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Appreciating Wild Mushrooms

By Dewayne Allday 

Hunting and eating edible wild mushrooms is an extremely popular culture in some countries, but most people in the United States associate them with stomach issues, trips to the hospital and even death. Clearly, there is a need for education on the subject, and with that education, a new world of potential food delicacies will be opened. Example after example in life tells us that knowledge is power, and certainly, knowledge of edible wild mushrooms is no exception.

A beautiful reishi mushroom — notice the swirls on the cap, an identifying feature.

If your foraging experience of mushrooms consists of trespassing across grain-fed cow pastures on moonlight nights, then might I suggest looking for the edible ones in broad daylight; it’s much safer. And speaking of the hallucinogenic Psilocybins; one of the deadliest mushrooms in North America called the Deadly Galerina (Galerina spp.) resembles them, and there have been numerous unsuspecting partakers of that forbidden mushroom who accidentaly ate the deadly mushroom instead.

Spore prints are one of numerous ways to investigate the identity of a mushroom, and you can’t identify the color if you can’t see it. You simply place a fresh mature mushroom cap, gills down, on a piece of paper for a day or two allowing it to release its spores.

There are very legitimate reasons to respect wild mushrooms, after all, a higher percentage of wild mushrooms are poisonous when compared to poisonous wild plants. Also, it’s not a joke to say that mushrooms seemingly are not very loved in the scientific community — unlike plants, many of them don’t even have scientific names assigned to them. It turns out there are far more botanists around than there are mycologists (those who study mushrooms) in this country. This makes studying edible wild mushrooms even more complicated than studying edible wild plants.

The author holds large edible puffballs.

Like plants, there are some genera (related species) of mushrooms that we learn to stay away from because virtually the entire genus is toxic, and we learn there are other genera known to be safe. Then there are other genera that have both safe and unsafe mushrooms. Some mushrooms have no real look-alikes while other edible mushrooms have toxic twins.

Personally, I wasn’t interested in mushrooms for most of my life. As a teenager, my knowledge of edible wild plants was not far beyond those found in my area shown as glossy color pictures in the back of a mostly black and white U.S. Army Survival Manual.

The color pictures of edible wild plants in the back became the catalyst that incubated my interest in edible wild foods, which years later increased my desire to begin studying and eating edible wild mushrooms as well.

That old manual (and many newer versions) promotes a risky concept called the edibility test. My advice is to ignore that dangerous test and know your plants and mushrooms beforehand. Remember, it only takes a very small piece of a water hemlock plant to cause an agonizing death. Also, there are many mushrooms in the Amanita group with a reportedly delicious taste; so good, there were even those who went back for seconds (and thirds) without any immediate effects, until their kidneys and liver shut down days later. Again, knowledge is power, and lack of knowledge can kill you.

Wild Mushrooms: Careful Examination, Study 

The Amanitas are the largest risk because it’s such a huge family of poisonous mushrooms. A large bulb-like base is associated with the deadly Amanitas.

There are three or more Amanitas commonly referred to as Destroying Angels, Angels of Death, Death Caps or simply Death Angels. Hint: “death” or “deadly” in the name of a plant or mushroom should throw up red flags.

Destroying Angel (Amanita) — to be strictly avoided!

The scientific names of four of them are A. bisporigera, A. virosa, A. ocreata and A. verna. The truth is that if the entire family of Amanitas did not exist, the mushroom-eating sport would be much safer, but at the same time, this is the easiest group to identify because of the swollen base. Stay away from any mushroom with a swollen base.

Knowledge of the Amanitas alone won’t keep you safe. There are more rules, but none of which eliminate the need to know, without a shadow of doubt, which mushroom you are considering eating. It’s true that you should stay away from what we call the LBMs (little brown mushrooms).

Many of them haven’t even been given a name, and many of them are poisonous. Definitely do not eat any mushrooms with a swollen base such as the Amanitas, and white gills and spore prints are always the highest risk until you know exactly what you are doing.

Before going into some of the more “choice” edible ones, I’m going to give you a quick crash course about the largest and deadliest family; the Amanitas. In this family, there are a few that are edible, but they should be avoided by beginners. Even after years of study and graduating to an expert level, eat them at your own risk.

I don’t purposefully want to contradict myself, but there’s a wild Amanita (A. caesarea) in Italy called Caesar’s mushroom considered a delicacy. There is an American version called the American Caesar’s mushroom (A. jacksonii), and it’s pretty prolific on this continent. Edible or not, I still recommend that anyone short of an expert stay away from all Amanitas.

