An Essential Skill: Wild Mushroom Identification

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Edible oyster mushrooms can be grown on trees, in bags or on logs. A chestnut tree houses this collection.
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A beautiful example of the edible morel mushroom nestles amid a patch of bluebells.
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Shiitake mushrooms are ready to harvest from the ideal growing environment on a collection of red oak logs.
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While the red Amanita muscaria mushroom looks lovely, it is deadly poisonous.
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A delicious vegetarian burger.
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Freshly harvested chanterelle mushrooms.

There is not one single reason to absolutely love wild mushrooms – there are at least four. First, it’s simply a matter of taste – good taste. The flavor of wild mushrooms is always incredible and often unforgettable.

Second, it’s a question of beauty, of distinctive, beguiling natural beauty. Folks who crave the beauty in nature will no doubt appreciate the glow of delicate tiers of golden oyster mushroom colonies nestled in a forest. Third, some wild mushrooms have impressive purported health benefits.

And finally, it’s great fun to head out into the woods and pursue wild mushrooms, or cultivate them and watch them grow in a controlled setting.

All of these reasons can help sprout your passion for gourmet mushrooms, some of which cost up to $12 or more per pound, and wild mushroom identification.

With a little space, you can safely cultivate these culinary gems at your own place – indoors or out. With the help of a mycological expert, you could potentially find free delicious mushrooms already thriving on your rural property; and you don’t even need to train a truffle-scouting sow.

Mushroom madness

Mass-marketed supermarket mushrooms, such as the common buttons, pale in comparison in both taste and color to edible wild mushrooms. Many of the latter also have whimsical monikers such as lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceum), also called shaggy mane, pom pom or beard tooth. Then there’s hen-of-the-woods (Grifola frondosa), also commonly known as maitake.

Wild mushrooms can have many different common names. Also, the terms “wild,” “gourmet” and “specialty” sometimes are used interchangeably. These descriptions usually refer to any mushroom that’s not a button. By any name, edible fungi are becoming increasingly popular as a low-calorie, low-fat, nutritious food that renders savory flavor to a variety of dishes.

If you enjoy the hobby of wild mushroom cultivation, your kitchen may soon overflow with fungi. If that’s the case, consider selling your mushroom bounty at your local farmers’ market to neighbors who will truly appreciate these locally grown, farm-fresh offerings.

Growing shiitake mushrooms and other kinds outdoors

Two of the easiest species to cultivate outdoors are shiitakes (Lentinula edodes) and oysters (Pleurotus genus), says Joe Krawczyk, co-owner and co-founder of Field & Forest Products Inc., a supplier of mushroom spawn and cultivation tools. He and his wife, Mary Ellen Kozak, are committed to small-scale organic mushroom production on their small farm in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, which has been in Kozak’s family since 1917.

“There’s been increasing interest in outdoor and indoor cultivation. We see ourselves as educators,” Krawczyk says. “We sell spawn to landowners who want to supplement their incomes by selling mushrooms on the weekend at farmers’ markets.

“Shiitakes work well with hardwood logs, such as oak, sugar maple and sweet gum. Oysters can be cultivated on aspen, willow, cottonwood and tulip poplar.

“Many people erroneously believe that they can grow mushrooms on deadwood. This simply isn’t true because organisms already are decaying the deadwood,” Krawczyk says. “With mushroom cultivation, you are trying to decay the wood with a specific species – such as shiitake or oyster mushrooms.”

To grow your own mushroom crop, you need spawn – the mushroom “seed.” Krawczyk sells 12 shiitake strains and six oyster strains of certified organic spawn, which is available in plug, sawdust or thimble forms.

“These are perennial crops that will produce mushrooms for several years, until the wood is rotten,” he says. “With shiitakes, you can get crops for eight to 10 years, depending on how long the log lasts. Oysters generally last three years.”

He also recommends the wine-capped stropharia (Stropharia rugosoannulata), also known as king stropharia or burgundy mushroom.

“Wine-caps are very easy to grow on hardwood chips, which can be placed in your garden between your roses and asparagus,” Krawczyk says. “They can be grown in any landscape planting as long as the chips are in contact with soil. Ideally, they should be out of direct sunlight, but partial light is acceptable.”

It’s a viable option to make your own wood chips from tree trimmings, or you can buy them by the pound. Krawczyk recommends avoiding wood chips from coniferous species such as pine. Wine-caps tend to not do well on these chips, most likely because of the resins.

“It’s the color of wine-caps that makes them so attractive. They have burgundy caps and gills with nice white stems,” he says. “Their flavor is likened to portobello, but not as strong. They have a better texture, in my opinion.”

If you’re experienced with outdoor cultivation, you should also consider other species such as lion’s mane and hen-of-the-woods.

Cultivating mushrooms indoors

Cultivating gourmet mushrooms indoors is an easy endeavor. In fact, oyster mushrooms can thrive on a roll of toilet paper.

