Amateur mycologists go to ground in search of seasonal mushrooms

David Via inspects a mushroom found on a foraging outing in the George Washington National Forest. Photo: Graelyn Brashear David Via inspects a mushroom found on a foraging outing in the George Washington National Forest. Photo: Graelyn Brashear

David Via’s first memories of mushroom hunting are from his Crozet childhood. His father—a descendant of early Blue Ridge settlers who grew up in a high hollow on Buck’s Elbow Mountain—would take him out hunting for morels each spring. They would follow the time-honored seasonal cues locals use to mark the start of the treasured mushroom’s season: start looking with the first warm rain of spring; when the oak leaves are the size of mouse ears; when you have to mow your lawn for the first time.

“He showed me where to go, and we’d look in old apple orchards, even orchards where there were only remnants of old trees totally taken over by the woods,” said Via, who now lives in Loudoun County but returns home often.

Earlier this month, Via and about two dozen other enthusiasts gathered at a mountain cabin west of Staunton at the peak of the late-summer mushroom season. The trip was the latest organized by Wild Virginia, a Charlottesville-based forest preservation group whose members frequently spend weekends exploring the woods and wilds they work to protect. On the agenda: a little learning, a little hiking, and a lot of mushrooms.

Mark Jones—founder of Sharondale Farm in Cismont, a permaculture operation that harnesses the power of fungi in nutrient cycling—was on hand to guide the group. Besides being a successful cultivator of edible mushrooms, Jones is an avid and skilled hunter of the wild kinds—an asset on any mycological outing, as the diversity of fungi one can encounter in the woods can be bewildering.

Of the estimated 1.5 to 2 million species in the fungi kingdom, “we’ve probably identified about 10 percent,” Jones said. Not only are there are a staggering number of species that pop up locally as summer weather cools, he said—some delicious, some deadly—they can look surprisingly different depending on their age.

As they walked up the gently sloping hollow in the George Washington National Forest—an area near Wild Virginia member Jack Wilson’s West Augusta home that he grinningly called “bemushroomed”—the group took time to explore the diversity of fungi coaxed out of the ground by days of cool, wet weather. They carried brown paper bags for choice finds, like a gelatinous oxtongue mushroom, a cluster of elusive pale-blue Clitocybe, and the prize of the fall forager, the faintly apricot-scented golden chanterelle.

But it wasn’t all about the edibles. The group stooped low over a delicate black inch-high Cordyceps mushroom, a parasite that preys exclusively on insects, and marveled over a fairy ring of pure white and lethally toxic Amanita.

Whether you’re picking or not, said Via, the thrill of the hunt is a big part of the joy of the amateur mycologist.

“I lost my excitement for hunting with a gun when I was 18,” he said. Seeking more sedentary quarry has been a good reason to get back in the woods with a purpose, he said. “There’s value in the focus. You’re searching, hunting, gathering, and then all of a sudden you’ll find yourself in this incredibly beautiful spot that you probably wouldn’t have found if you were just looking for it. It’s like the mushrooms lead you.”