“This is where I saw the fairy ring,” said my mushroom guide, Angel Schatz. We paused in the deep shade of a nature trail improbably located a mile from a busy Central Texas highway. For a minute the two of us scanned the drifts of brown leaves, hoping for a flash of lavender that would signal the presence of a mushroom I had not heard of until a week before: the wood blewit. Like many fungi, it often grows in a natural ring that ancient European cultures attributed to fairies, pixies, or elves. The wood blewit is a comely and hardy fungus that grows worldwide, including in Texas. More importantly for my immediate purposes, it is a tasty fungus. We scuffed up a few leaves. Nothing. Had the fairies spirited away their circle of magic mushrooms?

Actually, Mother Nature was the culprit. We had come to the right place: wood blewits can grow in almost any part of Texas that has hardwoods, especially oaks, or conifers, even popping up near a single tree or a small pile of wood mulch. But the weather wasn’t cooperating. These mushrooms prefer cool, damp conditions. Schatz had seen blewits on this spot on April 13, 2020—she calls it her “lucky thirteenth”—but the relatively warm conditions during our late-March hike were working against us.

Schatz, who serves as the volunteer communications coordinator for the Central Texas Mycological Society, set down the basket in which she had brought two key tools of the fungus collector’s arsenal: mesh produce bags and a special mushroom-foraging knife with a built-in brush. The first was to keep different species separate; the second was to deftly cut the stem of any specimen we found and thus avoid pulling up its mycelium. That huge, gauzy, underground mass of threadlike tissue is a mushroom’s life essence, and it can be ancient. Mushrooms pop up, spread their spores, and vanish. The mycelial network corresponds to a tree’s roots, branches, and trunk, and it goes on indefinitely.

Now that Schatz and I had given up the hunt, we sat down on a bench to talk mushrooms. I asked about her favorite tools. First, she said, she’s fond of the app iNaturalist, which offers possible species identifications based on any photo of a plant, animal, or fungus. Picture Mushroom is also good (it’s the same kind of tool, only just for mushrooms). For serious identification, she uses the field guide Mushrooms of the Gulf Coast States. Another helpful book, especially for East Texas, is Mushrooms of the Southeast. When a novice collector branches out, Mushrooms of North America, from the National Audubon Society, is essential. Unfortunately, the unmatched Texas Mushrooms: A Field Guide has long been out of print (Amazon listed a paperback for around $60, and a hardback was $900-plus).

As we talked, I had to admit that this wood blewit scavenger hunt was stirring up memories. Years ago I had briefly flirted with mushroom foraging, trudging around in the Sam Houston National Forest, in East Texas, on organized hunts and eating wild mushrooms in Mexico with a couple of crazy expat Canadians. Schatz’s enthusiasm was contagious; maybe it was time to revisit my old hobby.

Wood blewits didn’t officially enter the scientific literature until 1790, when they were described by a French mycologist. They are today designated Collybia nuda, although earlier names, such as Clitocybe nuda and Lepista nuda, are still in use, especially in Europe. Their common English name is even more puzzling. According to several sources, “blewit” is a contraction for the Old English “blue hat,” and in England, they’re nicknamed “blue foot.” Despite that, they are definitely purple when young, fading to tan in a few days. Their rakish caps measure up to 6 inches in diameter, and their stems can reach up to 3 inches in height (slim at the top, bulbous at the base). Their favorite growth medium is dead wood and leaves, which they help to decompose. Because they grow on and out of the earth, mushrooms in general were for many years grouped with plants, even though they do not carry out photosynthesis. Since 1969, however, they have occupied, along with molds and yeasts, their very own kingdom: fungi.

Schatz and I sat there for a while, as I grew hungrier by the minute now that I knew I wouldn’t be having blewits for lunch. I had been dying to try them myself because descriptions were all over the map, ranging from “mushroomy and lovely” to “delicate” to “acidic.” Many mentioned a subtle aroma reminiscent of lilacs, aniseed, or even frozen orange juice. “I take it you’ve eaten them before?” I asked. “Oh yes,” Schatz said. In her opinion, the taste is very nice, but not quite morel or chanterelle caliber. “I love to make breakfast tacos—scrambled eggs with a tart sauce like tomatillo with some jalapeño, a Oaxaca-style cheese, and avocado if I have one around,” she said. Because wood blewits have a fair amount of moisture, she begins by dry-sautéing the caps. That also softens the chitin, a substance in wild mushrooms that strengthens their cell walls and can be hard to digest when raw. To be honest, I was relieved to hear about the tacos. I had seen dozens of wild-mushroom recipes on sites like Forager Chef, and most of them seemed awfully ambitious. But a breakfast taco sounded hard to mess up.

As we gathered up our gear and started back to our cars, Schatz had a warning in case I went out on my own: do not confuse blewits with similar-looking purple corts, because some members of the genus Cortinarius have unpleasant digestive side effects. The easiest way to tell them apart is to make a spore print. Wood blewits have light pinkish spores; corts, brown ones. In addition, if you’re not an experienced collector, you should post pictures of your specimen on the Texas Mushroom Identification Facebook page. Experts check the pictures regularly at no charge and can advise if your future taco filling is safe. Even better, consider starting your foraging adventures by taking a class, such as one of many hosted by the group Foraging Texas. Never eat any wild plant or fungus if you aren’t certain about what it is.

By then we were back at the parking lot. “Can we give the wood blewits another try in the fall?” I asked Schatz. “Absolutely,” she said. And if I wanted to meet some like-minded people before then, she had a few suggestions. Her own Central Texas group is doing a major culinary event with superstar mushroom author Eugenia Bone on April 27. The North Texas Mycological Association will hold its annual MushFest May 17–19; and the Gulf South Mycological Society is planning day walks in East Texas and two Southern states a little later this year.  

Driving home, I was already thinking of field trips. I had a flashback—natural, not mushroom-induced—to the fungus foray I had gone on in the Sam Houston National Forest so many years ago. A couple dozen of us mushroom nerds spent the afternoon gathering (with official permission, of course) a cornucopia of strange and beautiful specimens: white, ocher, crimson, indigo; shaggy, silky, skinny, fat. By early evening, mushrooms were piling up as mycologists from different academic institutions wandered around, giddy over the possibility of new species. Yes, I thought, this could be the revival of a beautiful friendship.