasure may or may not be there,” Milligan said.

And the name of the mushroom itself contains a clue. “Matsu” means pine and “take” means “mushroom.” But while matsutake mushrooms grow near pine in other parts of the world, in New Hampshire Milligan has found them only near hemlock.

As complex as the process of hunting mushrooms may be, for Milligan, it also touches on something as simple as a slow walk through the woods, where the only aim is to notice what is growing underfoot.

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s energy and environment reporter. She previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.