All Amanitas start out in an egg-like state. An egg sack called a vulva emerges from the ground. This egg-like vulva may remind you of a puffball mushroom at first, but the insides look completely different. The cap later pops out of the vulva, and as the fruiting mushroom matures, the vulva may or may not be noticeable.

The stipe (stem) will lengthen, and the cap will open up as the fruiting body matures.

Without lab equipment and high-powered microscopes, some Amanitas such as the various species of Destroying Angels, cannot be identified by visual inspection alone.

American Caesar’s Mushroom (A. jacksonii).

My advice to potential future wild mushroom connoisseurs is to study years before eating one, and then only after eliminating all doubt of proper identification. If you are lucky enough to have a mushroom expert near you, consult them.

Keep in mind that there are experts on Facebook, and there are expert impersonators on Facebook. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. Don’t put your life in the hands of a stranger.

On a happy note, if you begin to take an interest in edible wild mushrooms, you should know that the taste of the commercial varieties is nothing in comparison to the wild varieties.

Wild mushrooms are flavorfully amazing, and once you sauté and eat your first finds, you will forever be hooked.

You don’t have to be a mycologist with a degree to be an expert on edible wild mushrooms, but you do need to study for years, in my opinion. Studying means buying books and lots of them. When thinking of your advancement in your foraging education, think of eating normal food as your high school degree, edible wild plants as the bachelor’s degree and edible wild mushrooms as the doctorate degree. When learning about them, you need to also learn the terms of the trade.

Mycology is the word most often used to describe the field of biology related to fungi; therefore a mycologist is a biologist who mainly studies fungi and the properties thereof.

It’s worthy of note that not all mycologists eat edible wild mushrooms, but many do. Botanists study wild plants but many botanists do not eat wild plants. Don’t be intimidated by not having a degree. What you need is common sense and a good library to study and cross-reference. Starting out, simply study the easy ones to identify, absent any poisonous lookalikes.

One example of such a mushroom is one of my favorites: hen of the woods (Grifola frondosa). Don’t confuse this common name with another choice edible called chicken of the woods (Laetiporus), however both are choice edible mushrooms.

In my experience hen of the woods is the tastiest and most flavorful of the wild mushrooms. Hen of the woods is also called “ram’s head,” “sheep’s head,” and in Japan, it’s called “Maitake.” It has been known to grow over 100 pounds in weight, which earned it the name king of the mushrooms.

Worldwide, it’s a prized edible and medicinal mushroom. The growing season is late summer and fall. It grows at the base of dead or dying trees, usually, but not limited to oaks.

Like plants, mushrooms have various growing seasons. Some seasons are longer than others. Usually mushrooms need moisture to fruit out, therefore climates which rarely produce rain rarely produce mushrooms.

Wetter climates further north have a much wider and populous range of varying species.

Say Hello to Chanterelles

One of my favorite mushrooms growing in the summer and fall in my area are the chanterelles (Cantharellus spp.) and the Craterellus genera which include the smaller chanterelles and also the delicious black trumpets.

There are numerous species and also a few look-alikes but nothing that a close eye can’t differentiate. Toxic look-alikes include the false chanterelles, Hygrophopsis aurantical, which have finer tightly spaced gills and a cap with a rough brownish-orange surface. Also, there’s the famous and toxic “Jack-O-Lantern” mushroom (Omphalotus illudens), which glows in the dark and unlike true chanterelles, has a solid color throughout. Sautéed with butter is my favorite way to eat the edible chanterelles. Incidentally, they are rich in vitamins and minerals and like many other mushrooms; they can also be dehydrated and rehydrated successfully for later use.

Chanterelles should be pre-cooked before freezing, and using too much water while cleaning them will make them soggy. Brushing them off with a clean toothbrush is sufficient. Flash freezing them on wax paper after briefly sautéing them in butter before freezer bagging is a good way to keep them from sticking together.

The gills of the chanterelle look different than those regular gilled mushrooms. Many consider chanterelles to be “veined” mushrooms. You will see these “veins” actually run down the stem and are a similar color to the cap. That’s just one distinguishing characteristic of the chanterelles. The cap grows upward like a trumpet with a dip in the middle exposing the vein-like underside. They also have a nice fruity smell when breaking into them.

Puffball Power

Another delicious, but often overlooked edible mushroom group is the puffballs. True puffballs are extremely safe as 99 percent of them are edible, and the one I know of that is somewhat toxic is so ugly that you’d be hard pressed to eat it. Be aware of Earthballs, particularly the Scleroderma, which aren’t true puffballs, but have been confused as such. Also, be wary of any mushroom you cut open and its color changes.

