Mushroom hunting, or more formally mushroom foraging, is an age-old practice, and even today in urban areas you will often see people out foraging for choice edibles. Being able to recognize the smells in the air, or knowing the right time of year or the necessary number of chilly dewy mornings for a flush of fresh sprouted mushrooms to naturally occur all lend to the wisdom passed down from generation to generation about how to forage for mushrooms. And with it came myths, rules of etiquette, and most importantly, a sense of wonder and mystery. Sometimes, the mystery isn’t where or whether you’ll find some magic fungi, but instead whether they might find you.
Mushrooms grow in a variety of climates and habitats. In this article, we’ll discuss key points such as how to identify the best climate in your region for mushroom foraging, ways to find out what magic mushrooms grow in your area, and hints on where to look. Mushroom hunting can be a rewarding and satisfying adventure, a time to meditate on your own or share a fun day with friends, with the bonus of coming home with a backpack or basket of fresh magic mushrooms.
You might be thinking to yourself, “I am new to mushrooms, and don’t know where to start,” or “I used to collect mushrooms in my old town, but I moved and don’t know the local species.” So perhaps you’re looking for advice on where mushrooms grow.
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If you live in a big city, chances are most of the magic mushrooms that you have access to have been grown indoors under artificial conditions, possibly with names such as B+, Penis Envy, Golden Teacher, or even just “Cubes” (a.k.a. Psilocybe cubensis). A key aspect to growing mushrooms is knowing about where the mushrooms grow naturally, reproducing the climate they like, and mimicking the substrate (their food source) on which they grow. P. cubensis, for example, are easy to cultivate because creating an artificially warm and humid environment is easy, while the substrate that supplies their nutrient needs can be made from ingredients that you can purchase in your local grocer. Many species, however, are difficult to cultivate because they need environmental triggers that are hard to replicate, such as an exceptionally cold climate or the presence of microbes in the soil to trigger their fruiting cycle.
Magic Mushroom Foraging Culture
There is a vibrant culture around hunting magic mushrooms. During the 1960s and 70s, resourceful university students and mushroom seekers realized that they didn’t have to travel to Mexico to find psilocybin, but that magic mushrooms grew in their own countries. The growing knowledge about where to find P. cubensis or P. semilanceata led to increasing numbers of counterculture youth wandering grasslands and pastures of North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia, head down bum in the air searching for magic fungi.
Contemporary magic mushroom foragers are armed with their smartphones, and thus quick access to a selection of Facebook ID groups or the Shroomery identification subforum, as well as—maybe—a copy of their local field guide stashed in their backpack.
There are some general rules when it comes to asking for information on some websites and Facebook groups, which include not asking for locations, in part because of the traditional secrecy of mushroom foragers (and families) having their unique spots. Some forums may not even allow people to ask to be shown spots.
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Many Psilocybe mushrooms, particularly the wood loving species, can look like any number of other Little Brown Mushrooms (LBM’s), some of which are deadly. It is therefore essential to know not only the species you are looking for, but also the poisonous species (including lookalikes) in your region.
For those who wish to research the genus Psilocybe a little deeper, Psilocybin Mushrooms of the World (Paul Stamets), The Genus Psilocybe (Gaston Guzman), and Magic Mushrooms Around the World (Jochen Gartz) are good places to start. More general mushroom identification books include the Field Guide to Mushrooms (edited by Gary Lincoff and published by the National Audubon Society), Mushrooms Demystified (David Aurora), and Mushrooms (Roger Phillips).
Where do Magic Mushrooms Grow: Climate and Habitat
Some good places to start foraging include cattle pastures on hot, humid summer days; tropical cloud forests; fields and grasslands on cool, moist fall mornings; or amongst woody debris on the edges of forests. Where and when mushrooms grow depend on the local climate and what habitats you have available. The eastern half of the United States consists of two broad climatic regions that can be further broken up into humid continental and humid subtropical. The range of P. cubensis in the United States fits neatly within the humid subtropical southeast part of the continent, from Florida and along the Gulf Coast, where it fruits virtually year-round on “cow pies.”
In contrast, the western half of the continent consists of arid and semiarid climates, with the west coast being classified as Mediterannean and Oceanic. The west coast is known for the fall fruiting wood lovers: P. azurescens, P. cyanescens, and P. allenii, which require cold nights and dewy mornings. The arid and semiarid regions generally have few Psilocybe species. A large part of Europe (including the UK), southeast Australia, and New Zealand are also classed as Oceanic, with the predominant species tending to be fall fruiting wood loving species.
Fungi grow in a variety of habitats, and magic mushrooms are most commonly found in dung deposits, grasslands, woodlands, gardens, and disturbed areas. P. cubensis and Panaeolus cyanescens are well known dung loving species. P. semilanceata grows in pasture, but is saprophytic and grows from decomposing grass. The wood lovers such as P. azurescens, P. cyanescens, and P. subaeruginosa, while originating on the edges of woodlands, have happily spread into gardens.
Psilocybe: A Global Genus
Fungi from the genus Psilocybe are found on all continents except Antarctica. Of these, Europe and the Americas are strongly represented. Psilocybe species are distributed across tropical, subtropical and temperate climates, with a large range of species in Latin America. Our knowledge of the distribution of many species may reflect the broader social interest per country and the levels of commitment to understanding their ecology.
