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We Need to Pick More Mushrooms in Order to Save Them

In the San Francisco Bay Area, there are only two designated areas for wild mushroom harvesting—but one chef and forager believes that's not nearly enough.

Mushroom foraging is all the rage these days. It's a trend that coincides with the rise of the wild food movement, and as more people are getting in touch with where food comes from, more are opting for mushroom forays instead of the standard weekend hike.

In California, the northern part of the state is prime real estate for fungi enthusiasts. Rainy conditions, ample fog, and spongy forest grounds make the sites there ideal breeding grounds for tasty mushrooms. Yet they are hard to come by. At least, legal ones are.

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Pro forager Patrick Hamilton sniffs a shroom. All photos by the author.
coccoli_25350029139_o Coccoli mushrooms, prized in Italian cuisine.

In the Bay Area, there are only two permitted places for recreational mushroom foraging: Point Reyes National Seashore and Salt Point State Park. And in both of these places, strict limits are in place. Salt Point only allows five pounds of mushrooms per person each day; Point Reyes has strict boundaries on where foraging is allowed.

But according to longtime mushroom forager and professionally trained chef Patrick Hamilton, these measures aren't helping. In fact, Hamilton is calling for an expansion of mushroom picking parks in California.

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Hamilton with a coccoli mushroom.

"I want more state parks to open, to lessen the pressure on the existing grounds," he says. "It's not deleterious to the mushrooms to pick them. What affects them is fruiting conditions, soil temperature, air temperature, and nutrients."

Mushrooms, he notes, grow in mycelium networks—underground sensory networks similar to a spider web—that are not threatened when mushrooms are picked. Also, scientific studies have proven that picking mushrooms does not impair future harvests.

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porcini_30950419646_o A porcini mushroom.

"There are some places in Russia that have been picked for hundreds of years and are still there," he says.

Forest floor trampling and soil compaction need to be accounted for, but can be alleviated if more parks were opened, Hamilton argues. In the Bay Area at least, it would alleviate pressure on Salt Point and Point Reyes, which are now overflowing with mushroom foragers.

When it comes to preserving future mushroom stocks, the ecology of the forest is key. Certain mushrooms grow in symbiosis with certain trees.

On a recent four-hour excursion to Salt Point with Hamilton, we find mostly coccoli (Amanita calyptroderma) and porcini mushrooms (Boletus edulis). The former is prized by the Italians, distinguished by its white gills and hamburger patty-like top. Coccoli grows in conjunction with tanoaks and madrone but amateurs beware—while coccoli are completely edible, the genus Amanita contains some of the most deadly shrooms out there.

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Coccoli of various sizes.

Hamilton's tip: Never eat a mushroom you aren't confident with.

Porcini, on the other hand, grow with hardwood trees. They're a bit harder to spot; as their caps are earthy brown and blend in nicely with the forest floor.

At the end of the day, I have a day pack filled to the brim with fungi. It's a stock that would make any Bay Area chef jealous; both porcini and coccoli cannot be cultivated. They are ectomycorrhizal, which means they are dependent on the roots of certain plant species to grow.

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Hamilton points out that the California drought has had a far more significant impact to these networks than people. No rain means dried-up mycelium networks, which directly affects mushroom growth.

The real threat to fungal diversity is climate variability and the impacts of too much human traffic, not the picking of mushrooms themselves.

"There is no good, sound argument against recreational mushroom foraging," Hamilton says. "These blanket regulations don't make sense."