July–August 2021


The Friendly Forager

Ariel Bonkoski taught herself how to ID mushrooms. Now she helps others do the same.

Chris Niskanen

Ariel Bonkoski and her husband were on their honeymoon on the North Shore of Lake Superior when she found a lobster mushroom and wanted to eat it. He suggested they buy a guidebook and make sure it was, indeed, a lobster mushroom. Bonkoski’s identification was spot on—they sauteed the ’shroom in butter—and today she helps people identify mushrooms from around the world. When the Duluth-based, self-taught wild mushroom expert isn’t in the woods searching for wild mushrooms, you’ll find her on Facebook, providing advice and encouragement to other foragers who visit the 31 different Facebook forums that Bonkoski manages or helps with. Growing up in Forest Lake and playing sports, Bonkoski didn’t discover her love of nature or mushrooms until she was an adult. Late summer is prime for Minnesota mushroom foraging, a time when you can find species such as Laetiporus sulphureus (chicken of the woods), Cantharellus (chanterelles), and Pleurotus ostreatus (oyster mushrooms). Bonkoski says you can find edible mushrooms in the state well into October. 

Q | Did you learn mushroom identification entirely on your own?
It was all learning on my own and walking around in the woods. If you follow Facebook groups intently, you will see a lot of mushrooms commonly posted to the groups. I started playing a game with myself. People would post a mushroom and I’d go to my guidebook and try to identify the mushroom without looking at the other comments people had posted. Once I found an ID, I would then open the comments and see what other people suggested. That’s how I built my identification skills.

Q | Can you guess the number of species you’ve found and identified?
I’ve found maybe 500 to 700 species, in that range.

Q | What mushroom books are on your bookshelf? 
I have a lot of books, but here are my favorites that I commonly use. The first one is North American Mushrooms by Dr. Orson K. Miller Jr. and Hope H. Miller. I recently got Boletes of Eastern North America by Alan Bessette, William Roody, and Arleen Bessette. That is a fantastic book. And I have Mushrooms of the Midwest by Michael Kuo and Andrew Methven. 

Q | When you ID mushrooms for people on Facebook, why do you always use the mushroom’s Latin name?
People like to use common names, but the problem is common names can change from book to book, from region to region, and country to country. Common names aren’t always accurate. The Latin name is the most accurate name.

Q | Did the pandemic spur interest in mushroom foraging?
There was definitely a huge surge of interest. I was asked to help with the admin of these Facebook mushroom groups because a lot of these groups saw such an increase [in participation]. They needed more people on the admin teams to help keep things running smoothly. 

Q |  Is that a good thing?
Yes, I think it’s great. I wish more people were interested in nature so we could all learn to respect nature more. 

Q | Why has Facebook become a popular forum for identifying mushrooms? 
It’s very easy to use and accessible. What I really appreciate about Facebook groups is you can interact with experts. People can ask questions and interact with people who know what they are doing. 

Q | What’s your favorite month to hunt for mushrooms?
My favorite time is the first week of August. There are a lot of good edibles out. I go camping that week every year, and the amount of edible mushrooms [I find] during that week is fantastic. 

Q | Do you have a favorite species?
My favorite edible is Hericium coralloides. It’s a relative to the lion’s mane mushroom. It looks really goofy and they have a good taste. I make imitation crabcakes with them and they are delicious.

Q | Any tips for newbie mushroom foragers? 
If you come to an identification, use multiple sources to confirm it and have someone who is knowledgeable also confirm it for you. That’s when the Facebook groups become really useful. People say, “I think this is what I have.” I love seeing people who have done a bit of homework before posting.

Q | What do you take into the field for mushroom foraging?
I always take a backpack. I fill it with empty grocery bags. I have a mushroom knife with a brush on the end—it’s really handy to brush debris off the mushroom, and it saves time on cleaning later. I bring water, and I have a little hatchet [for] if I find chaga. You always have to bring that bug spray.

Q | What’s better, the cut or the pull method for harvesting mushrooms?
That is a big issue—should I cut the mushroom and leave the base or can I pull it? The answer is, it does not matter and does not affect future growth, as long as you’re not damaging the surrounding environment.