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Mad for mushrooms? These Kansas City hunters know exactly where to look this fall

Taking a break from a foraging hike, Alix Daniel (from left) and Cydney Ross rest on a log at Hidden Valley Park Trail. The two like to spend their free time hiking in the wild spaces around the metro. The mushrooms they find are a tasty bonus.
Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Taking a break from a foraging hike, Alix Daniel, left, and Cydney Ross rest on a log at Hidden Valley Park Trail. The two like to spend their free time hiking in wild spaces around the metro. The mushrooms they find are a tasty bonus.

Springtime morels mark the beginning of Missouri's mushroom season, but fall foliage in mature forests can hide a wide variety of edible fungi — when the conditions are just right.

The air is cool and autumn leaves are crunching underfoot. The forest is thick with oak, paw paw, and persimmon trees on Hidden Valley Parktrail, a four-mile dirt track in north Kansas City.

It’s popular spot for mountain bikers but Alix Daniel and Cydney Ross are here to hunt for wild mushrooms. Daniel eyes a tree and plunges off trail to get a closer look.

“This is really good tall tree to look at because it's half-dead, which is premium habitat for fall mushrooms,” Daniel says. “Should we poke around?”

“Let's do it,” Ross says. “Let's take a look.”

Daniel and Ross are native landscape specialists with the Missouri Department of Conservation, and they spend much of their free time hiking in the wild spaces around the metro.

North America is home to more than 10,000 varieties of mushrooms. More than 2,000 types are found in Missouri, where morels popping up in the springtime marks the beginning of the mushroom season. But in the fall a wide variety of wild, edible mushrooms start to appear beginning in late September.

For Daniel, a good tree is one that's recently died, either standing or on the forest floor, and with plenty of bark left on the trunk. This environment is perfect for young mushrooms to grow.

“Well, here’s some beautiful … they could be turkey tails or false turkey tails,” Daniel says, holding up a mushroom. “These are really common mushrooms you can find even when it's really dry!”

Daniel says turkey tails are technically edible, but mostly used in folk medicine and brewed in teas. Daniel says mushrooms need moisture to fruit, and lately we haven’t had enough rain.

“If we had a nice day, or two days, of rain we could come back out here and probably see a lot of these mushrooms pop up, but it's just been dry for so long,” Daniel says wistfully.

Daniel is vice president of the Kansas City chapter of the Missouri Mycological Society, and for the past decade she’s been combing the forest floors for edible mushrooms.

“This time of year we're looking for our fall mushrooms, and a lot of those are going to be found at the base of dead or dying hardwood trees,” Daniel explains. “The reason that we've come here to Hidden Valley is because this is a really nicely preserved forest in Kansas City that has a lot of really mature, hardwood trees and a nice biodiversity.”

Daniel says cooler autumn temperatures bring out interesting, edible varieties like puffballs, lion’s mane, oysters and chicken of the woods.

“A lot of the mushrooms of this time of year are bright white or orange, so we’re kind of looking for flashes of white and orange,” Daniel says. That coloring adds to the challenge of finding these seasonal fungi, because they are often camouflaged by fallen leaves.

"The leaves can play tricks on you a lot," Daniel says.

As an experienced hunter, Daniel keeps track of the best spots on her phone. Whenever she sees a dead tree with potential she places a pin on her trail map so she can revisit the spot when conditions are promising.

“So on my map here, I've got chicken of the woods, I think, and some oysters,” Daniel says. “So we're going to make our way towards those and I think we’re going to go down the yellow trail.”

Daniel says learning how to hunt safely takes time. Before eating anything they've found, experienced and new hunters alike should be positive they have a safe, edible mushroom that's cooked thoroughly.

Bringing a wooden basket is essential for Daniel, who says carrying mushrooms in it helps spread spores among the dead trees on the trail. Baskets also help keep her finds fresh, and from being crushed in a backpack.

When hunting for mushrooms, canning up and down is key. Ross examines a large log as Daniel searches for mushrooms like lion’s mane that grow high up on recently-dead trees.
Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
When hunting for mushrooms, scanning up and down is key. Ross examines a large log as Daniel searches for mushrooms like lion’s mane that grow high-up on recently-dead trees.

“The whole point of mushrooms being delicious is so that mammals will pick them, eat them, and carry their spores around, and that's what we're doing,” Daniel explains. “We forage with wooden baskets like this because it lets the mushroom spores fall out between the slats and make their way around the forest.”

Ross has been hunting mushrooms for a couple years now, but she still considers herself a novice, so she likes to hike with more experienced foragers.

“What I try to do is pay attention to the weather,” Ross says, recounting a few of the important lessons she’s learned so far. “If it's really dry out there, you probably won't find a whole lot. Also, you really want to use your senses — but mostly sight. You want to be looking down, kind of, scanning up.”

Mushroom hunters are notoriously secretive about where they hunt. According to etiquette, if someone takes you to their special hunting grounds, it’s best not to go back without asking them first. Some public parks discourage foraging, so it’s a good idea to check the rules before heading out.

Recently Daniel found some oyster mushrooms fruiting in the crevice of a tree.
Alix Daniel
Missouri Department of Conservation
Daniel recently found these oyster mushrooms fruiting in the crevice of a tree.

For Ross, mushroom hunting is not just about finding mushrooms, it’s about getting outside and experiencing nature.

“It's fun when you're hiking in the woods, and the only sound you hear are birds and acorns falling,” Ross says.

And foraging has taught Ross to be a better steward of our natural spaces.

“This land is all of ours to share,” Ross says. “That's not just about people. So make sure you leave no trace, don't damage habitat, take only what you need and leave the rest for someone else or for wildlife. And have fun!”

Fall mushroom season runs through mid-December so Ross and Daniel say they’ll be hitting the trails again — once we get a little more rain.

Daniel will lead a Missouri Mycological Society mushroom-foraging foray at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 12 at Hidden Valley Park trail, 6524 N.E. Russell Rd., Kansas City, Missouri 64117.

Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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