Over-collecting Mushrooms

About the Author: Lawrence Millman ➔

Lawrence Millman is a mycologist and the author of some 16 books. "As a mycologist, he has studied fungi all over the world, but especially in his own backyard of New England. And as an explorer, he has made over 40 trips and expeditions to the Arctic and Subarctic. The photo shows him in a contemplative mood on a beach in Siberia." (Source: lawrencemillman.com)

"You can remove all the birds and still have a forest, but if you remove all the fungi, the forest will die."

Lawrence is a dedicated supporter of EwA. He often co-leads EwA naturalist walks. Lawrence also collaborated on 'The Common Fungi of Boston Area" – a beautifully illustrated and narrated EwA field guide that we share on our walks.


Not too long ago, I led a mushroom walk in central Massachusetts for the North Country Land Trust. Just prior to my foray, there’d been a mycological club foray at the same site, and the vast number of mushrooms collected by those foragers lay in waste on the ground near a picnic table. As a result, my own group encountered very few mushrooms.

Why were so many of the mushrooms exactly the same species? Because the foragers had branched out in all directions and then brought back their specimens for a so-called expert to identify. Nobody knew what anyone else had collected, so it was “grab” whatever you see and toss it into your capacious basket. Speaking of baskets, I found collection slips in a nearby trash basket that indicated one substrate was “Near a tree” and another was “On the ground.” Elementary, as Sherlock Holmes might have said, shaking his head.

Well, at least the foragers didn’t disturb the mycelia, you might say. But the mycological jury has not reached a verdict on this subject. Truth to tell, much of a mycelium’s biomass and an undetermined portion of its energy is transferred to its fruiting bodies, the vehicles for spore production and thus, in effect, a fruiting body’s reproductive organ. How would you like it if someone came along and yanked off your reproductive organ? Here’s a perhaps less depressing analogy: a group of bird-watchers filling their baskets to the brim with eggs.

Personally, I think it’s better, much better to observe mushrooms in the field. That way you can study a specimen, smell it, and even taste it when it’s utterly fresh.   You can also photograph that specimen with its actual substrate rather than with an artificial substrate — i.e., a picnic table. Not only will you learn more that way, but later visitors to the same site will actually see mushrooms rather a fungally-bereft landscape. They might even become mycological converts! Let me add that the over-collecting of mycorrhizal fungi might have a very negative effect on the trees with which they have engineered a symbiotic relationship.   

So, please, let’s try to collect less promiscuously. For, in the end, too much collecting might mean fewer mushrooms, which could result in less genetic diversity, which in turn might result either in still fewer mushrooms or in mushrooms so compromised that they can’t perform their environmental services any better than a certain brash hominid I know.

With too few mushrooms, there’s always the possibility that a species might become critically endangered or even go extinct. And — to quote Oscar Wilde — you don’t want to kill the thing you love, do you?


by Lawrence Millman | September 17th, 2021

Banner photo: Image by Demiahl from Pixabay

EwA encourages nature enthusiasts to follow proper field ethics as highligthed in the EwA Wildness Etiquette. Also check the EwA provides a field guide The EwA Guide to Getting Good Pictures for Identification.

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