From April through October, mushrooms brightened my 2019. Within a few weeks of stowing the ice-fishing gear, I was cutting pheasant backs and hoping for morels. In retrospect, it’s striking that I’ve wandered around the woods of eastern North America for 35 years or so, hardly taking notice of the bracket fungi, cap-and-stems and puffballs all around me. I’d never outgrown early admonishments to shun the mushrooms which were, more likely than not, deadly poison. And they were so hard to tell apart as well. Better to just let the fungi be, moving on to more motile life forms.
(Enjoy some photos of western Pennsylvania’s fall mushrooms along with this post. No attempt is made here to distinguish edibles from non-edibles.)
I described in an earlier blog entry how that changed for me fairly recently and the most rapid change came this year and last through social media (something I’ve been slow to adapt to) and specifically Facebook and its mushroom groups.
This has been an amazing learning tool, offering an interactivity that books just can’t match. I’d see a certain mushroom posted repeatedly and perhaps the next day I’d be on a trail where something identical would catch my eye and I’d pick it. Of course, there was another stage between this and skillet – I used online and print sources to achieve a positive ID.
Now, at the end of my mushroom season, I’d like to share my findings, the things I learned that have enhanced my comprehension of this forest realm and that will enhance my search in the years to come. Here’s what I think I know now:
First, my recognition of edible mushroom varieties expanded four-fold. At the beginning of 2019, I felt comfortable with 4 types (I’m not using the word species because I don’t really think I have things pinned down to the species level on all of these.) Now, I can harvest 16 types with reasonable certainty – from the morels of April to the lion’s mane of October.
Crucial to my understanding of these organisms was an understanding of the mycelium – essentially, the organisms that most of us know as “mushrooms.” This generally takes the form of thin but expansive root-like structures that invade a substrate such as the soil or rotting logs. For the majority of a given year, they remain unseen, decomposing and transmitting nutrients and energy. The fruiting masses we know as mushrooms are relatively short lived and serve reproductive and migrational purposes. I’m hardly an expert and feel sure I’ll get a better handle on this obscure life cycle in the years ahead. In practical terms, this explains why mushrooms will appear in the same places year after year.
I’ve begun to learn about the association of specific mushrooms with specific trees. This also made me question how I could have spent the amount of time I have in the forest and not really mastered tree identification to this point. The oaks seem primary here or at least these were easy trees to identify and also associate with some of the most recognizable edibles such as chicken of the woods and hen of the woods.
I had a few days this year in which I collected large quantities of mushrooms – over 10 lbs at a time. Through trial-and-error, I learned much about how not to crush mushrooms during transport and which ones are easily crushed. I will have a much improved strategy and set of stacking trays for next year.
I’ve looked at enough mushroom literature that some of the binomial names have already started to stick. And that bit of learning is more than academic. My background concerns fish and I know from much reading on North America’s freshwater fishes and much travel around the continent that fishes often have more than one common or colloquial name and sometimes many more. Apparently, the same is true for more sedentary life forms.
I learned that all mushrooms can be handled without fear of poisoning through the skin. This increased my comfort level with mushrooms that I sometimes needed to pick to identify.
Through a good bit of experimentation, I learned how much of the mushroom is actually usable – which parts to discard and which parts to sauté.
I learned that some mushrooming can be combined with a fitness program. I often hiked vigorously in pursuit of mushrooms and sometimes ran. I dropped weight during peak mushroom season in the early fall. ( Good news – I’ve found it again!)
I learned a good bit about mushroom seasons this year though their appearance varies somewhat depending on rainfall and temperature, I’m led to believe.
I’m just getting started in the kitchen but everything I know about preparing mushrooms, I learned within the last year. I especially refined preparation of the chicken of the woods which I didn’t like at first due to its dryness and woodiness. Now I’m more sensitive to the mushroom’s stage of development and know how to and how not to prepare the various stages. The easiest way to ruin these is to dry them on the skillet.
I suspected early on that it was good conservation to leave some of the mushroom behind but I tend not to think so anymore and I’m inclined to take all I can use. My understanding here is not complete and this may vary by species – I’m still learning. There are still times and places I choose to leave some behind though. I’ve learned some of the places that other mushroomers frequent (mostly older men) and I do leave some easily-accessed trailside specimens for less mobile fellows.
I came to better appreciate the speed with which mushrooms develop over the last year. They emerge faster than I’d originally suspected and they harden or whither faster than I’d expected. Most are ephemeral – another reason to grab them when you find them.
I’ve learned something about the importance of rain. Now I try to put in most of my mushroom time two or three days after significant rainfall. And, of course, a wetter overall year is better than drier. This being said, the mushrooms often surprised me by appearing on apparently dry trees and logs.
Beyond all this, I’ve simply learned a lot about where, on the map of western Pennsylvania, to go. And I was amazed to find that I could remain within a few miles of my home and find more mushrooms than I could possibly use, throughout most of the year. I’d come home from almost every fishing trip with mushrooms to put alongside my trout and walleye. I also have a fine interactive map created with a pin on each log or site that produced for me this year.
There’s been a fair amount of learning and that learning has led to a fair amount of speculation as well. I talked a good bit in my book, The Dying Fish, about the recovery of the eastern forests and that theme recurs frequently here on this blog. So, I got to thinking: If the forests of at least Pennsylvania are getting more expansive, darker and deeper in their humus, year upon year, isn’t the mushroom community getting better all the time? And one further question: Could it possibly get any better than this?!
How To Learn More About Mushrooms
- Join Facebook mushroom groups.
- Make use of Adam Haritan’s “Learn Your Land” site and videos, especially for PA.
- Pick the mushrooms you’re curious about and take them home for study.
- Of course, old fashioned field guides and more comprehensive mushroom books remain invaluable.
- Make friends with an old pro.
- Look around at what else is growing in the vicinity of the mushroom you pick. You’ll start to notice patterns.