On the hunt for tasty fungi

North Americans are fungal phobic. We're less likely than Asians and Eastern Europeans to take a walk in the woods to forage for fungi.

North Americans are fungal phobic.

We’re less likely than Asians and Eastern Europeans to take a walk in the woods to forage for fungi.

It could be because they’re related to mould or that they’re sometimes slippery and squishy to touch.

But Yukon biologist Sam Skinner offers another reason. Poison.

A lot of people are frightened they’re going to get sick from picking mushrooms, he said.

Yukoners only need to think of the five reality-show contestants who accidentally ate the poisonous false hellebore plant while hiking the Chilkoot Trail last month.

After being found at their camp by a park ranger vomiting and sick, the hikers were quickly airlifted to the hospital in Whitehorse for treatment.

“The hikers that poisoned themselves – that was ignorant,” said Skinner.

With care and diligence people can learn which types of fungi are safe to eat, he said.

“But a certain degree of fear might be healthy,” he said.

Lots of wild mushrooms have “look-alikes” that may smell and appear the same as an edible mushroom.

The Yukon has 500 different types of mushrooms. Only 10 to 12 of them are actually edible.

It can be a discouraging number for beginner mushroom hunters who feel like they’re playing a game of mushroom roulette.

Tuesday evening, Skinner hosted a mushroom walk through the Wolf Creek campground. Almost 100 people showed up to learn about edible mushrooms in the Yukon.

For neophyte mushroom hunters, Skinner recommends a couple of sure-fire fungi. Those include the stemless dusty white oyster mushrooms and the orange-capped aspen bolete that grow in the Yukon

“Orange delicious” mushrooms are also recommended for the beginning picker.

While hiking Skinner plucked a medium-sized brown mushroom from the ground with a distinct dimple in the centre of the cap.

He broke the mushroom in half to show off the orange, milky liquid oozing out of the flesh of the mushroom.

It’s called Lactarius deliciosus because of the way it “lactates,” said Skinner. But it’s better known as orange delicious to avid pickers, he said.

Mushroom hunters have come up with a bevy of terms to describe the fungus they find in the woods.

The hawk’s wing mushroom is often referred to as a “hedgehog” because of its spiny gills and furry underside.

And mushroom spore sacs are better known as “puff balls.”

During the hike, Skinner pointed to a handful of puff balls hidden in a clump of dried grasses and dirt.

When the delicate, papery sac is stepped on it shoots a spray of mushroom spores into the air like a perfume bottle. The tiny spores will eventually seed new mushrooms.

Although strange to look at, the puff balls, when they’re young and white, taste just like tofu when cooked up.

But not all the fungus on Skinner’s hike was edible.

Midway through the walk, Skinner bent down to pick a russula mushroom with a bright red top and white stem that snapped off like a piece of chalk.

I think this might be inedible but I’m going to taste a bit of it, he said.

He ripped a small portion of the cap off and put it in his mouth. He swished it around before immediately spitting it out on the ground.

“It has a peppery, radish taste,” he said.

“And that’s a bad thing?” said one woman standing close to him.

“Well, unless you want to throw up,” said Skinner.

That variety of russula is one you want to stay away from, he said.

Skinner has been mushroom hunting for the last eight years and has yet to get sick from any of the mushrooms he’s picked.

His degrees in botany and mycology help, but they haven’t prevented friends of his with similar backgrounds from poisoning themselves accidentally.

“You want people to take mushroom picking seriously – you can have major problems otherwise.”

Eating the wrong mushroom can mean suffering from bouts of sweating, stomach pains, vomiting and hallucinations.

Severe cases of mushroom poisoning can require liver transplants. Sometimes it will kill you.

If trying to figure out whether the mushroom in your hand matches the edible one in your guidebook isn’t enough stress, people also need to worry about food poisoning from mushrooms that have gone bad, said Skinner.

When you cut open a mushroom sometimes there will be maggots inside.

“The worms aren’t appetizing, but they won’t hurt you,” he said.

“It’s the rot that happens after the maggots crawl through the mushroom that you need to worry about.”

But amateur mushroom hunters need not close their guidebooks altogether.

Skinner encourages people to be safe but keep an open mind.

