A lot of things happened around here this summer. Some awesome, some not so much. Somethings came from habit, and some from adventure. Happiness, sadness, anger, laughter and a universe of other feelings ebbed and flowed in and out of existence as we lived our lives. It rained and then poured, and then dried up. Its raining right now as I write, and the world readies itself for sleep as winter looms close on the horizon.
But thinking back to this spring, a wet one that made the history books, the first thing that really comes to mind are the first morel mushrooms of the season. I have written before about my forays out into the woods in the early spring, usually around mother’s day, looking for the treasured mushroom. And this year once again, I was lucky to find some. I have hunted the woods every spring now for more than 10 years, and I have never been disappointed. I don’t usually ever find too many, but sometimes I get lucky, or at least know somebody who does so I get a few good meals with the morels.
The morel mushroom may be one of the most treasured and sought after culinary mushrooms around, but there are thousands of other varieties of fungi just waiting to tell you their story. And that was one of my goals and accomplishments for this summer, to learn the stories and tales of as many mushrooms as I could. So when I came across these ones growing out of the straw under my backyard beehives early in the summer, I knew the hunt was on.
There were two mushrooms specifically that I wanted to find and learn about. For many years now, I have heard about and researched both Chicken of the Woods and Chanterelles but have never found them. I knew for a fact that the Chickens, also known as Sulphur Shelf mushrooms, were a common late summer mushroom that was very easy to ID. I also knew that chanterelles grow throughout Minnesota, but had never met anybody who had actually found them. My mission was set before me, all I had to do was start.
Beginning at the end of July, the kids and I went on hikes about every other day. After a month of no rain, we finally had gotten a few small storms that moistened the landscape and all sorts of fungus began popping up in our yard and throughout the neighborhood. We didn’t always go out with the intention of hunting down mushrooms, but we always kept our eyes open, and more times than not some type of fungus would cross our path.
One park in particular proved to harbor high levels of mycological life, and it was here that we concentrated our efforts in finding the Chicken of the Woods and the elusive Chanterelles. The key feature to this land that I think helps support such an abundant and diverse web of fungal life can be attributed to all of the oak trees that can be found throughout the park and hiking trail system. And not just the living oaks, but ones in all stages of rot and decay.
It didn’t take long to find either mushroom. The Chicken came first in this story. Growing off of an old oak log, was a gorgeous Chicken of the Woods, specifically, Laetiporus cincinnatus. Chicken of the Woods or Sulphur Shelf mushroom comprise a few different varieties of Laetiporus, the most popular being cincinnatus and sulphureus, which are virtually identical to the untrained eye, though connoisseurs say that cinncinnatus is superior for eating. I have since found both of them, and both are delectable, and truly taste like chicken when sauteed in butter. They are what many field guides consider choice eating, and are quite possibly the best mushrooms I have ever eaten!
Not long after finding the Chickens, we found our first Chanterelles on a forested valley ridge. Chanterelles being a mycorrhizal fungus (a fungus that has evolved a symbiotic relationship with the roots of trees) were also found near living oak trees. The Chanterelle is a very elegant looking mushroom, with a very distinct apricot aroma. Lacking true gills, a Chanterelle can be identified by it’s ridges which display a forking pattern, rather than the parallel nature of mushrooms with true gills. The Golden Chanterelle, which is probably the most common species in the genus Cantharellus, does have a deadly look alike commonly known as a Jack ‘O Lanterns (Omphalotus olearius). But once you become acquainted with the defining features and growth habit, they are easily told apart. In fact, I have never even seen Jacks, but I have heard that you should hunt them at night, because they glow in the dark!
A dark horse candidate who takes 3rd place this year in the fungi challenge is what is known as Hen of the Woods. Another mushroom named after poultry, Grifola frondosa, is another mushroom that shows up in late summer in hardwood forests, often found at the base of oak trees. This is another mushroom that I had only ever heard about and never seen, but was pretty sure that I would know it when it found me.
On a beautiful September day hiking with a group of happy fungus hunters, we found two massive specimens of Hen of the Woods! It is a gorgeous and crazy bracted mushroom that also goes by the name Cauliflower mushroom. They are great eating, and when you find Grifola frondosa, you will have a lot of mushroom to cook with, so get ready to be creative. Soups, omelets, casseroles, and pizzas are all good candidates for this fungus!
The same mushroom foray that yielded us the Hen of the Woods, was also one of the most epic mushroom hunts I have ever led or been a part of. Located in an enchanted forest that is perched on sandstone cliffs, and is filled with mossy ravines and boulders that glaciers deposited roughly 10,000 or so years ago, this magical piece of land was teeming with mycological wonders.
We found, fell in love, and grew ever closer to mushrooms that day. Along with the Hen, we also found a mediocre Chicken, a very nice score of near perfect Chanterelles, and many more mushrooms. Some were known from previous hunts and research, others we were able to ID with field guides, and some remain a mystery …
In closing, I can more than say that I accomplished my mycological goals for this summer. Not only did I find and learn how to ID both Chicken of the Woods and Chanterelles, I also learned about Hen of the Woods, Dryad’s Saddle, King Strophia, Northern Tooth, a small variety of boletes, and many other mushrooms.
While I feel like I know more about mushrooms than most people, I still have a lot to learn. I am an amatuer mycologist, self taught, and definitely am not an expert. Even though I like to share my stories and experiences about and with mushrooms, I cannot stress enough how important it is for you to do your own research on mushrooms.
Never eat a mushroom that you haven’t made a positive ID on. Always double and triple check a new find. Never eat too much of a new mushroom, and try to keep a fresh specimen available for at least 48 hours. Learn how to do spore prints. And most importantly, do not feel obligated to take mushrooms just because you can. It is okay to leave them in place and let them live out their lives and spread their spores so a future generation of mushrooms can keep the mycelium running. Peace and cheers…