22 May 2024

'Just don't do it' doesn't work when it comes to foraging in Canberra

| Lucy Ridge
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A handful of orange mushrooms against a sunset and pine trees.

Saffron Milkcaps are a beginner friendly mushroom. Photo: Lucy Ridge.

When it comes to foraging in Canberra, especially when it comes to mushrooms, the official advice from ACT Health is pretty clear: Don’t do it.

But despite this hardline messaging, there’s a community of people who still enjoy looking for wild foods in the ACT. I’m one of them, and I reckon it’s time we rethink our fear of foraging.

I’ll start with the obvious disclaimer: this is an activity that can be dangerous. Severely toxic mushrooms like death caps grow in Canberra and even small amounts can cause serious illness or death, and other plants might be sprayed with toxic weed killers.

But there are also many benefits to foraging when done safely.

Government flyer in English and simplified Chinese that reads "wild mushrooms can kill you" with further text.

Government advice is to never eat wild mushrooms. Photo: ACT Government.

Foraging fosters a sense of curiosity about the natural world and increases connection to place and to the outdoors. I find that I am more aware of the weather and of the world around me, taking notice of ecosystems, trees and plant life.

I’ve recently been going for a walk especially to look for edible varieties of mushrooms.

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I counted more than 10 different types of mushroom in Haig Park yesterday after only half an hour of walking. The majority of these were toxic or unknown to me, so I let them be. But I enjoyed learning about them, photographing them and looking up their names. And there were a couple of varieties I felt confident to harvest, after first triple checking them in a reference book, comparing against photos online, and with a fellow amateur mycologist friend.

I am also a member of mushroom identification groups on social media, and there are apps that can offer guidance as well.

And I never eat a mushroom I am not 100 per cent sure of: better to leave an edible mushroom behind than eat a toxic one!

A book open to a page with different photos of mushrooms, and two mushrooms on top of the page for comparison.

Mushroom identification books like “Wild Mushrooming” by Alison Pouliot and Tom May (pictured) can help identify different kinds of mushrooms. Photo: Lucy Ridge.

Not only did I collect free ingredients for a tasty, nutritious meal, foraging is good for overall health. Spending time outdoors and connecting with nature has positive benefits associated with increased exercise as well as mental health benefits, and even improved sleep patterns.

Some doctors in the UK are now offering ‘green prescriptions’ to improve the health of their patients, and the Japanese concept of ‘forest bathing’ for meditation and health is also increasing in popularity, especially among office workers who are otherwise stuck indoors all day.

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Foraging has a long and important history, both in Australia and around the world.

Indigenous people are the world’s oldest foragers, although the impacts of colonisation and loss of traditional knowledge in Australia means that scientists are unsure of the toxicity of many native mushrooms. Most foragers look for introduced species like the beginner friendly saffron milkcap (lactarius deliciosus).

I would love to see the ACT Government take a similarly progressive attitude to foraging as they do to drug reform, acknowledging that no matter how often people are told ‘don’t do it’, some people will inevitably continue to partake. The pill testing site offers drug users a safer way to do so. A similar service for wild mushrooms could reduce the risks of foraging and introduce more people to this healthy, active, outdoor pastime.

Some European countries have licences for mushroom foraging which require a certain level of knowledge to attain, and in Switzerland people can take their haul to a pilzkontrollstellen (mushroom control point) for identification.

Takeaway containers of blackberries.

Blackberries are a favourite among Canberra foragers. Photo: Lucy Ridge.

At this time of year mushrooms are clearly on my mind, but there are so many other things to forage year round.

By picking blackberries in summer I am preventing seeds from this introduced pest spreading, so you could say I’m doing a public service: a sweet, delicious public service that tastes great with ice cream. But I’d love to see better communication from the government about weed spraying to know which areas have been affected in order to make this activity safer.

There are a myriad ways to connect with the natural world around you through foraging. Education and safety need to take priority, but when done right the results are delicious.

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Good article. I only pick saffron milk caps & slippery jacks. They only grow under pine trees and are both quiet distinctive & easy to identify.

And very tasty.

Mike Van Der Zwart6:42 am 28 May 24

My qualified mushroom gathering nieghbours used to Brag about the delicious safron mliky caps. I asked them to help me ID them and they obliged by picking some with me one day. They assured me they were safe,being sceptical even after confirming their identity multiple times I only ate 1 small one. I awoke at 3am thinking I was dying because I was so sick. Called poison info centre and family members to tell them what happened in case I die. Just buy them from the supermarket I say. Black berries ditto your local government weed sprayer does not put signs wherever he sprays and often the signs are placed where you will not see them until it’s too late. Blackberry is sprayed when it’s in flower so very hard to spot a sprayed plant as they hurry to develop fruit once sprayed. Do your research and you would stop foraging and start advocacy work for the prevention of Blackberry eradication programs that just don’t work and that poison the earth in so many ways. They have been spraying the same Blackberry for up to 70 years in some places ? They just don’t get it? Blackberry will not take over the world. Because eventually humans will develop it. Be safe.

davidmaywald10:00 am 27 May 24

Fantastic article, thank you Lucy and Riotact… Safetyism has been taken to extremes in the ACT, with an unhealthy degree of risk aversion.

I once went foraging in the pine forests for mushrooms and ended up getting abducted by aliens and taken to their planet and yes probed. When I came to, I had luckily been found by a couple of muscular forestry workers.

Wouldn’t advise eating blackberries either, especially around Canberra. Most in the creeks and parks are sprayed with herbicides and to kill them. More effectively most councils spray them in their most active growing phases (when they produce fruit).

Down at the beach, there’s signs on the foreshore saying “danger of drowning”. That’s because someone about 30 years ago found you can sue local governments for not warning you of things people previously regarded as common sense. So I’d prefer governments advise not to eat wild mushrooms. Even though it’s nanny stateish, it’s better that public funds aren’t wasted on paying out compensation to people who got it wrong.

What that tells me is we need to change the law here. People being able to sue the govt for drowning at a beach is just ridiculous. Kind of like if someone went bushwalking in the middle of nowhere and wanted to sue the govt because they weren’t looking ahead and walked right off a cliff. 🤦🏻‍♀️ We need more personal responsibility and less nanny-statism.

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