“We sell spawn that’s placed in the center of an unprocessed single roll. You’ll have mushrooms in four to six weeks,” Krawczyk says. “Our TableTop Farm, which you can grow on your kitchen table, will produce a mushroom crop in seven to 10 days. We also have kits that grow in your windowsill or shady kitchen garden. You’ll have enough for your own home cooking, but not extra to sell. This is a good way to start learning about fungi cultivation.”

In forests and fields: wild mushroom identification

With expert guidance, you can locate delectable edibles in your own garden, fields, woods, ditches, or anywhere else on your land. (See “The importance of wild mushroom identification: fungi can be fatal” near the end of this article.)

You can find such a professional through the North American Mycological Association. You also can meet experts at cultivation seminars, mycological clubs, forays, lectures or workshops.

To correctly identify a mushroom, the mycologist will examine its cap, gills or pores, stem, flesh, and habitat. The season also is a critical clue. Ask your guide to show you how to correctly harvest each mushroom species so it will grow back again. In general, it’s best not to tear the mushroom out of the ground.

Reap rich rewards

Edible wild mushrooms are most definitely a slow food – to forage for them you must take time to stoop, peer and carefully examine.

“Mushrooms have taught us to slow down and chill out,” Krawczyk says. “Cultivation allows us to appreciate the cycles of growth and decay. We’ve been cultivating mushrooms for 25 years, but we still haven’t lost the thrill of seeing our first shiitake every spring.”

Freelance writer and photographer Letitia L. Star has written more than 1,000 published articles, including features on gardening, food and green living.

Mushrooming resources

The Complete Mushroom Book: The Quiet Hunt by award-winning Italian chef Antonio Carluccio, who has been gathering, cooking and creating recipes for mushrooms for six decades. Particularly helpful is the illustrated field guide for North America, as well as cooking, preserving and storage information.

Books on wild mushroom identification

Mushrooming Without Fear by Alexander Schwab

The North American Guide to Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms by Nancy J. Turner and Patrick von Aderkas

Mushroom cultivation resources:

Field & Forest Products Inc., Peshtigo, WI
800-792-6220 or 715-582-4997

Fungi Perfecti LLC, Olympia, WA
800-780-9126 or 360-426-9292

Mushroom poisoning information:

California Poison Control Systems

American Association of Poison Control Centers

The North American Mycological Association

To quickly locate farmers’ markets nearest you:

Local Harvest

North American Farmers’ Direct Marketing Association

The importance of wild mushroom identification: fungi can be fatal

An average of 70 cases of mushroom poisoning are reported every year in the United States, according to statistics compiled by the North American Mycological Association.

About 100 of the 5,000 mushroom types found in the United States are responsible for most cases of mushroom poisoning in this country. Some nonedible and toxic mushrooms can cause many unpleasant symptoms, including acute indigestion. However, the most deadly can destroy the liver and other organs, and even result in death. Some toxic or lethal species look very similar to non-poisonous, edible mushrooms. Hence, this caveat: ALWAYS go foraging with an established mycological expert, and NEVER try to do this on your own.

You must have an expert evaluation of wild mushrooms each time you harvest them. (See Look Before You Leap, or Pick Mushrooms in GRIT’s March/April 2007 issue.)

Risk to your animals

Are certain species of wild mushrooms harmful or lethal to dogs, cats or farm animals? Are animals less – or more – affected by poisonous mushrooms than humans?

“The same mushrooms that are poisonous to people are also poisonous to pets and farm animals,” says Dr. Tina Wismer, senior director of Veterinary Educational Outreach, Animal Poison Control Center of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, in Urbana, Illinois.

“Dogs are probably the most affected species due to their indiscriminate eating habits,” she says. “Since cats are obligate carnivores, they are rarely affected. Cows, horses and other grazing mammals can pick up mushrooms while they eat, but due to their large size, it would take more to affect them than the average human.”

Keep in mind that dangerous wild mushrooms can grow anywhere on your rural property – not just in the woods.

“We have pets eat mushrooms right out of the backyard. Our biggest problem is getting a good identification on an ingested mushroom,” Wismer says.

“Some mushrooms cause no problems at all, while others can cause stomach upset. The muscarinic mushrooms (Inocybe and Clitocybe sp.) are often ingested by dogs and can cause them to have vomiting, salivation, drooling and difficulty breathing,” she says. “Unfortunately, most of our pets that eat poisonous Amanita mushrooms are not diagnosed until it’s too late.”

Hotline help

If you suspect mushroom poisoning, don’t wait for symptoms to appear. Immediately call the National Capital Poison Center at 800-222-1222. You will be directed to the nearest poison center. Or contact a hospital emergency room or your physician. For animal mushroom poisoning, call the ASPCA Poison Control Hotline at 888-426-4435.

Foray & feasting: wild mushroom identification fun

A foray is a gathering of mycological enthusiasts, all armed with whistles, wicker baskets and cutting tools, who together search for edible fungi in state parks and other deliciously wild spots.

For information about local, regional, national and international forays, as well as mycological clubs, mushroom cultivation links and a mushroom cultivation user group, visit the North American Mycological Association.

Published on Dec 8, 2011

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