The Etiquette of Mushroom Foraging

Dear Helena,
My friend forages for mushrooms, and knows I'm interested in doing so myself. But every time I ask him if I can go, he just gets this smug little smile and says, "I don't want to give away my spots." It seems kind of rude. Or am I just not wise to the ways of mushroom foraging?
—’Shroom Curious

Dear ’Shroom Curious,
The first rule of foraging etiquette is that you never ask someone to show you where his patch is. Mushrooms can fruit in the same place for hundreds of years, so the location of a good patch is valuable knowledge that could keep not only you in chanterelles, but your descendants too. You might reveal your spot to a trusted friend, but many foragers prefer to keep their spots totally secret. Ray LaSala, president of the Mycological Association of Washington, Inc., says if anyone catches him out foraging, he'll happily fib to throw the passerby off the scent: "I'll be all ready to say I am doing research on heavy-metal accumulation and the mushrooms happen to be very good at taking up heavy metals."

Eric Schramm, owner of wild mushroom seller Mendocino Mushrooms in Northern California, says that when someone else trespasses on your mushroom territory, it can trigger cavemanlike rage. Schramm recalls: "Two old-timers were the best of friends for 30 years. All winter long they had dinner together a couple of times a week and played pinochle." But when mushroom season rolled around one year, they fell out over a mushroom patch. "They died not speaking to each other because of mushrooms."

In the past, mushroom foragers had an unspoken rule that if you came across another forager, you gave him a wide berth. Schramm says: "The ethic was that if we saw someone in a place, we wouldn't go there; we would go down the road to the next patch and wait until that person left." Unfortunately, the rise of the commercial foraging industry has changed this. "Nowadays if someone sees you in a patch, they'll stop the car and come right in on you." It doesn't help that logging is steadily diminishing the available territory.

So a fellow forager should never ask somebody to give up the location of a patch, any more than he should ask if he could read that person's journal. Fortunately, it's easy to satisfy your ’shroom curiosity in a way that's not likely to irritate your friend, says Greg Marley, a mushroom educator in Maine and author of several books on mushrooms. Engage him in a general conversation about how to spot chanterelles, such as "habitat, association, and the angle toward the north, east, or west." In other words, ask him to tell you how to find your own patch.

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