The Morel the Merrier: Ohio’s Growing Forager Community

Foragers are having a social media resurgence. But foraging is an ancient practice whose purpose has evolved over time, and such changes demand new approaches and considerations in a modern context. Learn about how foraging impacts the environment and mushrooms that grow in Ohio. Cover graphic by Allison Jiang for Midstory.

for·age
/ˈfôrij,ˈfärij/
verb

  • (of a person or animal) search widely for food or provisions.
  • obtain food or provisions from (a place).

(Oxford Languages via Google)

Foraging can be traced back nearly 2 million years ago, when hand-picked berries, roots, greens and nuts nourished hunter-gatherer civilizations. This lifestyle continued until around 11,000 to 12,000 years ago until the sedentary agricultural practices of the Neolithic Revolution.

Now, the modern resurgence of foraging has made this niche hobby evolve into a viral media presence. With the rise to fame of TikTok foraging influencers such as @blackforager (an Ohio native with over 4 million TikTok followers) the appeal of harvesting and cooking your own meals from scratch has become mainstream.

Modern foragers, however, have been an established community long before their TikTok virality. Today, foraging consists of collaborative efforts to sustain local ecosystems and the safety of the practice. 

In Ohio, there is a thriving mycological movement: mushroom foraging. Wilderness lovers of this practice often refer to it as mushroom hunting, scavenging in group forays across the state, led by mushroom experts and experienced foragers.

Don King, also known by his persona, The Mushroom Hunter, has built a culinary-foraging business leading guided mushroom forays in Kent, Ohio.

Although he grew up in an outdoorsy family, he described his upbringing as “fairly mycophobic.”

“I grew up, actually, very afraid of wild mushrooms because I thought that just touching them I could get sick or I was gonna die,” King said. “Later on, I just started to notice all these mushrooms growing in my yard throughout the year … I was just really intrigued and a thought in my head was: ‘Some of these must be edible.’”

Today, he serves as a knowledgeable source for prospective mushroom hunters, adding to a network of edible mushroom education. Guided mushroom hunts, tours and events are offered by multiple organizations in Ohio, including The Ohio Mushroom Society’s board and Epiphany Mushroom Co. based in Akron.

The state serves as a prime destination for mushroom foragers because of its ecological conditions. With large areas of temperate grasslands and forests that receive steady rainfall, the Ohio landscape lends itself to an ideal mushroom habitat.

Ohio’s geographic location also allows for quick, ready access to large amounts of public green space, such as state parks, state forests and national parks, which increases direct access for hunters. 

In Ohio and beyond, however, mushrooms fall under different regulations compared to other commonly foraged goods like nuts and berries. Mushroom foraging is banned in certain public spaces like Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio, and foraging rules vary on public, private, federal, state and local lands.; 

“I learned I had to call each park, especially once I started to schedule classes and wanted to take people out into the parks. I wanted to be doing that legally,” King said.

With mushroom foraging becoming an increasingly popular and accessible hobby, education on how to do it safely is ever important; edible mushrooms can have toxic look-alikes, which pose dangers to beginner — and even experienced — foragers. 

“Utilize everything at your disposal to help you along this journey so you don’t make a mistake. There’s so much more information out there than there was 20 years ago, when I started,” King said.

The preparation of the mushroom is also vital for safe consumption. 

“As more and more people become interested in consuming mushrooms, I think you’re going to start to see people using them in ways that [haven’t] evolved culturally to minimize harm,” Jason C. Slot, an associate professor of fungal evolutionary genomics at the Ohio State University, said.

For example, the popular morel mushroom produces deadly toxins when consumed raw. 

“Recently, there’s been a restaurant that decided that they would serve [morels] raw because they’re a sushi restaurant and it has led to two deaths,” Slot said. “This fast growth and interest in mushrooms for health reasons has to be accompanied by people really understanding what they’re doing, because there are dangers involved, too.”

Beginner foragers should check their identifications via a trustworthy, updated field guide and can even join foraging Facebook groups, where mushroom experts with decades of experience and publishing credentials are active. Consulting with experts and online community members fosters a dialogue around foraging that ensures safety precautions and the discovery of new foraging finds.

Mushrooms, however, are more than just a delicious snack (when consumed correctly) — they have an essential symbiotic relationship with the surrounding ecosystem, which includes a nutritional exchange with plants. 

“The largest impact that we would notice if fungi were to just disappear is the decay of wood,” Slot said. “The large, fleshy mushrooms that people are interested in for various purposes, a lot of them are involved in wood decay … that symbiotic relationship with tree roots.”

Mushrooms are composed of the fruiting body of the fungus, as well as the mycelium which is located under the ground or in the wood of a host tree. The mycelium feeds the mushroom’s spores so that it can reproduce.

Diagram of mushroom anatomy. By Taylor Vanek for Midstory.

There is a built-in sustainability to mushroom harvesting. 

When you forage a mushroom, it has already released spores into the surrounding environment. While harvesting the mushroom removes it from the physical location, the mycelium remains intact and continues to reproduce.

“People think that you’re killing the fungus, but that’s just one little reproductive part of a mycelium that’s underground, Slot said. “But you certainly can damage that mycelium as well.”

With the popularization of foraging, increased activity near mushroom habitats leads to the risk of disturbed soil habitats and damaged mycelium.

“If more and more footsteps are out there, compacting the soil, damaging the leaf litter and the mycelium, that could eventually have a very negative impact,” Slot said. 

Some fungi species actually thrive in these disturbed environments, but others require undisturbed microhabitats that exist naturally, free of human interference.

Nevertheless, when done in good conscience, the practice of foraging offers the opportunity to connect with the natural world and one’s immediate surroundings. In understanding native species and how to identify them, foragers also learn about the reciprocity of nature along with other hobbyists.

“It’s kind of interesting to have this group of people that have a wide range of backgrounds: a wide range of cultural beliefs, ethnicities, politics, religion… everything. But we can all agree that morels taste amazing and everyone should be out looking for them,” King said. “That’s a small step towards something greater, I think.”

King has offered an introduction to common, accessible edible mushroom varieties in the Ohio region. Below is a collection of his recommendations, illustrated by Taylor Vanek for Midstory. On mobile, click to flip the card for more information.

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