In the fall, mushroom foragers can be found throughout the forests of Ontario in search of the rarest, most flavourful, most healthful fungi.

For some, it is the culinary qualities. Chantrelles have a sweet, nutty flavour and a golden hue, both of which are said to be reminiscent of apricot. Lobster mushrooms have a bright orange-red colour, a chewy but tender texture and a taste that is a little like lobster. Oyster mushrooms are velvety and have a mild, delicate flavour. Pheasant’s back mushrooms have the aroma of cucumber and taste fresh, like the essence of spring. Morels have a woodsy flavour and a thick, meaty texture. Porcini are rich, earthy and sometimes even smoky.

For others, it is the health benefits. Mushrooms are proven to be a source of protein, fibre, calcium, potassium and a number of other vitamins and minerals. Some sip on tea made of chaga mushrooms during cold season to boost their immune system and reduce inflammation. Some drink reishi mushroom tea, often blended with their morning cup of coffee, to support liver function, balance hormones, increase circulation and reduce inflammation. Others eat Lion’s Mane mushrooms to enhances brain function, increase circulation, support their immune function and reduce inflammation. It is said that patients undergoing conventional cancer treatment will drink infusions of Turkey Tail mushroom to boost their immune system.

Mushrooms like these can be hard to find in your local grocery store and, if you do, they are often expensive but, for those who know where to look and what to look for, they can be found hidden in the woods. Besides, discerning pallets and health enthusiasts insist that mushrooms grown on a farm aren’t as flavourful or as nutritious as those found in the wild.

Burlington resident, Alison Zski, has made a hobby out of hunting for mushrooms. A few years ago, she started the photography challenge of trying to take a photo every day but she soon got tired of taking photos of trees and leaves. That’s when she began to notice the mushrooms growing from the trees and tucked beneath the leaves.

“I love finding ‘hen of the woods’, which look almost floral in arrangement. They’re not super common and you have to go off the beaten path a bit for them but those are the ones that I love to find,” Alison says. “I also love finding ‘chicken of the woods’. They grow on decaying logs, usually in big clusters, and they’re a vibrant orange colour. I love finding those because the colour is just fascinating.”

Apparently, chicken of the woods earned its name because it is said to taste like fried chicken but Alison hasn’t tried it herself. She says she doesn’t do any foraging for edible mushrooms, partly because she doesn’t entirely trust her ability to identify the edible from the poisonous, but also because of the environmental impact.

“Most of where I go to find mushrooms is on conservation land and I don’t feel that it’s appropriate to forage on conservation land,” she says. “Also, a lot of the mushrooms that I find are just one, or maybe two or three, and I wouldn’t want to disrupt that ecosystem by taking away from such a small population.”

But being harvested by hungry foragers isn’t the only threat to mushroom communities. There is a growing body of research to show that, as seasonal temperatures rise and precipitation patterns fluctuate, mushroom seasons are shifting. One study in Norway found that the fall mushroom season is starting later—almost two weeks late—and lasting longer into the winter. Another study in England found that the spring mushroom season is starting earlier—around three weeks early. Of course, the ways in which mushroom seasons are shifting depends on the mushroom species and the region where it grows but similar changes are being noticed by mushroom enthusiasts here in Canada.

Having to shift your mushroom hunting schedule might not sound like such a big deal but, because mushrooms function as food and habitat for many other organisms, these changes could have consequences for the ecosystems around them.

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Last modified: November 29, 2017

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