Treasure Hunting in the Forest

Things to know about foraging for wild mushrooms in the woods around Parksville Qualicum Beach

Imagine yourself on a treasure hunt in a quiet, magical forest, with misty air, verdant moss, and unmatched serenity. In your hands, you carry the tools to aid your treasure hunt: a compass, a knife, and a bucket—but wait, is that bucket full of holes?

It is when the treasure you’re hunting for is of the mushroom variety. Tucked among the forest floor of Vancouver Island are hundreds of species of mushrooms, hiding in wait for you to seek them out. And it turns out, bringing a bucket full of holes is an important part of foraging for mushrooms.

“You need to make sure there is airflow in the container you bring,” says Benjamin Patarin of Forest for Dinner. As co-founder and CEO of the wildcrafting company, he knows everything there is to know about foraging on Vancouver Island, specializing in bringing foraged products to retail shelves and conducting foraging tours. “If the mushrooms can’t breathe, they will go rotten really quickly,” he continues. “The holes allow airflow, and if it rains, the water can escape so you don’t end up with just a mushy mess in a bucket.” Other good alternatives are wicker baskets and mesh bags, which provide the same benefits and might be more convenient to keep on hand.

Neil Horner of Mushroom Savage is a passionate mushroom picker who has been selling his foraged treasures at the farmer’s market in Parksville Qualicum Beach for seven years, and he says the buckets also serve another purpose. “As you’re hiking, you will be spreading the spores of the mushrooms you’ve already picked. Putting the mushrooms in a permeable membrane helps you fertilize the area as you go.”

But before you head into the woods with your buckets, it’s important to know what exactly you’re looking for. Patarin recommends that if you’re new to mushroom foraging, you start by hunting for chanterelles. “It’s a really easy mushroom to start with, because it’s easy to recognize,” he explains. “Figure out a couple of species that are easy to identify, then you find them, bring them home, and over time start growing the list of species you’re confident with identifying.”

“ There are over 3,000 species of mushrooms growing in forests on Vancouver Island ” Benjamin Patarin | Forest for Dinner

As you grow your list of identified mushrooms, you’ll also discover a wide range of flavours and uses. Horner explains that while the chanterelle is a versatile mushroom that goes well in soup, stew, stir fry, stuffing, steak and more, the cauliflower mushroom has an egg noodle texture that substitutes well as pasta. Chicken of the woods tastes like—you guessed it, chicken; lion’s mane tastes like shrimp; and hedgehog mushrooms have a delightfully nutty flavour. So regardless of your taste preferences, the variety of mushroom flavours and textures makes it easy to customize your picking to your liking.

Once you know what you’re looking for, you can pick up that bucket full of holes and let the treasure hunt begin! Forest for Dinner specifically chose their home base in the Parksville Qualicum Beach area because of how central it is for traveling around to find mushrooms in various areas, with multiple ecosystems providing diverse mushroom species growth. In fact, Patarin says there are over 3,000 species of mushrooms growing in forests on Vancouver Island.

Other key things to bring with you are a walking stick, whistle, bear spray and a compass. Wear boots that can handle swampy areas and don appropriate clothing for the season—as it’s Vancouver Island, always be prepared for rain. A stiff paint brush to clean off mushrooms as you pick them can also be handy and save you work when you get home. Horner also notes that mushroom picking can be very dangerous, claiming the lives of B.C. foragers every year, so it’s vital to let someone know where you will be foraging, as it’s easy to get lost or injured while your head is down searching for mushrooms.

And finally, bring a knife—an X-Acto knife, pocket knife or fileting knife, but the thinner the blade the better. “A thin blade makes a nicer cut,” says Patarin. “If your knife is thicker, the cut won’t be as nice, and the mushroom won’t store as long because it kind of bruises them.” And as far as cutting mushrooms or pulling them, you can be confident that you’re not hurting the environment or their ability to reproduce in the area. There is no difference between cutting a mushroom or pulling it out, both Horner and Patarin confirm.

However, it is important to be respectful of the environment when you’re foraging. Don’t rip up moss in your search or disturb the natural environment any more than necessary, and pack out all the garbage and items you bring into the forest. Also be aware of the area you are foraging in; stay away from polluted areas and private property. It’s also a respected understanding between mushroom pickers not to pick every mushroom you find in a patch; just take what you need and leave some for others to find on their hunt.

Look for second-growth Douglas Fir trees with moss for promising mushroom haunts, but stay away from the sword ferns, says Horner. Some mushrooms grow under the moss, which is where the real hunt begins, but don’t tear up the moss in your search—gently feel around and respect the area as you harvest. And don’t be fooled into thinking mushroom season only occurs during a few weeks in the fall. “Depending on the year, there can be mushrooms growing from March to December,” Patarin says.

Horner also says: “When you find promising ground, move very slowly. You are not hiking, you are hunting.” And if you find yourself soaking wet and freezing cold after hunting for mushrooms for hours without luck, Horner has a secret—a few magic words that he’s sure will turn things around, but you have to really mean them. “That’s when you say the magic words: ‘I hate this. I want to go home.’ And that’s when you’ll suddenly find what you seek!”

About the Author

Danielle Steiner