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This park is full of edible mushrooms. I foraged for some and didn’t die—or trip

a white man's tattooed forearm is seeing holding a large, dirt-encrusted purple mushroom in a forest
After all this rain, McLaren Park is full of mushrooms—but a bit of expertise is required to properly identify specimens like this edible blewit. | Source: Astrid Kane/The Standard

At some point during the past few weeks of storms, an inundated San Francisco rocketed from below-average rainfall to more than 120% of late February’s typical totals—and the Fungi Kingdom has gotten the waterlogged memo. 

A mushroom whisperer or two had let me know that McLaren Park, the city’s second-largest open space, was currently filled with numerous species, from the toxic to the tasty. I hadn’t eaten a meal that I’d caught or captured in the wild since I went salmon fishing years ago, so I decided to forage for some. After all, chinook put up a fight, but toadstools are bewitching.

In theory, the best place to find mushrooms is at the base of pines and live oaks. Earthy, fragrant chanterelles are already out of season, but dangerous varieties of laccaria (known as “the deceiver”) remain abundant. Locating them is relatively easy, but for a novice whose primary goal is living to tell the tale, positive identification is the stickier wicket. 

As they say, every mushroom is edible—once. Not looking for a kidney transplant, I enlisted two experts: Ryan Shelton and Christine Hirtzel, the chef-owner and general manager of Merchant Roots, a high-concept restaurant in the Fillmore District whose multicourse tasting menus frequently make use of foraging.

a large, white mushroom with brown markings sits half in shade
What looked like it could have been a deadly amanita turned out to be nothing more than a harmless shaggy parasol. | Source: Astrid Kane/The Standard

Most accomplished mushroom hunters, it turns out, are like magicians, unwilling to give up the secrets of the trade. Worse, a lot of McLaren Park’s trees, like the Monterey cypress and the eucalyptus, aren’t native to San Francisco proper, which means they can’t form strong mycorrhizal relationships, those spooky, shroomy fiber-optic conduits between life and death, beneath our feet. 

As it happens, Merchant Roots’ current menu is Into the Forest, a 17-course experience centered on mushrooms. So I was lucky to have trusty guides in Shelton and Hirtzel—along with Miles the labradoodle—to differentiate between delicious and deadly. 

fringed yellow-and-brown mushrooms grow on on a log surrounded by leaves
Turkey tails are among the easiest to spot. | Source: Astrid Kane/The Standard

There is certainly treasure to be claimed by those who stare at the ground. Shelton named a well-known San Francisco chef who claimed to have walked out of the Presidio with a 20-pound sack of porcinis.

“Porcinis are over,” Shelton said. He was of course adjudicating the season, not sneering at their faded glamour. “But if I found anything that awesome, I would have to think about putting it on the menu.”

a ridged, orange-brown mushroom pokes out of a forest floor with a dog out of focus in the background
Miles the labradoodle gave a wide berth to this false chanterelle—a toxic near-lookalike to its more famous, highly prized cousin. | Source: Astrid Kane/The Standard

We really shouldn’t have been doing this

I’m no one’s idea of a delicate forest nymph, and I kept imagining that I was crushing fragile morels underfoot as we traipsed around the muddy, seeping hillsides near the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater. Shelton was outright skeptical that we would find any mushrooms at all. Instead, he was on the hunt for nasturtiums, miner’s lettuce and geraniums, any of which could end up on a plate at the restaurant. 

It’s too early in the year for miner’s lettuce. We didn’t find the right geraniums, either, nor were there any nasturtiums, with their lilypad-like leaves and happy yellow flowers. Oxalis, also known as wood sorrel or sourgrass, is threatening to swallow the Bay Area whole. We found plenty of that. 

golden-colored coral mushrooms grow in patches on a forest floor
Coral mushrooms, too small to harvest but still edible, grow in patches in McLaren Park. | Source: Astrid Kane/The Standard

Over the course of two hours, we stumbled on lots of mushrooms, ranging from a common and poisonous species of rubella to some utterly inoffensive rustgills. Several logs were studded with multicolored turkey tails, which have a cardboard-y texture and alleged breath-freshening properties. 

