Stalking the wild Azzie in the mushroom hunting capital of the Pacific Northwest
he wind was blowing about 20 knots, pelting us with needles of mist, as we trudged through the dune grass with our eyes peeled. We weren’t focused, as you would expect, on the stunning shoreline and churning gray waves of Willapa Bay in our vista, but on the ground. We were looking for mushrooms—Psilocybe azurescens, to be exact.
I couldn’t believe my luck when Chef Sebastian Carosi, one of the first and finest farm-to-fork pioneers and a virtuoso cannabis chef, offered to teach me how to stalk the wild Azzie. “There really is no better experience with anything psilocybin-related than picking your own,” he told me when we met at the Everything Edibles virtual conference in October. “You can actually go find your own psilocybin in the wild, beyond a government-sanctioned organic label, and that in itself is part of the therapeutic effect.”
Carosi describes himself this way: “Imagine James Beard and Salvador Dali have a ’70s baby … raised by Alice Waters and Jack Kerouac … babysat by Jack Herer and Julia Child,” a chef who makes “organic, plant-heavy American truck-stop cuisine served on white tablecloths.” He’s a master forager and a heck of a lot of fun to hang out with, and the opportunity to learn the art of the hunt from him in the mushroom capital of the Pacific Northwest was far too good to pass up. He didn’t have to ask twice.
On Election Day 2020, I wrapped myself in layers of North Face, laced up my Sorels, and joined Carosi; his wife, Carla Asquith; and my friend Leah D’Ambrosio (who organized the Everything Edibles conference)—along with dozens of other hunters who descend on Long Beach, Washington, every fall in cold, wet pursuit of the shroom. (In Long Beach, they say, fi rst come the rains, then the Azzies, then the Winnebagos).
Long Beach is a 28-mile-long peninsula along the southwest coast of Washington where the Columbia River meets the Pacifi c Ocean. Warm and wet, it’s a forager’s paradise. The shores are rich with clams, oysters, and crab; wild berry bushes and dense mycelial mats cling to the sandy soil. James Beard made a home and restaurant here, and mycology guru Paul Stamets lives just up the road. Fungi is plentiful, from beefy King Boletes, otherwise known as porcini—which you’ll pay a fortune for at the market, if you can find them—to crunchy, tasty Lactarius deliciosus. Amanita muscaria, or Fly Agaric, with its iconic red cap and white spots, makes for great pics but shouldn’t be eaten.
But, let’s be honest, it’s the Azzies that draw the crowds. Long Beach is legendary for its bounty of the little shrooms, also known as flying saucers, beloved for being the most psilocybin-dense mushrooms on the planet. “Discovered” in 1979 by Boy Scouts camping near the mouth of the Columbia River, just over the bridge in Oregon, Azzies were formally named Psilocybe azurescens by none other than Stamets, whose son is named Azureus for the color of bruised psilocybin.
“Simply blowing on the fibrils of the stem of this purple-brown spored mushroom causes the fibrils to turn bluish with an azure color, hence its name,” Stamets writes on Instagram. “Psilocybin dephosphorylates into psilocin, then further degrades into an associated blue compound. The more bluish bruising, the more potent this mushroom once was.”
These are the mushrooms Stamets took Michael Pollan to find—likely in the very same spots we covered with Carosi—the ones Pollan wrote about tripping on in his best-selling book How to Change Your Mind. When you eat them, according to Psilopedia, a nonprofit educational center and encyclopedia, Azzies “produce intense visual hallucination, profound journeys into alternate realms of consciousness, and more rarely induce temporary paralysis.”
For Carosi, Azzies are good medicine. When he was 17, he was sentenced to seven years for a cannabis charge, and the mushrooms cut through his prison PTSD like nothing else. That he could return to prison for gathering his medicine was not lost on any of us as we searched for it during an Election Day he could not participate in. Picking Azzies is a Class A felony in the United States and the state of Washington. Under the 1971 US Controlled Substances Act, psilocybin and psilocin are listed alongside heroin as Schedule I drugs with a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use.
It’s hard to get my mind around this. In Denver, we voted to decriminalize psilocybin in 2019, and it seems like everyone’s casually doing mushrooms, in micro and macro doses. On the very day we went picking, voters in Oregon—a stone’s throw from Long Beach—opted to legalize therapeutic access to mushrooms and decriminalize all drugs. Mushrooms show extraordinary promise for many of the mental health issues that have intensified during the pandemic—particularly depression—and they’re losing their stigma under the gaze of celebrities like Pollan and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who donated $500,000 to Oregon’s decriminalization effort.
Still, we had to be aware. Rangers looking to harass dune-pickers patrol the state parks ringing Long Beach, and I couldn’t stop checking the horizon for them when I should have been scouring the thick wet grass for little caramel-colored, nippled caps with purple spores. That might be why we weren’t all that successful. Again and again, D’Ambrosio and I called out that we’d found a patch of Azzies, only to be told they were galerinas, poisonous mushrooms that look like Azzies but have rust brown spores and appear to be far more prevalent. I’m not sure I ever got my “mushroom eyes,” and fear of arrest didn’t help my fl ow.
We—or really, Asquith—found a mere handful of Azzies. Late in the day, as the rain started coming down in relentless sheets, I was kneeling under a clump of shore pines when Asquith told me to look to my left. Two little brown mushrooms and a couple of pins (babies) were nestled together in a cluster in the grass. When I picked them—gently, so I wouldn’t damage the mycelium below—the white stems immediately turned blue in the palm of my hand.
It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough. We had an Instagram moment with the mushrooms. If we could have seen the sun, it would have been low in the sky. The rain had penetrated all our layers, even the waterproof ones.
We called it a day, a successful one, and headed back to town for much-needed cups of hot tea and bowls of clam chowder. Carosi surmised we may have been about five days too early for the best pickings, and that was fine. We experienced the thrill of finding our own medicine—just enough of a taste to make me want to try again next year.
The good news is, I might not have to deal with the nagging fear of breaking a law (even one I believe is unjust and stupid) that haunted my first hunt. On November 4, the day after Oregon voters decriminalized possession of small amounts of drugs, activists launched the Treatment and Recovery Act to do the same thing in Washington in 2021.
TIPS FOR HAPPY HUNTING
- WEAR SEVERAL LAYERS of warm, waterproof clothes. Good gear makes for good days.
- BRING A POCKET KNIFE to get a clean cut of the mushrooms at the base (though it’s possible to pick them by hand) and a mesh bag or basket that allows the mushroom spores to fall to the ground and repopulate as you walk the dunes.
- DON’T DISTURB THE UNDERGROUND ROOT SYSTEM anymore than you need to when you’re harvesting.
- ALWAYS LEAVE SOME BEHIND to grow and multiply. Even if you get lucky and find a whole colony, don’t pick them all.
- TAKE FIELD NOTES about the habitat, how the mushrooms are growing, and where you find mushrooms. Make sure to visit the site again because mushrooms often return to the same spots year after year.
- DRY YOUR MUSHROOMS AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. Fresh mushrooms are 90 to 95 percent water and should be dried immediately to retain their potency. They can be air-dried for two or three days, or you can pop them in a dehydrator to speed up the process.