They say the best things in life are free, and while ‘they’ can’t be right all the time, it’s definitely the case for mushrooms! Cape Town is simply shrooming with all kinds of fungi, but with only a handful of choice edibles around (as well as the deadly poisonous variety), we thought it best to go on a guided mushroom foraging tour before foraging on our own.
On a rather grey Friday we met Justin from Veld and Sea at Bel Ombré Meadow, Constantia with the rest of the foraging group. We kicked straight off with a lesson in fungi appreciation, which made us realise how little we actually knew about these tasty little treats. Mushrooms as we know them are actually the fruit of fungi, which is one of the six Kingdoms of organisms on this planet. Fungi, although appearing in different forms above the ground, is ultimately made up of an underground network of tiny threads called mycelium. This network connects the roots of trees together, allowing them to communicate, but this network also allows fungi to communicate with trees (which is pretty phenomenal considering that trees and fungi are from two completely different Kingdoms). If this is all sounding a bit Avatar like you’re spot on, as James Cameron’s big screen hit was influenced by this intricate yet invisible, highly evolved network (what Justin referred to as the ‘wood wide web’). In effect, this network becomes an extension of a tree’s own root system, helping them extract nutrients and water in exchange for carbons and sugars in a symbiotic relationship that is thought to be some 500 million years old. Mushrooms like Portinis, Boletus, Pine Rings and Saffron Milk Caps simply would not exist without trees.
But, not all mycelium link with all species of trees. That’s why you will only find certain mushroom under the figurative shade of certain trees. These special relationships become particularly interesting within the context of the Western Cape, as many of our well known mushrooms came from the mycelium networks that existed in the root systems of saplings that were shipped from Europe during early settler times. The forests of Newlands and Cecilia are a good example of this, and the mycelium (and as a result Porcini, Pine Rings and Cape Rasulas) that thrive in these local forests can be considered descendants of these early mycelium.
With this fascinating fungi 101 out the way, we were now introduced to some more practical advice, i.e. what tastes great and what will kill you. Just to break this down into numbers:
Fungi in Numbers
- There are an estimated 5 million species of fungi globally
- Around 1000 of these species can be found in South Africa
- 20 of these are choice edibles (i.e. taste delicious)
- 80 – 100 are edible (i.e. if you were stranded in the bush and required sustenance, these would do for lack of anything else to eat)
- 20 – 30 are poisonous (you will get ill one way or the other, with varying symptoms and intensity)
- 5 are deadly poisonous*
- The rest are inedible (i.e. too tough, chewy or soapy – simply not palatable)
*The number one rule of thumb for the amateur forager: three of the five deadly poisonous kind have white gills (check underneath the head or cap of a mushroom for this) so don’t pluck and eat white-gilled mushies unless you can 100% positively identify that they are safe to eat. Also be aware of young mushrooms where the cap is still tightly closed and the underside of the cap is not yet visible. None of the choice edibles in the Western Cape have white gills (most have a spongy underside or brown gills) so it’s simply not worth the risk.
Also note that the above summary is applicable to the Western Cape and not other parts of the country
What Tastes Great
- Shaggy mane (an interesting one, as after time it begins to digest itself; the resulting juice can be used for ink. Note that it’s only edible before this process starts)
- Portobello (also known as button mushrooms, which are the same species, just plucked at different times)
- Porcini (found near pines and oaks)
- Pine Rings (found near, you guessed it, pines)
- Chicken of the Woods (actually part of a parasitic group of mushrooms, and the only choice edible parasitic mushroom found in the Western Cape. Even more interesting, it doesn’t need rain to grow, and is most prolific during the warm summer months of January to March. It looks like a shelf that grows mostly on oak, but also chestnut and poplar, and to a lesser extent willow. A Chicken of the Woods growing on pine and blue gum should not be eaten. To tell if it’s fresh for picking cut off a section; it should seep water as opposed to being dry.
- Slippery Jack and Jill (very similar, although the Slippery Jack has a ring around the stem which is absent in the Slipper Jill)
What We Foraged
In terms of the above choice edibles, our group managed to find three varieties, namely Porcini, Shaggy Mane (although it had self-digested past the edible stage) and Slippery Jill. However we did also find a Turkey Tail, which is edible and used for medicinal purposes. Inedibles and poisonous mushrooms that we discovered included Cape Rasula, Pantha Cap, Pine Spike, Purple Cap, Oak Maze Gill and Poison Pie (sounds delicious right)? Here’s a few snapshots to document our morning.
Clockwise from top: 1. Cape Rasula (note the purple cap), 2. Pantha Cap, LBMs and Pine Spikes, 3. A good example of white gills, 4. Look closely and spot the mycelium network, 5. Pantha Cap (note the mottled cap), 6. Shaggy Mane (starting to digest itself), Pantha Cap, Slippery Jill, 7. A treasure of Slipper Jills, 8. & 9. – Snacks
- Full and new moons are a good time for mushroom foraging, especially full moon.
- The common perception is that mushrooms tend to come out after rain. Well this is partly true, this varies greatly from species to species. For example, Porcinis are prolific 2 – 3 weeks after rain, while Chicken of the Woods prefers warmer and drier conditions.
- ‘LBMs’ stands for ‘little brown mushrooms’ the hundreds of very similar species that are frequently found – they pop up everywhere, are largely indistinct, and to be on the safe side should be left alone.
- Use a basket when you go mushroom foraging. Not only does it look cute, but it also allows spores to drop onto the forest floor as you go about your business.
- South Africa has some of the best Porcinis in the world, and almost a tonne is exported every day.
- As mentioned above, mycelium exists in a symbiotic relationship with individual trees. So, if you forage a spot with Porcinis, mark it on a map, as chances are you will find more when you return (unless other foragers got there first).
Mushrooms of Southern Africa (Facebook group)
The Mushroom Forager SA (Facebook group)
Field Guide Mushrooms of Southern Africa: G. C. A. Van der Westhuizen, A. Eicker (out of print, so sniff around second hand book stores to find it)
Pocket Guide Mushrooms of South Africa (we just ordered it online and will report back with a review)
Disclaimer: We are not experts in mushroom foraging and the info provided in this blog should not be used as a reference for foraging mushrooms.
But, if you want to know what we are experts in, take a peek at our food & catering services here.