James Nowak on mushroom hunting in the San Juans

James Nowak on mushroom hunting in the San Juans

The Pacific Northwest is home to some of the most abundant plethoras of mushroom species.

Those looking to learn more about mushrooms gathered on Lopez Hill as local mushroom expert and farmer James Nowak was their mushroom guide. The seminar was put on by the Lopez Island Library on Oct. 31.

“I’ve been mushroom hunting since I was a kid,” Nowak said. “But at one point I wanted to get even deeper into mycology.”

After making that decision, Nowak attended seminars put on by the world-renowned PNW mushroom hunter Paul Stamets, where he learned how to create mushroom cultures and clone mushrooms.

“It was all so fascinating to me,” he said.

He then began to grow his own mushrooms at home, beginning with the oyster mushroom, which he said is one of the easiest to maintain. Others, like morels, can be grown at home but the success rate is much lower.

As he picked up more and more knowledge on his mushroom journey, he eventually earned a spot on the board of directors for the Puget Sound Mycological Society and has over 10 years of experience as a guide. Once moving to the San Juans, he had to vacate his position, but he still runs his very own tours under his company Terra Fleurs.

Nowak also has since started a truffle orchard and will be giving truffle tours in mid-January.

With his experience giving tours, he is familiar with the sense of intimidation that newbie mushroom hunters may feel after being faced with so many varieties of wild mushroom species.

To ease that fear and ensure a better sense of safety while hunting, Nowak recommends starting out with one to a few different kinds of mushroom species to focus on until one becomes very comfortable with identifying their characteristics.

The terrain and climate of the San Juan Islands, while still in Western Washington, makes for a different variety of mushrooms than found on the mainland, Nowak said.

“The islands have more pasture and less extensive forests, so there is less diversification. Not nearly as much habitat,” he said, as much of it has been logged off.

In his time on the islands, he has only come across chanterelles once. If you’re looking to hunt for some white or golden chanterelles, Nowak suggests going to the mainland.

Despite having a lack of certain mushrooms, there are still many edible varieties to be found in the islands.

One of the most common according to Nowak is the horse mushroom, which coined its name due to the fact that it is often found near horse pastures. It is also sometimes called the anise mushroom due to its distinct anise-like smell. While this mushroom is abundant in the islands, it is becoming harder to find elsewhere due to habitat loss.

One mushroom to be aware of that appears to be nearly identical to the horse mushroom, but is not edible, is the yellow stainer. This can easily be identified by checking whether or not the base of the mushroom turns yellow when bruised.

Fairy ring mushrooms are also very common on the islands, he said. These are also commonly found in pastures, and although small, often grow in large groups. He described these mushrooms as having a nutty flavor and he enjoys them in dishes such as ravioli.

One of the most prized mushrooms, boasting brain-boosting qualities, is the lion’s mane, which Nowak has found on Lopez Hill.

Turkey tails can also be found in the islands and Nowak’s favorite and easiest way to enjoy them is by boiling them to make tea. This mushroom resembles the vibrant pattern of a turkey’s tail and is found on decaying wood. It offers many cancer-fighting properties.

Witches butter is a unique jelly fungus that can also be found on decaying logs around the island. It is bright orange in color and easily scooped off of its host wood. This jelly fungus can be added to salads or created into a jam. It has historically been used in traditional Chinese medicine to aid lung health.

There are many shaggy manes to be found on the islands, which Novak said is a tasty yet undervalued edible.

While white and gold chanterelles are not usually found here, the winter chanterelle variety is fairly common. It can be identified by its bright orange color and bell-like indent in the top of the cap.

Other commonly found edible mushrooms in the islands include oyster mushrooms, shrimp russellas, boletes, turkey tails, cauliflower mushrooms, blewits, morels, and lobster mushrooms.

When hunting, Nowak recommends gently brushing off each mushroom before placing it in your bag or container to keep them clean.

While insects seem to enjoy mushrooms just as much as humans do, to clean them out, place the mushrooms in a solution of salt and/or white vinegar and warm water. This will evict any tiny creatures that make themselves at home inside of the mushroom- just in case you don’t want any extra mystery protein in your dinner.

“Don’t wash them until you’re ready to cook them. Store them in a brown paper bag in the fridge,” Nowak said as storing them in plastic causes the mushrooms to go bad faster. “They’re still alive and they breathe oxygen, so just imagine if you were in a refrigerator wrapped in plastic. Wouldn’t be fun. So they need to breathe!” he exclaimed.

While becoming experienced in mushroom hunting takes time, patience, and caution, Nowak said it is well worth it.

He suggests joining the Puget Sound Mycological Society which has meetings once a month in Seattle, where personal mushrooms can also be brought in for professionals to ID. The meetings offer guides to hunting along with help with making spore prints.

Another source Nowak recommends, which he contributes much of his success to, is Paul Stamets. He has many youtube videos, seminars, and books available, his most popular one being Mycelium Running which was published in 2005.

“My favorite mushroom is whatever one is being served for dinner,” Nowak laughed. “Mushrooms reap so many benefits and there are so many to be found here.”

Nowak’s oyster mushroom kit recipe:

Ingredients: Four cups of Yesterday’s News, a recycled newspaper product made for cat litter. This works as a carbon source and can be found at animal supply stores. One cup of rabbit food or alfalfa pellets to work as a nitrogen source. Oyster mushroom grain spawn. Any variety works, but blue is considered the easiest. Nowak recommends purchasing from Northwest Mycological Consultants based in Eugene, OR. Four cups of hot water.

Instructions: Mix the carbon source, nitrogen source, and water in a bowl. Let it sit for 15 minutes. Then, add the oyster grain spawn. Mix again. Pack the mixture into a plastic bag, such as a plastic produce bag. Tie the bag into a knot and puncture six to eight holes in the surface. Set the bag in a warm spot for one month. After one month, move the mushroom log to a cool space. This can be indoors or outdoors and the mushrooms should begin to quickly grow. Spray the mushrooms with water daily and eat them when they are mature.

The mushroom log can be used for up to 18 months if properly cared for. Once mushrooms no longer appear, it is time to compost it.

Sienna Boucher// staff photo.
Poisonous sulfur caps.

Sienna Boucher// staff photo. Poisonous sulfur caps.

Sienna Boucher//staff photo.
Holding a chanterelle (photo not taken on San Juan Island).

Sienna Boucher//staff photo. Holding a chanterelle (photo not taken on San Juan Island).