Somewhere in the woods of Southwest Virginia, there's an old swamp oak that provides the perfect habitat to a number of species of fungi. Last year I hit the forest in August, which turned out to be too late for a lot of my favorite, common edibles. This year, I started looking in June, and right at the beginning of July started to have some good rains and some good luck. We have three different types of chanterelles near this particular swamp oak, with another grouping of a different type of chanterelle beside an equally majestic red oak stand. This year I was also able to find Hydnum umbillicatum, a type of toothed fungi commonly known as "hedgehogs." Hegehogs are great for beginners since there are virtually no look-alikes, if you are paying close enough attention. Chanterelles of all kinds are also a good beginner mushroom, but you do have to pay some attention to texture, growing habits, and the undersides. I was able to find both golden (Cantharellus cibarius) and smooth chanterelles (C. lateritius), a few goldens beside the swamp oaks and a large patch of smooths beside the red oaks. It should be noted that chanterelles prefer flatter land within a few hundred feet of a creek or spring. I've also found that while they definitely grow near oaks, they don't seem to mind if pines are nearby, and in fact kind of enjoy this type of environment. Check known spots starting in mid to late June onwards about 2-3 days after a nice soaking rain. If the rain persists (at least 1-2 nice rains per week), the season can extend into September. The main look-alike for these types of chanterelles is the Jack-o-Lantern mushroom (Omphalotus illudens), which are different in that they: grow out of wood (which can be buried, making them appear to grow directly from the ground like chanterelles), form tight clusters (chanterelles can cluster but they usually only have 1-3 friends, and more often they grow as many individual mushrooms dotting the forest floor), and have true gills (chanterelles look a little like string cheese when pulled apart at the stem, as well as having false gills that do not have parallel lines but instead have a "veiny" appearance and flow right into the stem).
Near the hedgehogs and the swamp oak were Black Trumpets (Craterellus cornucopioides), aka Trumpets of Death, the most delicious mushroom in the states. They are fantastic fried in butter and garlic, or dried and fried in the depths of winter. All through the forest, growing near almost any of the oak trees and loving being beside the creeks, were cinnabar chanterelles (C. cibarius), the tiny bright red companion to the golden chanterelles. These do have a few look-alikes, but most of these are edible if not particularly delicious.
The final mushroom is the green cracking russula (Russula virescens), and it certainly has look-alikes but none that are green. If you stick with russulas that are green and green only on their tops, you are sure to be okay. Even better is if they have the "cracking" or "quilted" look to the color on the caps. Russulas are crumbly with white stems and gills. Russulas of all colors are eaten by bugs and squirrels very quickly after the fruiting bodies emerge, so you have to be faster than the forest to gather good quality edibles of these. They grow in all kinds of locations in the forest, and tolerate drier conditions than other mushrooms. I usually gather 1-2 from each section of forest, and then have to find more elsewhere since they don't tend to grow in dense groups the way chanterelles or hedgehogs do.
This foraging day in mid-July also brought me a few clusters of Clavaria zollingeri, the purple coral mushroom. While not edible (they cause gastric upset), they are certainly beautiful and striking in the woods.
This year I identified multiple destroying angels on the property (Amanita bisporigera), a species I didn't realize existed on the east coast but which definitely does. They prefer to grow in all-pine forests (like the white pine plantings encouraged by federal and state programs), though they will grow on the border between pine and hardwood stands. These fungi are the main reason that beginning mushroom foragers should be careful of any white, gilled mushrooms--kidney and/or liver failure is no joke.
In addition to the fungi, there were plenty of hickory nuts to gather (multiple Carya species, but I have not identified which they are), and a good amount of wineberries (Rubus phoenicolasius). While raspberries were early this year, wineberries were right on track, and peaked in mid July. Wild Rubus species are great beginner berries to gather since the look-alikes are not only edible, they are extremely delicious!
And to think that this was only two hours in the woods. Happy foraging, all.