Some species such as P. cubensis, Panaeolus cyanescens, and to a lesser degree P. semilanceata, have become truly global, having been introduced to many continents through the farming of different varieties of cattle. Although the holotype was collected from Cuba, Psilocybe cubensis is not native to the Americas, but an introduced species from India. It typically grows on cattle dung, but also known to grow on horse dung and elephant dung.
P. semilanceata, a.k.a. liberty caps, grow throughout Europe, fruit in fall and spring, and can also be found in temperate North America, Canada, and Tasmania. It has a rich history in European culture (including European mythology).
Tropical and subtropical species include P. cubensis, P. tampanensis (Magic Truffles, Philosopher’s Stone), Panaeolus cyanescens (Blue Meanies) otherwise known as Copelandia cyanescens, P. caerulescens (Landslide Mushrooms, Derrumbes), and P. mexicana (Teonanacatl, Pajaritos), which is well known from Carlos Casteneda’s fictional “Teachings of Don Juan”.
Well known temperate species include P. semilanceata (Liberty caps), P. ovoideocystidiata, Psilocybe caerulipes (Blue Foot Mushroom), and the Australian P. alutacea (Poo Meanie). The potent wood lovers, P. azurescens (Flying Saucers), P. cyanescens (Wavy caps), P. subaeruginosa (Subs), P. allenii, and P. stuntzii (Blue Ringer Mushroom, Stuntz’s Blue Legs), while being temperate species also favor an Oceanic climate. To identify which species grow in your area, this list from the Shroomery is a great resource.
There are a variety of citizen science projects that are publicly accessible with the intention to map all known fungi. Resources such as Mushroom Observer, iNaturalist, and GBIF (Global Biodiversity Information Facility) track fungi for research purposes. These sites can be a useful resource for identifying species in your region. Keep in mind most of the locations are obfuscated and serve as hints rather than specific locations. If you are mushroom hunting and taking photos of your finds, please consider contributing to iNaturalist.
Do Magic Mushrooms Grow in Poop? Do They Grow on Wood?
The main body of the mushroom is the mycelium; it lives underground within the substrate. The mushroom itself is the reproductive part of the fungus, ejecting sports (akin to seeds) into the air for dispersal. Fungi primarily eat inside out; they excrete enzymes (they slobber over everything!) into their environment to digest what is around them. Depending on the species of magic mushrooms, some enzymes can only break down simple compounds, while others can break down more complex compounds such as the lignins that are found within wood.
There are broadly three types of magic mushrooms: those that grow on wood or plant-based materials (saprophytic mushrooms), the poo lovers that grow on animal dung (coprophilous fungi), and those that grow on well decomposed plant matter that is almost soil (houmous). To clarify a note about the poo lovers: herbivore faeces, such as cow pats, contain grass and other plant matter, which has already gone through a long digestive process, leaving a substrate of very simple cellulose.
Looking for P. cubensis is a relatively straightforward process; they are a large mushroom, and visible from a distance. The hard part, as many an experienced picker will attest, is finding and picking them before others. P. semilanceata, on the other hand, can be challenging, not least because of many look-alikes growing in the same area, such as inactive Panaeolus, Mycena, or other LBM’s. Because they grow from rotting grass, they can be hard to spot unless their caps rise above the level of the grass.
The potent wood lovers, P. cyanescens (North America, Europe), P. subaeruginosa (Australia, New Zealand), P. azurescens, P. allenii (West Coast of the US) can grow off a variety of different types of wood. These Psilocybes are best found on the edge of forests, or trails, with their spores often hitchhiking on the boots and clothing of mushroom hunters. They also tend to be adventitious and known to have jumped from the wild into urban landscapes and gardens, growing on wood-chip mulches in temperate climates.
If you go foraging on private land, be aware of the risks that you may take. Essentially, jumping the fence without permission is trespassing: All experienced foragers (including myself) will have a story of jumping the fence only to find themselves confronted by a land-owner. Consider knocking on the farmer’s door to ask for permission (they will probably know what you are looking for, and appreciate the courtesy) with a bottle of wine, or a six-pack of beer. The owner may even offer some helpful advice; but there is nothing worse than jumping the fence to face an angry bull!
On the topic of etiquette, common informal rules include not taking the “pins” (the baby mushrooms which haven’t fully developed), and to only pick what you reasonably feel you will use, leaving some for others. There are also debates about whether to cut the mushroom at the base of the stem or to pull up the whole fruit body. While there is research to show that one is no better than the other, my feeling is to very gently remove the entire mushroom without disturbing the mycelium.
Hunting any fungi can be a rewarding experience, particularly in the case of magic mushrooms as it contributes to your set and setting, and a sense of connectedness to the experience. Best of luck with your mushroom hunting!
Caine Barlow is a Mycologist and Fungi Educator based in Melbourne, Australia. He gives regular talks on mycology, fungi conservation and teaches gourmet mushroom cultivation. He is member of the Australian organisations Entheogenesis Australis, The Australian Psychedelic Society, and MYCOmmunity Applied Mycology. He is a “Trusted Identifier” on The Shroomery and a moderator on many Australian facebook fungi groups.