It’s fall, and the perennial argument is raging in my various Facebook groups, forums, and other venues dedicated to mushroom hunting: when you find a delectable edible mushroom, are you supposed to pull it up, or must you cut it at ground (or rotting wood) level? I’m not sure where the argument first arose, but it’s possibly one of the most controversial tempests in a teapot in the foraging community.
I know that everyone wants to make sure their favorite patches of chanterelles and morels and chicken of the woods keep producing healthy harvests year after year. So it may seem exceptionally important to determine whether you really do need to pull or cut mushrooms that you find. After all, making the wrong choice could lead to diminished returns in the future, not just for mushroom hunters, but for the fungi that are trying to get their spores sent out into the world. But there doesn’t seem to be a clear consensus, at least not compared to something like “Is it safe to eat death cap mushrooms?”, given how the debate continues today. Therefore, allow me to weigh in on the matter for the benefit of my readers (and, perhaps, to keep the debate as fresh as those oyster mushrooms you just brought home!)
Are Mushrooms Like Plants?
First, let’s look at the anatomy of a mushroom (thanks to What You Need to Know About Nature for use of the diagram to the left!) The part of the fungus that we think of as a mushroom is simply its (usually) temporary reproductive structure. It pops up when the season and conditions are right, spreads the spores with their valuable genetic material, and then decays back into the soil after a few weeks. The main body of the fungus, the mycelium, persists year-round. It consists of a network of fine filaments called hyphae that permeate whatever substrate that particular species of fungus likes, whether soil, rotting wood, manure, etc. Most people never see the mycelium unless they’re digging in soil or break open a decaying log–or happen across moldy food in the fridge.
So keep in mind that the mushroom is temporary, whereas mycelium is forever (or at least persists for the life of the fungus.) Another important point is that fungi are not plants. They are their own kingdom, and they’re actually more closely related to animals than to plants. That doesn’t mean they behave more like us, though. We, of course, have very permanent reproductive structures, and we have a single sexual reproductive cycle, as opposed to the fungi’s separate sexual and asexual cycles.
The idea that you should never, ever pull up a mushroom seems to be a misunderstanding of fungal anatomy. Many people assume that because mushrooms pop out of the ground like plants, that means that like plants if you remove the whole mushroom you’re killing the entire fungus. While that certainly happens when many plants are uprooted (assuming you aren’t leaving behind runners or root fragments that can regenerate), you’re still leaving the bulk of the fungus in the ground, albeit without its spore-producing mushroom. The mycelium will continue to produce mushrooms for the duration of the fruiting season even if you pull up every single mushroom you find with your bare hands. In fact, leaving the broken stump of the mushroom’s stipe behind not only deprives you of another bite or three of tasty mushroom, but it can also leave the fungus vulnerable to diseases as it creates a much larger open wound that’s exposed to the air. Moreover, that stump isn’t going produce another mushroom in the way that a severed plant’s stem might regenerate; rather, it’s sort of a single-use structure that’s going to rot away after you leave it.
What about long-term effects? Does pulling or cutting mushrooms affect whether the fungus will produce more or fewer mushrooms in the future? Well, several studies, some stretching over decades, demonstrate that it really doesn’t matter either way. In fact, most of the time both pulled and cut patches performed the same year after year, with only a somewhat larger harvest in pulled patches in a minority of cases. Remember that correlation doesn’t automatically prove causation, and there may have been a confounding variable at play.
And the Winner in the Great “Pull or Cut Mushrooms” Debate Is…
Given all of the above, it seems like the answer is: it doesn’t matter (mostly.) Neither cutting nor pulling seem to have a significant affect on the fungus’ ability to produce mushrooms in the future. If you want to give your favorite fungi an extra edge, it looks like pulling might be a little more advantageous due to both the disease transmission potential of cutting, and the study showing a larger yield in pulled patches. Otherwise, feel free to pull or cut mushrooms, whichever you prefer.
The one caveat is that any area that is heavily harvested year after year is much less likely to produce more mushrooms in the future. This isn’t because removing the mushrooms themselves makes the existing mycelium less likely to produce mushrooms in the future. Rather, it has to do with the continuation of new generations. As existing patches of mycelium run out of nutrients or die of other causes, those that were heavily harvested had fewer spores to continue their genetic lineages in the same area. Remember that every mushroom you take out of its ecosystem is one less mushroom producing spores for its entire natural existence. This is why I teach my foraging classes to not take more than 25% of a particular species from a given area; yes, it’s more conservative than what some other people say, but I am thinking not just of other mushroom hunters who may frequent the same patch, but also the fungus’ need to successfully reproduce. It’s also why I urge students to carry their finds home in mesh bags rather than buckets, as the mesh allows the spores to drop out onto the ground as the forager walks around.
So there you have it: one more hat thrown into the controversial ring of “should I pull or cut mushrooms?” What are your thoughts on the matter?