A few specimens were worth rooting out of the pine needles with car keys, tentatively analyzing with an app called Picture This and thumbing through Shelton’s hard copy of Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast by Noah Siegel for more detail. As with a certain Super Bowl, initial triumph gave way to last-second defeat: A yellow-orange chanterelle, shaped like an old-timey gramophone trumpet, turned out to be a false chanterelle, according to Shelton.

a green hillside with an urban area in the background and a sky with many cumulous clouds
The south-facing slopes of McLaren Park, San Francisco's second-largest open space, are especially green after all the rain. | Source: Astrid Kane/The Standard

Giddiness can also lead to dismay in a different, almost perverse way. What we thought might be a partially decomposed death cap specimen—ooh, an ultra-deadly one, cool!—turned out to be a mere shaggy parasol. Shelton read its description aloud.

“It has a tendency to cause allergic reactions,” the book said. “It looks too much like the deadly amanita to eat.” 

We didn’t find anything psychoactive, but we traded war stories about our own experiences, musing about what decriminalization of naturally occurring psychedelics might someday mean.

“We should have a supplement on our menu,” Hirtzel said. “Donations accepted for psilocybin.”

a bearded white middle-aged man in jeans and a red cap leafs through a book in the woods, with a bag to his left and mushrooms growing in the foreground
To properly identify what we found, chef Ryan Shelton consulted an app as well as a hard copy of a foraging guide. | Source: Astrid Kane/The Standard

I picked up some pearls of mycological wisdom. For example, “edible” and “delicious” are not necessarily the same thing. Experienced foragers also say not to eat a single mushroom, but find five of the same species and try them together. And the full effects of consuming many common Northern California species are not well understood. If it’s bitter or metallic or “poopy,” you probably don’t want to swallow it.

“You can taste every mushroom, even the ones that will kill you,” Shelton reassured us. “You can put every mushroom in your mouth.”

You can. But also, thou shalt not.

“Don’t forage for mushrooms in our parks,” warned Tamara Aparton, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, when I inquired about the legality of my new pastime. “It’s against the park code, but more importantly, it can be deadly. Always assume wild mushrooms are poisonous unless examined and identified by an expert.”

We found ’em and then I ate ’em

An hour in, we encountered the makings of a fairy ring, four mushrooms sprouting in a sequence like holes in a rotary phone dial. We also happened upon pale-yellow coral mushrooms, too small to collect, and some frightening black ones that looked as though they’d been flash-incinerated. We didn’t find any matsutakes, Shelton’s favorites, which he described as having a forest dew characteristic. 

two small mushrooms and one large mushroom growing out of forest clutter
Three of the five blewits we found grew in a cluster inside a toppled redwood's stump. | Source: Astrid Kane/The Standard

But then we found them: a cluster of ethereal, lilac-colored ghosts. They were growing out of—or into, really—a niche in a toppled redwood, full of those aromatic schmutz deposits that rain out of the redwood canopy. Another had fused with a fistful of crud, a thin branch growing out of it, like an “arrow through the head” gag. 

Shelton said they were blewits, The app said they were blewits. The book said they were blewits. Shelton texted an expert friend for added confirmation: blewits!

“I’ve been very proven wrong,” he said, cradling our score. “It’s not even bug-eaten or anything. Redwood trees are magical!”

sliced and whole purple mushrooms on a cutting board
Once cleaned off, the five blewits' gills looked even more purple. | Source: Astrid Kane/The Standard

He put them in a box for me, encouraging me to clean them off with a toothbrush and sauté them with butter and garlic to make pasta. Which is exactly what I did, giving them a rinse before slicing them up and throwing them into an iron skillet and serving them as a side dish with pork loin and kale.

Cooking leached out most of the beautiful purple color, and they tasted generically mushroom-y, but my fiancé and I agreed that the texture was very pleasant, firm but not chewy. 

a plate of spaghetti with blewits, and pork loin and kale in the background.
The cooking process dulled the blewits' lovely purple hue, but they still make a nice spaghetti dish. | Source: Astrid Kane/The Standard

I had exactly one demented thought: What if the blewits were like cordyceps in The Last of Us, and now my captive brain is being reprogrammed to spread the gospel of mushroom foraging, so they can propagate through humans and take over the world? Fairly certain we would survive, I went to bed and slept great, with no demonic dreams. Here is the proof that I lived to tell about it, unwittingly zombified or not.

Astrid Kane can be reached at