Into the Wild: ‘The greatest mushroom year in living memory’

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We told Chris Hafford, sales director at Banded Brewing and longtime forager, that we had something special to show him after the event was over.

Later, when the tables and chairs were all put away, we turned on our cell phone flashlights and brought him down into the woods. After pushing through some branches off the main trail our lights finally found our prize: a downed log covered in spiky, orange, pumpkin-sized fungus: Laetiporus sulphureus, or “chicken of the woods.”

Nick LundChris was beside himself, shaking his head in disbelief and excitedly taking pictures. “I’d never seen a flush that big,” he told me later (“flush” is a term for a crop or group of mushrooms). “Maybe in pictures, but never in person. It was awesome.”

Many in Maine’s foraging and mushrooming communities have had similar experiences this summer, which Chris described as “the greatest mushroom year in living memory.” There was hardly a patch of woods or backyard that wasn’t covered in dozens of species of mushrooms this summer, large and small, edible or toxic.

The mushrooms we see above ground are just the fruiting bodies – the apples of the tree – of large, underground fungal organisms called mycelium. Threads of fungus spread underground, sometimes forming some of the largest living organisms on Earth, and wait until conditions are right to send spore-bearing mushrooms to the surface.

Well, this summer the conditions were right. A very wet July paired with a hot and dry August meant that many mushrooms, including species prized by foragers, were found in abundance. Morels, black trumpets, chicken of the woods and hen of the woods, lobster mushrooms, puffers – all these edible fungi and more had banner years.

“People are finding chicken of the woods in 50, 60, 70 pounds in a single trip,” Hafford said. Seth Laplant, a co-founder of the Maine Foragers and Maine Mushrooms Facebook groups, said “foragers who typically would sell their finds are just giving them away this year.”

Amanita sp.
Amanita mushrooms are some of the world’s best known and most beautiful fungi. Many are also poisonous. (Portland Phoenix/Nick Lund)

Laplant said that the abundance of mushrooms this summer, coupled with a rush of pandemic newcomers to Maine, has resulted in a lot of new foragers in the state. The Maine Mushrooms group has nearly doubled to 14,000 members in the past year, and Maine Foragers has added 4,000 members to get to 10,000.

The mushrooming community is welcoming of the new members, but both Hafford and Laplant advised newcomers to proceed with caution. Mushrooms can be difficult to identify, and the consequences of eating something you shouldn’t can be severe.

Complete confidence in species identification before you eat is critical, they told me. Laplant recommended a guide called “Edible and Medicinal Mushrooms of New England and Eastern Canada: A Photographic Guidebook to Finding and Using Key Species,” by Maine’s David Spahr. Hafford said that even when you’re sure you’ve got an edible mushroom, you should only eat a little bit to start because some stomachs might still get upset.

But when you’re ready, dive in.

Hafford collected some of those chicken of the woods mushrooms we found on that log and prepared them his favorite way: soaked in chicken stock and fried with butter. Later, on the phone, I could sense his excitement rising again as he talked about another preparation: cut into strips, battered and fried like chicken fingers.

So many recipes to choose from during this crazy Maine mushroom summer.

Nick Lund of Cumberland is outreach and network manager at Maine Audubon. He has written about nature for the National Audubon Society, Down East, National Parks Magazine, The Washington Post, and others. He can be found online at TheBirdist.com and on Twitter @TheBirdist.