Duluth's mushroom lady sprouts new business
Ariel Bonkoski teaches beginners how to identify wild edibles as foraging popularity grows.
DULUTH — Ariel Bonkoski said she had one reaction back when she worked at restaurants that served food with mushrooms in it.
“I never liked mushrooms. I still don’t like the kind of mushrooms you get on a pizza, or the ones you can buy in the store. I just don’t,” said Bonkoski.
But when Bonkoski took her first bite of a chicken of the woods wild mushroom, a delicacy that's sprouting on trees in woodlands across the Northland right now, it was love at first bite.
Over the past seven years, Bonkoski has become a self-taught expert in the world of mycology, that field of biology dealing with fungi such as mushrooms. She’s become a globally recognized source for people wanting to identify wild mushrooms. She moderates 35 Facebook sites dealing with wild mushrooms. She helped found the Lake Superior Mycological Society, leading group forays into the woods to identify and pick mushrooms. And now she’s bringing her expertise and love of wild mushrooms to the people with Ariel’s Mushroom Co., a new online class for beginners to learn the basics of mushrooming face-to face on Zoom.
“I really did just sort of stumble into mushrooms,” Bonkoski said. “I got interested a little, then started looking around on Facebook and researching things, and pretty soon I was hooked. Now it’s a big part of my life.”
Bonkoski, 29, a native of Forest Lake, Minnesota, has lived in Duluth for about 11 years. She spends much of her free time wandering wooded parks and forests in the Northland looking for wild mushrooms, and she has the bug-bite welts on her legs to prove it. You don’t have to go deep into the woods or far out of town to find them, she notes. Some of her best parks for picking are in the heart of the city.
On a recent foray through Bagley Nature Area at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Bonkoski hadn't walked 100 feet before finding her first wild mushroom, an inky cap, a delicate little mushroom that many people would walk past and never notice.
“These are edible, but not a lot of people eat them. You have to pick them when they are very young,” she said. Wait too long and inky caps will squirt a black, ink-like goo.
The inky caps were just the first of a dozen mushroom species we found on a one-hour walk through the well-traveled woods at UMD. Several of the species Bonkoski showed us are edible. Others are not good to eat but wouldn’t hurt you. Others are stunningly gorgeous. And some other mushrooms in the Northland can indeed kill you if you eat them.
On our walk, Bonkoksi found orange mycena (pretty, but not tasty); year-old puffballs (too far gone to eat now, but puffballs are very good when freshly sprouted); artist's conks that grow like shelves on trees (very hard and not edible); false pheasant backs; a turkey tail; and some dead man’s fingers (tiny sprouts from the bottom of a log that look like human fingers reaching up).
Bonkoski is now up to more than 400 wild mushroom species that she’s identified in the Northland (nearly 700 overall) including a couple that no one else had confirmed in the area before.
When Bonkoski is not on Facebook answering questions on mushroom identification, or moderating mycological sites, she’s often in the woods with her basket, backpack, a knife and brush combo and her phone.
Her favorite places to look are hardwood forests with plenty of downed trees on the ground.
“If you can find oak, that’s often the best,” she said. The best time to look is often about 48 hours after a soaking summer rain.
In one patch of woods, where many big maples fell and began to decay after a 2016 windstorm, Bonkski found a treasure trove of different species.
“I’ve found six different species on just this one stump,” she said.
Bonkoski usually blurts out the Latin scientific name of each species she finds. That’s because she’s often communicating with people in other regions of the U.S. and across the globe where common names (like chicken of the woods) may not be the same.
“I’ve trained myself to think in the Latin name and sometimes I have to remind myself to use the common name for people I’m with,” she said.
It’s go-time for some of Minnesota's best mushrooms
Summer is prime time for mushroom foraging in the Northland, with the big-three of wild edibles starting to sprout now into August: chicken of the woods, chanterelles and oyster mushrooms. But some mushrooms will keep sprouting well into fall, depending on the weather. A few even grow under the snow.
“I spend a lot of time in the woods this time of year,’’ Bonkoski said. “My favorite time to go is late summer. I take a week of vacation every August just to find mushrooms.”
In 2021, that didn't work out so well. The extreme drought that enveloped the region made for tough mushrooming, and in some cases no mushrooms at all. But 2022 is shaping up much better for fungi to sprout, with higher-than-normal rainfall and humidity.
Bonkoski said people should be careful when harvesting and consuming wild mushrooms because not all taste very good and some are toxic. She trained herself — she has no biology, botany or mycology degree — by identifying other people’s mushroom photos posted on Facebook, then using guidebooks to confirm it was the right species and name.
More often than not, she got it right. Now she’s the one answering the posts.
“It was the same way when I first started (picking mushrooms.) I’d harvest the mushroom and guess what it was then bring it back to ID, and usually I was right,” she said.
But a few finds might still stump her. So she snaps a photo with her smartphone and then posts it for another expert to confirm. And there is the best advice anyone can give a novice mushroom hunter: Let an expert identify it before you eat it.
“That’s really the best way to do this. You can get an answer pretty quickly based on the photos you post,” she said.
So far, there is still not a foolproof app for identifying mushrooms as Merlin can identify birds or PlantSnap can identify plants and trees. “iNaturalist is pretty good for mushrooms. You can get close. … And people will usually come in and help you if you post a photo,’’ Bonksoski said.
Bonkoski is a bit surprised that she has become a Northland mushroom rock star of sorts, noting she’s filled a needed niche just as foraging and wild edibles are becoming more popular.
