Mushroom hunting: The wonders of fall foraging

By : 
LAURA DEERING
TRI-COUNTY RECORD

Apples, pumpkins and cider all remind us of fall, but what about oysters, chickens and hens?   

Area mushroom hunters recognize these common names for the wild mushrooms that grow in the area, and knowthat fall is the time to find them.  While the morel mushrooms of April and May get a lot of attention, fall is the best time of year to forage for abundant mushrooms. 

Some common fall species

Oyster mushrooms grow on trees and are named for their resemblance to grow in clumps like water oysters.  Oysters can take over trees and harvesting 10-30 pounds is not uncommon.

Chicken-of-the -woods mushroom have a texture that is similar to chicken.  The bright orange and yellow colors of the “chicken” shout out among the green of the woods. 

The hen-of-the-woods mushroom gets its name from its appearance of a hen’s ruffled tail feathers.  Some hens can weigh 3-15 pounds each, and grow 36 inches in length.  They are very prized in Japan, where they often fetch thousands of dollars.

All of the above are abundant here in bluff country.  What’s even better is, due to our hilly topography, our foraging season can be several times longer than flatter regions.  This is because mushrooms typically first start to grow on the south side of the bluffs.  Next is the east side, top of bluff, the west side, and then their final hoorah on the north side of a steep hill or slope.

Become a mushroom hunter

Many of us were told wisely by parents or teachers to be alert to the company we keep.  The same is true about mushrooms.  They typically live co-dependently with others, including trees, grasses and moss.  The morel tends to favor recently dead elm trees.  Chickens also gravitate to elms, but seek several years after the elm has passed.  Hens are found attached to harvested oak stumps. 

If you walk along grassy paths you may have noticed puffball mushrooms?  The reason for this is puffballs have trillions (yes, trillions) of spores, and in order to reproduce, they need someone to come by and give them a good stomp.  The resulting billow of brown dust is the release of these spores into the air, where they quickly find another path in order to keep the cycle going.

Many of us are familiar with “green eggs and ham” by Dr. Seuss, but how about blue mushrooms?  Another tasty mushroom you can find in the autumn, that is if you can get past the color – it is a brilliant blue—is the indigo mushroom. 

The indigo mushroom grows in abundance among pine groves, and makes for a delightful reward all on its own sautéed in butter, or a welcome ingredient in wild rice soup.  In talking with the leader of an Iowa mushroom club, he shared he has never seen an indigo, so we are fortunate to have this Dr. Seuss type of mushroom near us.

Those “other species”

Here in the upper mid-west, there are thousands of species of mushrooms!  The ones noted above are known for their culinary attributes, but it’s just as much fun to find and even if they are not edible. 

Several mushroom clubs encourage this activity in order to learn the characteristics of mushrooms and then using several guidebooks in determine the type.  The reason for using multiple books is that descriptions and photographs can vary. 

When seeking mushrooms for consumption, one has to be 100% confident of the identification of the mushroom.  A mantra to remember is “if in doubt throw it out.”  The condition is important too, just as in the grocery store you choose fresh fruits and vegetables, the same goes for mushrooms.

Another consideration when hunting the sometimes elusive shroom, is to first make a pact that the primary goal of the hike is to enjoy nature.  That way when they are playing hide-and-seek, the walk is more about the pleasure of the journey rather than the goal.  

Mushroom stories

While foraging may sound passive and light hearted,  hard-core mushroom seekers know their activity can rival the best hunting and fishing stories.  Crazy-high tick counts, scary snake encounters, and sunburns that will impress (or alienate) your friends and family, are part of the experience.  The 13-inch morel that got away because it decomposed a day before you  found it will forever burn in your memory. 

That oyster monolith that grew so high in the tree that no painter-extension handle could reach it, will generate schemes of ladders and duct tape for another chance.  Then there is always the possibility of next year, be it morel, oysters or hens.

Wonders

Our planet would not be what it is today without fungi.  Fungi are critical for the decomposition of matter, which in turn replenishes the soil for new matter, such as trees.  It also is attributed for helping with many health aliments and promising research on many frontiers, including cancer.  The largest living thing on earth is a mushroom in Oregon.  So the next time you are out for a walk, embrace your inner child -- stomp on that puffball, and make the world a better place.