The fungus among us: The Mycological Society of Toronto helps foragers unearth some of nature’s most mysterious organisms — and foods
One may not think of an urban centre as having much to offer fungi enthusiasts, but Toronto’s natural spaces are a smorgasbord for amateur mycologists.
“An arcane combination of art and science” — as Sheila Mazur puts it — “there is so much mythology, folk wisdom and also really crunchy scientific research that revolves around mushrooms and fungi.” And for the Mycological Society of Toronto (MST) — of which Mazur is president — the 500 species found in Toronto’s backyards, gardens, fields, meadows, parks, wooded areas and ravines hold countless possibilities. (Expand the search to include all of Ontario and the number of macrofungi species jumps to 5,000.)
Founded in 1973, the MST has more than 1,100 members worldwide. The group meets for excursions as far away as Barrie and Muskoka. Pre-pandemic, it hosted speakers on such subjects as women in mycology, fungi-animal connections and unusual finds from eastern Ontario. It also held twice-annual dinners serving — you guessed it — mushrooms (with plans to start back up). The group is busy this time of year, as fall and spring are the prime seasons for foraging. On the MST’s active Facebook page, members help one another identify their finds.
In addition to participating in group forays, Mazur ventures out on her own to wooded areas near her Oshawa home to look for mushrooms. Although they can be found all over Toronto (good spots within the city, Mazur says, include the forested areas in the Don Valley and the Brickworks), downtown resident and MST member Kathy Vatcher notes that it’s illegal to pick mushrooms in municipal, provincial or national parks.
Mycology (the study of fungi) is a great hobby, Mazur says, because it can be whatever you want it to be. “You can forage as a foodie, you can focus on the science of these amazing organisms, or you can expand your knowledge of your local area and get connected with the natural world,” she says. “There’s no wrong way to do hobby mycology.”
With growing interest in sustainability, self-reliance and local food movements, “foraging has become massively popular,” says MST member Andrew Mavor. Mushrooms, he says, “are one of the true culinary treasures of the world. They are here for a minute, perfect, then gone. You need to go to the wild to find them and they carry mystery. Even as you learn more, they can always surprise you.”
“It’s so satisfying to find food in the wild,” says MST member and naturopathic doctor Sarah White, who has found chanterelles and hen of the woods near her Etobicoke home. “It feels like a little gift from the forest, and food always tastes better when there’s a story associated with it. There’s nothing tastier than fresh mushrooms after a long walk in the woods.”
Between April and November, Mavor goes foraging three or four times a week in the area between Lake Huron, the tip of southern Ontario and the Kawarthas, targeting about 20 different species for use in sauces or braises. Although he’s owned two award-winning restaurants in Victoria and currently teaches culinary arts in the Stratford area, he picks only for himself. “Many years, people get seriously ill (from eating mushrooms),” he says, “and some have died.”
Mazur notes that there are at least a dozen toxic mushrooms found in the Toronto area. “If I am in any doubt, I pass,” she says. “It’s not worth getting sick just to try to stroke your ego and prove that you were able to find a mushroom to eat.” Some non-poisonous mushrooms have been known to cause gastric upset among certain individuals.
Mavor says it’s because of these risks that mushrooms, despite their value, are a bad business to get into casually. “There isn’t really space for amateurs in the commercial or retail side,” he says. “It’s risky, and most people probably can’t afford the insurance or the time needed to become adept enough.”
Many amateurs are introduced to mycology by foraging mushrooms for food, Mazur says, but the science is equally fascinating. Vatcher, who loves to find and cook choice wild edibles, is also interested in how fungal networks can save the planet, clean toxins, break down waste and heal ailments.
White has recommended medicinal mushrooms to her patients for various health conditions. Reishi, for example, can reduce inflammation and improve mood and energy; cordyceps may improve athletic performance and immunity; and chaga may lower blood pressure and levels of bad cholesterol. Some studies have uncovered the medicinal properties of mushrooms and have found connections between their high polysaccharide content and their ability to support the immune system, wound healing, and digestive and mental health.
“Mushrooms are so fascinating in the sense that they can feed you, heal you or even kill you,” White says.
Despite being gathered and used by humans since prehistoric times, there is still much to know about mushrooms. “The interesting thing about mycology,” Mazur says, “is that amateurs are just as likely to discover a new or previously unidentified species as much as a mycologist. The key is getting out there and learning.”
Five places to try Ontario-grown wild mushrooms
Not comfortable foraging for fungi yourself? Here are five local restaurants and businesses that do it for you.
Edulis, 169 Niagara Street
“Wild mushrooms are often the star of the show in our multi-course set menu.” — Tobey Nemeth, chef and owner, Edulis.