Hand-wringing about the safety of gathering wild, edible mushrooms has come to North Carolina, and I’m glad. It’s long past time that the many unreasonable fears about mushrooms should be tackled head on.
Growth in foraging for fungi – and wild edible plants – is an opportunity not just for improved nutrition and culinary adventure, but job creation as well. Foraging also gets people outdoors and is not harmful to the environment or wildlife. The edible part of a mushroom is comparable to the fruit of a tree. You can’t harm an orchard by eating all the apples. And since the overwhleming majority of mushrooms are inedible – or not found – by humans, that leaves plenty for wildlife.
Because many people are deathly afraid to eat a mushroom harvested by a forager, the state is forming a committee to consider a mushroom license. But with 3,000 deaths per year nationally from food-borne disease, you’re much more likely to get sick or die from eating FDA “inspected” food you’ve bought at a supermarket or a chain restaurant than you are from eating foraged mushrooms.
True, there are a small number of poisonous mushrooms – such as Death Caps and Jack O’Lanterns – that look enough like a certain edible mushroom to give foragers pause. As we like to say, “There are old mushroom hunters. There are bold mushroom hunters. But there are no old and bold mushroom hunters.” But these poisonous mushrooms (perhaps 60 among the 3,000 species that grow in the Eastern United States) bear resemblance to only a few of the two dozen or so that home cooks and chefs seek out. In fact, a dozen of these prized edible mushrooms in North Carolina – such as lion’s mane and hen-of-the-woods – have no poisonous look-alikes.
Throughout continental Europe, Asia and Africa, gathering and eating wild mushrooms is so common that many children can safely forage. There’s no reason that couldn’t also be true in this country. In fact Alan Muskat, one of the South’s leading foragers, gets funding from the Asheville school system to teach children how to forage mushrooms and edible wild plants.
Nonetheless, in a nation with a vast surplus of underemployed attorneys, protecting oneself from wonton litigation is just smart business. One model to protect foragers and restaurants as well as to promote future employment may be South Carolina’s certification program. At the cost of $463 and two days time, a careful person can learn 20 of the most sought-after mushrooms. The certification they earn is good for five years. Those who don’t want to go the professional route can still learn from local groups found on Facebook and Meetup.com.
Interestingly, the need for the certification became apparent when S.C. legislators wanted to curtail the foraging of psychedelic mushrooms. They figured their state troopers wouldn’t be able to tell the “magic” mushrooms from any others, so they outlawed them all.
Foraging really can be an opportunity for job growth in North Carolina. Finland, a country with half our state’s population, had a modest culture of foraging before World War II. In the 1960s, the government hired 22 professional foragers to train 1,600 advisers. These advisers then trained 50,000 pickers to safely identify mushrooms and wild plants. The Finnish Forest Research Institute estimates that now half of the population forages regularly without harming the forests. Many of the foragers are professionals who sell their mushrooms locally and as far away as Italy.
People should be careful when they’re foraging, just as they are when doing something truly dangerous, like getting into a car (220,000 crashes per year in N.C.). But a growing culture of foraging would not only be safe, but a boon to the average Tar Heel diet and our employment rate. Here’s hoping more school systems will follow Asheville’s lead and teach foraging and that state agencies will do more to support foraging than to restrict it.
Frank Hyman of Durham is an NCSU-trained horticulturist and professional forager.