Foraging fungi 101
The fear of poisonous mushrooms keeps many of us from harvesting this nutritious, beneficial, organic, and free, food source. David Whyte provides a guide on foraging four common edible fungi with the vitally important tips for identification.

David Whyte foraging and recording fungi under the oak trees at Eastwoodhill National Arboretum.

Fungi have come out from the gloom and starting to get the credit for the amazing life forms that they are. Part of this is an increased desire to forage and eat them. A noble goal.

But imagine you went to someone’s garden in an environment you were unfamiliar with, and didn’t recognize the plants. Every time you saw a new one, you asked: “Is this edible?” It would soon tire the host. Well, there are likely more fungi species in New Zealand than plant species. Just as edible plants are a minority, so are edible fungi.

The good news is that in urban or highly-modified environments there are likely more opportunities for foraging for the beginner than in indigenous forests.

Identification is very important, but one can start with the more unique fungi that are easily distinguishable and have few look-a-likes.

Fungi can be classified into different groups:

Edible fungi is self explanatory.

Inedible fungi, is not toxic, just unpleasant. Think of the crab apple, not toxic but inedible due to taste, textures, woodiness, etc.

Purging fungi, are those fungi that contain spores or other compounds that the body perceives as toxins. Thus the body will purge them. If one vomits or gets the runs after eating fungi, this is unlikely to be a fatal problem, as the body rids itself of the toxins.

Deadly fungi are the last group. These contain compounds that take out the liver or kidneys and the signs show up day(s) after eating – by which time the organs are failing. Which of course leads to serious consequences including death. Death caps, which are common in the warmer parts of New Zealand associating with oak trees, seem to drive most of these poisonings and fortunately only seem to occur every decade or so.

Wood ear / Hakeke / Auricularia cornea

A native species that love to grow on dead, native, pioneer, tree species. Are often found in parks and areas that were planted in natives a decade or two ago and are now dying off – search out those unkempt areas that were once neat gardens. They grow directly on the logs, branches, and stumps. Wood ear often fruit periodically from autumn to spring and, depending on the size of the log, can come back over multiple years. They can also be purchased online as a spore kit.

Wood ear at different stages of maturity.

I thinly slice and add to stir fries or Asian soups. They don’t have a strong taste and are added more for texture and therapeutic properties. Can be dried and re-hydrated before use, but I much prefer the fresh versions and, due to how common they are, I no longer preserve them.


Peziza species can look similar but there are two key differences. Peziza grow on mulch or on the soil-wood mixtures and very rarely directly on logs, whereas wood ear grows exclusively on solid wood (branches, logs, stumps etc.).


The second difference is that when slicing them open, fresh wood ear has two clear sides with a gel substance in the middle, whereas peziza species are solid all the way through.

Wine cap / Stropharia rugosoannulata

We have these growing wild all about our place. They love fresh mulch and as we spread fresh mulch, they magically appear. A wonderful surprise and something I would recommend for all folks who mulch. They can also be purchased as a spore kit from multiple suppliers.

Wine caps also love to grow in fresh council mulch and often fruit whenever there are warm heavy rains. A patch will run out over time unless fresh mulch is added.

With a pretty wine-coloured cap, they are a robust, large fungi, with one or two fitting in a hand. They can grow to dinner-plate sized, although are best eaten when smaller and less mature. There is not a bulb at the base and when picked often mycelium will still be attached to the bottom. This can be trimmed off with the dirty part of the fruiting body and placed into a suitable fresh mulch pile as a way of spreading the love. They have a ring on the stem, although this is loose and can be lost.

The spore color is a purple-black. This is different to the brown/dark-brown spores, and learning how to make a spore print is a great skill to have (and is easy to do). The gills will start a lighter colour before going purple-black too. Often the ring will also have a slight coating of these purple spores.

Eat them the same as you would shop-purchased button mushrooms is the best idea. Use in your classical mushroom recipes for a great dish.

Wine caps at different stages.

Puffball Bovista

Puffball Calvatia

Puffball Lycoperdon

Puffballs Pukurau / Tuutae-atua

Puffballs are the common name for the genus of Bovista, Calvatia, Lycoperdon and some other minor genu. They get the common name as they are somewhat spherical and when they are mature, they have openings in the top of them which emit a puff of spores when touched. If the puffball is white on the inside it is edible. Once the spores start to mature and it goes yellow, then eventually brown, they become inedible.

They come in a range of sizes, from small, like a macadamia nut, through to massive ones that can be mistaken for sheep (yet to see a giant puff ball in person!). They all have some kind of harder outer coating / shell and a softish inside. They can be spherical or more like a microphone shape with a ball shape on top and a column attaching itself to the ground. They may have a smooth outside, or may have tiny ‘crystals’ that when touched easily rub off, these type can be especially beautiful when young.

These are my favourite fungi to eat. They have a texture of marshmallow, but of course savoury. They will take on any flavours in the dish and can be added to any dish like you would any vegetable. So fried, boiled, sautéed, added to a sauce or soup - the list goes on.


For the beginner there are similar mushrooms which have serious consequences. Amanita species, when very young, can look like puffballs. This includes the fly agaric (our quintessential red toadstool with white spots – which isn’t deadly, just purgative if not prepared correctly) and the death cap which is so deadly just one mushroom is enough to kill an adult. Thus it is very important to cut each puff ball vertically. If it is solid inside with no gills, it’s an edible puffball. If it has cavities and a cap like structure, beware!

Death cap mushrooms when immature can be mistaken for a puffball, but dissection exposes the gills and cap more apparent when mature.

Birch Bolete / Leccinum scabrum

As the name suggests these associate with silver birch trees, in a symbiotic mycorrhizal relationship. They are found throughout NZ and considered a very worthwhile forage. Boletes are the group of fungi that are distinguishable as they have spongy material under the cap instead of gills. A birch bolete has a spotty stem and a chestnut brown cap, with typically a lighter-brown spore.

Birch Bolete

Check for a nearby birch tree if you find something that you think is a birch bolete. Roots don’t respect property boundaries, and travel further from a tree trunk than the tree is tall. However, I typically find boletes within the drip line.


Boletes are mutualistic fungi. Different species associate with the roots of different tree species, giving and taking nutrients. The host tree is the easiest identifying factor. Pine and larch boletes (Suillus) are edible but have a slimy cap which is not pleasant and acts as a purgative.

Another distinguishing feature is colour. If they have red (toxic) or bruise blue they are not birch boletes though sometimes, confusingly, birch boletes may bruise a blue-green at the base of the stem.