In March 2020, about 250 people belonged to the Mycological Association of Washington DC — a local group whose mission essentially boils down to having fun with fungi. Now, membership has spiked to three times that number, says club president William Needham. While the group’s events once attracted 10 people, these days there’s almost always a wait list of 50 or so hopeful mycologists.

“We’ve noticed a very significant increase in interest,” Needham says. During the pandemic, as Washingtonians picked up new hobbies, many got into mycology (the scientific study of fungi) and foraging (gathering wild, edible foods near home). Needham encourages those who are interested to join MAW or seek out another way to learn with others. “It’s one of the more challenging areas to break into on your own,” he says — guidebooks that help identify mushrooms, for example, can be tough to decipher. “I don’t think it’s easy to get going without having a club or somebody you can go out with.”

Here are four ways to learn about fungi and foraging in the Washington area.

Join the Mycological Association of Washington DC

On a recent Saturday at Lake Needwood in Montgomery County, about 35 people showed up for a mushroom foray led by Needham. Afterward, club members spread out their finds, covering three picnic tables. It was a productive outing, Needham says; he stuck around for two hours to help budding mycologists identify the fungi they had found. “I think we taught a lot of people an awful lot of new things,” he says.

MAW holds at least a dozen mushroom forays each year at local parks, which are typically scheduled on short notice. (Advance registration is required, though attendance is free.) Some of the group’s usual destinations include Rock Creek Park in the District, Greenbelt Park in Prince George’s County and parks and forests in Front Royal, Va., as well as southern Pennsylvania. “Generally, you’re looking for a place that’s woods,” Needham says. “Parks are ideal, preferably with moisture — something with a stream.”

The club’s meetings, which are held the first Tuesday of each month, are free and open to the public. They’re being held via Zoom, and folks can submit photos of their finds for an expert to help identify. On Oct. 5, ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin will give a lecture, and former MAW board member Thomas Roehl will discuss the research he’s doing on enoki mushrooms.

Sign up for a Wild Foods Nature Walk

Don’t expect to walk at a fast clip during Matt Cohen’s Wild Foods Nature Walks. “I would call it more of a stroll, or maybe a shuffle,” he says. “We don’t cover a lot of ground because we’re looking at stuff.”

Cohen, a landscaper who considers himself a naturalist and forager, hosts public walks at least twice a month, typically Saturday or Sunday mornings. They’re usually $30 and last about two-and-a-half hours.

The walks are held at local spots such as Rock Creek Park, the Takoma Park area and in Silver Spring. In early September, he led an outing in Laurel and found that, thanks to the rain from Hurricane Ida, the mushrooms were popping.

“A lot of foodies come out on my walks,” he says. “I really like to open people’s eyes to the wonders of nature, through foraging and just seeing what’s out there. We’ll check out birds, we’ll check out bugs and there are always samples.” Cohen typically brings wild foods he prepared ahead of time for walkers to taste, such as oyster mushrooms and chanterelles; on some outings, participants can sample edible foods they discover, but that depends on species abundance and park rules. (At Rock Creek, for example, foraging is prohibited, but groups still enjoy going there because there’s a lot to see — the environment is ideal for interesting growth.)

Some plants and mushrooms, of course, are poisonous. “About 1 percent or 2 percent of the mushrooms you might find growing out there are extremely poisonous. Another maybe 10 percent are toxic enough that they’ll give you gastrointestinal distress for a day or more,” he says — which is one reason it’s good to learn about them with someone experienced.

Cohen appreciates that foraging deepens his connection with the natural world. Plus, it’s fun. “It’s a treasure hunt, for one thing,” he says. “It’s like the adult Easter egg hunt, just going out and finding something. It’s very primal.”

Learn about herbs with Little Red Bird Botanicals

Holly Poole-Kavana started studying herbal medicine in 2005, and five years later, launched her business, Little Red Bird Botanicals. Today, she offers one-on-one wellness appointments and sells Washington-grown medicinal herbs in her apothecary. She also hosts regular classes and events, including public and private foraging plant walks, medicine-making workshops and botany identification sessions.

Poole-Kavana particularly enjoys leading walks in her clients’ neighborhoods. “We’ll explore what plants are growing nearby,” she says. “I like to do walks where people are going to spend a lot of time, so they get to know them and can observe them.” The D.C. area is home to lots of interesting plants, she notes, such as mugwort and wild field garlic. The latter is “an oniony plant that’s delicious, and it’s a such a resilient weed that you can harvest it and it grows back.” Sustainability is important to her, and she urges Washingtonians to “step outside the consumerist mind-set of, ‘All I need to do is get a cute basket and go harvest away.’ Foraging is a relationship with plants.”

Little Red Bird Botanicals offers long-term programs each year, including an herbal CSA that’s sold out. Registration will open in January for her 2022 home apothecary program, which is eight months long and involves growing, harvesting and preparing medicinal herbs.

Take a class at Fox Haven Organic Farm

This retreat center in Frederick County, Md., aims to “provide a gathering place where people can reconnect with the natural world,” says program director Alecks Moss.

One way to do that: through an Oct. 23 introductory course on growing mushrooms. During the two-hour event, which costs $30, an instructor will demonstrate the step-by-step process of growing oyster mushroom spawns, and each participant will take some home.

On Nov. 26, Fox Haven will open registration for its 2022 Foraging Level 1 & 2 programs. Level 1 participants meet once a month, and each class focuses on a new herb or wild edible that’s in season. Moss previewed what to expect: “fermenting blackberry leaves for tea, hunting for edible mushrooms, plucking ripe papaw, cooking up cattail, and propagating and stewarding wild species” are all on the agenda, she says. Those who sign up for the Level 2 program help design and steward a patch of land at Fox Haven.

The staff at Fox Haven grow more than 100 herbs, and “there’s a huge difference from the chamomile you get from the supermarket and the fresh flower picked in our garden,” Moss says. She notes that foraging can become dangerous to individuals and “devastating to the environment,” though, when people are overzealous or aren’t educated about best practices. Programs at Fox Haven revolve around the idea of safety and reciprocity between the forager and the environment.