True puffballs are soft, white and solid inside. Also, do not confuse a young Amanita still in its puffball-looking sack. When young Amanitas first pop out of the ground, they resemble the puffballs, but when you slice them in half lengthwise, the puffball will be soft and completely solid inside. The Amanita will not be solid and may even reveal an outline of the premature Amanita inside. In his book Mushrooms Demystified, David Arora states that Amanitas are responsible for approximately 90 percent of all mushroom fatalities. Think of it this way, “puffballs will fill you, but Amanitas will kill you.”

Puffballs can be found at various times of the year, and in great abundance, even during winter months. Like so many other mushrooms, I like them sautéed in butter. They can be in plentiful supply, and some species get very large, which means more food for the table.

Shaggy manes should be processed quickly after harvest.

Two other popular edible mushrooms are oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus spp.) and lion’s mane mushrooms (Hericium spp.), also called bearded tooth or hedgehog mushrooms.

Both of these genera are grown commercially, but you’re most likely only familiar with the oysters sold in some supermarkets. Oysters are one of the most cultivated mushrooms in the world. Oysters also come in numerous colors, unlike the Hericiums, which are mostly white. Oysters can be white, brown, blue, purple or pink, and I’m sure a few other colors as well. These two mushrooms are easily identified and very hard to mistake once you are familiar with them. Late summer and fall is the season for lion’s mane, but I’ve seen oysters year-round here in the South.

Sometimes a ladder is needed to collect wild mushrooms. I have collected oysters growing about 10 feet in the air. I had to cut a small sapling in order to break them off. A word to the wise, if collecting oysters during the summer, put them on ice quickly, as they spoil rapidly, smelling like rotten fish.

Ladders aren’t necessary for one type of mushroom that grows on the ground called shaggy manes. There are various species of shaggy manes, and they need to be processed quickly after picking as they get soft and spoil fast. Some shaggy manes do not agree with some people, especially when mixed with alcohol.

Mushroom Medicine

Many mushrooms have medicinal properties. One of my favorite medicinal mushrooms is the reishi, also commonly called Lingzhi, lacquered bracket and even the mushroom of immortality, among others. This woody fungus has been harvested for thousands of years for its medicinal uses, including being one of the better immune system modulators. The mature mushroom is not edible, but as a fresh tea it is a terrific medicinal fungus, although it tastes awful.

When I contracted Rocky Mountain spotted fever a couple of years ago, I’m convinced that reishi and a few other herbs kept me out of the hospital and possibly even helped save my life.

I admit to being fairly new at eating edible wild mushrooms. I have now eaten around 10 different wild species. I’ve been studying and eating edible wild plants for close to 30 years, but edible wild mushrooms, more like four. If it were not for my expert friend Darryl Patton, I wouldn’t be nearly as far along as I am now.

There are so many reasons why we should begin to learn more about edible wild mushrooms. They are often overlooked as both food and medicine, but can be such an important source of both. They grow wild, but can easily be grown around the homestead as a viable source of food in an edible permaculture setting.

A young lion’s mane mushroom picked off an oak tree.

Mushrooms can be grown without chemicals, fertilizer or tilling the ground, which makes them very environmentally friendly. This is especially true if trees are used that have naturally died on their own instead of being cut down. There are many who sell mycelium-impregnated wood dowels of a choice edible mushroom of your choosing that can be drilled into live or dead trees around your homestead.

Keep in mind that many mushrooms can kill the host tree after a varying number of years. A safer method would be stacking oak logs after inoculating them with the desired edible wild mushroom of your choice.

Many species can be purchased online such as hen of the woods, chicken of the woods, oysters, lion’s mane, shiitake, reishi and others.

Live trees take longer for the mycelium to get established and therefore take longer to produce mushrooms, whereas dead trees or logs do not take as long to start producing tasty edible wild treats. Some people even get bags of oak sawdust to inoculate and wet occasionally, and others inoculate tree stumps. The mushroom needs moisture to fruit out, so adding a little water occasionally during long dry spells will encourage mushroom growth.

One thing I love about edible and medicinal wild plants and mushrooms is that you can never learn everything; therefore you will never get bored!

Plants and mushrooms are not only good for you, but many are more nutritious than food purchased in the grocery store. Ironically, so many hunters isolate their foraging to wild game, but overlook the fact that our ancestors harvested wild plants for thousands of years before becoming an agricultural-based civilization.

Sometimes re-wiring our brains can be a very rewarding experience. Be safe, and happy hunting!

This article appeared in the November 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Dewayne Allday has been harvesting and experimenting with edible wild foods in Alabama for the past 25 years. Dewayne is active in fighting for the preservation of the unique plants and animals of the Deep South.