A haul of tasty, fresh mushrooms will encourage people to go back into the woods to pick.

Skinner’s favourite way to cook up fungi is in a risotto. That way the flavour of the mushrooms really comes out.

But sauteeing them with garlic and butter always makes for a good side dish, he said.

For those still worried about picking the wrong mushroom, Skinner dishes out some tips.

There are certain signs mushroom hunters can look for before cooking up a batch of potentially poisonous fungus, he said.

People can see how the flesh of the mushroom bruises when it’s touched to better identify what kind of mushroom it is.

They can also examine the colour of the spore powder that is released from the mushroom.

A more visceral test is to sniff the mushroom because edible mushrooms often smell appetizing. Or you can pop a small piece of the mushroom in your mouth. If the taste is acrid or bitter, chances or it’s probably poisonous.

But the best advice probably is when in doubt, leave the mushroom alone.

Contact Vivian Belik at


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Are they coming?

One of COVID-19’s big economic questions is whether it will prompt a… Continue reading

Yukon MP Larry Bagnell, along with Yukon health and education delegates, announce a new medical research initiative via a Zoom conference on Jan. 21. (Screen shot)
New medical research unit at Yukon University launched

The SPOR SUPPORT Unit will implement patient-first research practices

Yukon First Nation Education Directorate members Bill Bennett, community engagement coordinator and Mobile Therapeutic Unit team lead, left, and Katherine Alexander, director of policy and analytics, speak to the News about the Mobile Therapeutic Unit that will provide education and health support to students in the communities. (yfned.ca)
Mobile Therapeutic Unit will bring education, health support to Indigenous rural students

The mobile unit will begin travelling to communities in the coming weeks

Premier Sandy Silver, left, and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley, speak during a live stream in Whitehorse on January 20, about the new swish and gargle COVID-19 tests. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Swish and spit COVID-19 test now available in Yukon

Vaccination efforts continue in Whitehorse and smaller communities in the territory

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment in Faro photgraphed in 2016. Faro will receive a new RCMP detachment in 2022, replacing the decades-old building currently accommodating officers. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Faro RCMP tagged for new detachment

Faro will receive a new RCMP detachment in 2022, replacing the decades-old… Continue reading

In a Jan. 18 announcement, the Yukon government said the shingles vaccine is now being publicly funded for Yukoners between age 65 and 70, while the HPV vaccine program has been expanded to all Yukoners up to and including age 26. (1213rf.com)
Changes made to shingles, HPV vaccine programs

Pharmacists in the Yukon can now provide the shingles vaccine and the… Continue reading

Parking attendant Const. Ouellet puts a parking ticket on the windshield of a vehicle in downtown Whitehorse on Dec. 6, 2018. The City of Whitehorse is hoping to write of nearly $300,000 in outstanding fees, bylaw fines and court fees, $20,225 of which is attributed to parking fines issued to non-Yukon license plates. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City of Whitehorse could write off nearly $300,000

The City of Whitehorse could write off $294,345 in outstanding fees, bylaw… Continue reading

Grants available to address gender-based violence

Organizations could receive up to $200,000

In this illustration, artist-journalist Charles Fripp reveals the human side of tragedy on the Stikine trail to the Klondike in 1898. A man chases his partner around the tent with an axe, while a third man follows, attempting to intervene. (The Daily Graphic/July 27, 1898)
History Hunter: Charles Fripp — gold rush artist

The Alaskan coastal town of Wrangell was ill-equipped for the tide of… Continue reading

A man walks passed the polling place sign at city hall in Whitehorse on Oct. 18, 2018. While Whitehorse Mayor Dan Curtis is now setting his sights on the upcoming territorial election, other members of council are still pondering their election plans for the coming year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Councillors undecided on election plans

Municipal vote set for Oct. 21

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decicions made by Whitehorse city council this week.

A file photo of grizzly bear along the highway outside Dawson City. Yukon conservation officers euthanized a grizzly bear Jan. 15 that was originally sighted near Braeburn. (Alistair Maitland/Yukon News file)
Male grizzly euthanized near Braeburn

Yukon conservation officers have euthanized a grizzly bear that was originally sighted… Continue reading

Most Read