Mushroom Hunting in Illinois Comes with Risks, Rewards

A wild-growing boletus edulis mushroom. "There are lots of mushrooms that are tasty and edible, but there are also some that will make you very sick," said mycologist Andrew Wilson. (H.P. Brinkmann / Flickr)

Picking and eating wild mushrooms could result in a delectable treat or a deadly mistake.

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That’s why mycologist Andrew Wilson says it’s important to educate aspiring mushroom hunters. Wilson is the adjunct assistant conservation scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden and a member of the Illinois Mycological Association. Mycology is the study of mushrooms, or fungi.

“There are old mushroom hunters and there are bold mushroom hunters,” Wilson said. “But there are no bold old mushroom hunters.” 

Of course, not all mushrooms are bad for you, even if you find them growing in the wild.

Porcini mushrooms are one variety commonly found sprouting beneath area oak trees this time of year, Wilson said. The mushrooms have a mutually beneficial relationship with the trees, helping to distribute extra water and nutrients. In return, the fungi get access to sugar the trees produce.

But like other mushrooms, Wilson said porcini have so-called look-alikes that could be dangerous to eat.

“When in doubt, throw it out,” Wilson said. “There are a lot of myths about shortcuts people can use to identify what’s edible and what’s not, but the only tried-and-true way is by knowing what the mushroom is.”

The Amanita bisporigera mushroom is also known as the "destroying angel." It's considered the most toxic mushroom in North America. (Dan Molter / Wikimedia Commons)

The large, white Amanita bisporigera mushroom, for example, can be found in wooded areas of the Midwest and is sometimes collected and consumed by inexperienced foragers because “it’s very big and pretty,” according to Wilson. But the mushroom is deadly if ingested.

“It produces toxins that destroy the liver,” Wilson said.

Mushroom hunters must also be careful where they’re hunting.

Picking mushrooms or any other plants from forest preserves in Cook County could result in a fine between $75 and $500. A Chicago Park District spokeswoman said there is nothing in their code that specifically addresses foraging. However, the possibility of mushrooms absorbing pesticides sprayed in city parks makes them a less-than-ideal foraging grounds, according to Wilson. At state parks, there is a general rule to not disturb plants and animals, according to a spokesman from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, but an exemption exists for edible fungi. Just keep in mind that there are occasional restrictions on foraging for a collector's own protection, like during certain hunting seasons. For that reason, it's best to contact state parks in advance if you plan to look for edible mushrooms.

Foraging in your neighborhood comes with its own set of concerns.

“Along walkways and along the streets, people have lots of pets,” Wilson said. “You never know what pet has come across that mushroom and decided to decorate it.”

A mushroom known as “chicken of the woods” is commonly found in Illinois during the fall, according to mycologist Andrew Wilson. The mushroom is said to resemble chicken meat when it’s cooked and can be prepared in similar ways. (Gargoyle888 / Wikimedia Commons)

Learn more about the wild mushrooms that grow in Illinois as well as the ecological importance of mushrooms–and how dangerous they can be–at the Chicago Botanic Garden on Sunday, where the Illinois Mycological Association hosts a mushroom show that's free and open to the public.

Along with presentations given by Wilson and other speakers on Sunday, attendees are encouraged to bring their own mushrooms for mycologists to identify on site.

Follow Evan Garcia on Twitter: @EvanRGarcia

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