“There’s a lot of the more formal mushroom education available in colleges. But there hasn’t really been much for the person who just wants to learn about mushrooms enough to eat a few,’’ she said. “There are a lot of people up here who knew mushrooms better than I did. … But I think Facebook has really helped people find the information they need, to bring people together. We just needed a way to get it to them.”
Bonkoski, who just received her Minnesota Master Naturalist certificate, urges new foragers to always tread lightly and carefully when hunting for edibles, to leave no trace of their visit. Try not to damage any other plants. But harvesting a few mushrooms is not a problem for the environment. The mushroom is just the flower of the fungi living in the dirt or on the log, Bonkoski noted.
“It’s like picking an apple off a tree,” she said. “It doesn’t damage the tree if you do it right.”
Foraging popularity is mushrooming
Alan Bergo, better known as the Twin Cities-based Forager Chef, said Bonkoski is part of a growing army of people who have become immersed in foraging and are spreading the gospel.
“There’s no question foraging is growing exponentially every year. That was happening before the pandemic and then got bigger the last few years,” said Bergo, who walked away from a career as a chef at top restaurants to focus on foraging. His website, foragerchef.com , now has nearly 5 million visits.
“When I worked at these restaurants, the most expensive food on the menus were the wild edibles,’’ Bergo noted. “And when you go out and harvest them yourself, there’s nothing fresher in the world. It’s an amazing experience.”
Bergo said newcomers to the field should be using multiple tools to identify what they are harvesting and eating: in-person forays with experts, apps, guidebooks, websites and Facebook pages.
“It's a huge leap of faith to see a picture of something in a book and then decide to put it in your body based on that photo,” Bergo said. “It’s a lot more informative and reassuring to go out with someone who knows what they are looking at.”
Bergo said the wealth of online resources over the past decade has made foraging easier and safer.
“It was the wild west out there before Facebook identification pages,” he said. “But people like Ariel are making it a lot better for new people to get involved.”
Charlie Danielson, who co-founded the Lake Superior Mycological Society with Bonkoski in 2019, said there has been a desire for more local mushroom knowledge and information in the Northland for many years.
“I think there has been a quiet passion for it, but it was an unfilled niche. We didn't have the community formed yet to get the information out there,” Danielson said. “When I first met Ariel, I knew we had one of those gems right in our community. She’s really helped pull this together.”
Danielson, of Duluth, said the society is still growing but already has had as many 300 people attend some Sunday afternoon forays.
“It’s very informal. We don't have any officers. We don’t have meetings. We just get together twice a month and look for mushrooms,” he said. “We’re trying to keep it fun, keep it light, keep it entertaining. ... But also be good enough with the science that we are sort of teaching people something.”
The destroying angel
How do some mushrooms kill you? Often be releasing toxins that attack your organs, especially the liver.
One toxic mushroom that does grow in the Northland is the destroying angel. “You can eat it and nothing really happens for a while,” Bonkoski said.
Then the cramping starts, along with vomiting and diarrhea. But those symptoms usually end and the victim may feel fine for a while. Unfortunately, that’s why it often goes undiagnosed and untreated.
“People think it’s over. But that's when it starts attacking your liver and kidneys,” Bonkoski said. “After a week of that you either get a (liver) transplant or you are dead.”
Bonkoski was part of a team of mushroom experts who recently worked to convince doctors at a southern U.S. hospital that a child was dying from ingesting a destroying angel. After the hospital refused their advice, the child was transferred to another hospital and saved based on their mushroom identification.
Another mushroom to avoid, as if you needed the advice with a name like this, is the deadly ballerina.
Ariel’s favorite wild Northland mushroom
Of all the edible delicacies in the Northland woods, Bonkoski’s favorite is the coral tooth mushroom (Hericium coralloides.) “I like to make imitation crab cakes with them because they taste a little bit like seafood.” This mushroom sprouts in the Northland in late July and August.
About Ariel’s Mushroom Co.
. The class covers the basics of mushroom foraging in the Midwest. The cost is $35. You will learn general mushroom information, edible mushrooms, toxic mushrooms and how to find mushroom identifications. This class could take two to three hours depending on class participation. For more information, contact Ariel at
About the Lake Superior Mycological Society
Organized through Facebook, the Lake Superior Mycological Society holds group forays into the woods on the second Sunday of each month and aims for other group events on the fourth Sunday of the month. The group often has 50 or more participants at each foray and has more than 700 followers on Facebook . For more information, call 218-464-2272 or email email@example.com .
Other Minnesota mushroom-focused Facebook groups
- Minnesota Mushroom Foraging and ID Group
- Hunting Minnesota Morel Mushrooms and Wild Edibles
- Foraging Minnesota
Ariel Bonkoski’s favorite mushroom books
- "North American Mushrooms" by Orson K. Miller Jr. and Hope H. Miller.
- "Boletes of Eastern North America" by Alan Bessette, William Roody and Arleen Bessette.
- "Mushrooms of the Midwest" by Michael Kuo and Andrew Methven.
Ariel’s tools of the trade: What to bring
- A sharp knife for cutting mushrooms.
- A brush for brushing dirt off mushrooms before you put them into a bag or basket.
- A bag or basket to hold your booty.
- A backpack with water and bug spray.
- Your smartphone for taking photos of unidentified mushrooms.
- A mushroom guidebook.
Where can you pick?
Picking small amounts of mushrooms for personal use (but not to sell) is generally allowed on most public lands in Minnesota, such as national forests, state parks, state forests, county forests and many city parks. Most Minnesota Scientific and Natural Areas are closed to foraging of any kind. Always ask permission to forage on private land. When in doubt, call and ask. (Picking ferns or other plants in state parks is not allowed.)