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No Longer Chicken of Wild Mushrooms

As kids my brothers and I split our time pretty evenly between sports in our backyard and sports out front in the driveway. In the frontyard we played under a lot of rules that pertained to not get running over by a car; there were a few out back but the one I really remember is: “Don’t Eat The Mushrooms.”

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only North American kid who had the idea that unidentified random lawn mushrooms were not for shoving into your mouth, ingrained deep in my sub-conscious. And, you know, I don’t think that was a bad thing; there are some wild mushrooms that can do some pretty nasty things to you. Care should be taken.

But there are big parts of the world–most of the places where English isn’t the first language–where mushrooms are a central part of the diet. For the past few years I’ve wanted to join the ranks of Russians who haphazardly park their cars on the side of the highway at the first sight of mushrroms, or the Japanese who eat a staggering 85 g of mushrooms a day, or the Italians who injure need to worry more fatal falls than misidentifying a poisonous mushroom.

I have collected the books and gone on out on preliminary explorations. Morels, the king of the spring mushrooms, were, for some reason, the focus of my fungal obsession.

It's easy to spot the orange and yellow chicken mushroom from quite a distance in the woods.

It’s easy to spot the orange and yellow chicken mushroom from quite a distance in the woods.

That changed this September when I spotted a bright-orange coloured shelf fungus growing on a dead tree. I didn’t know immediately if it was edible but I quickly realised that it was different than anything I’d seen before and figured it would be easy to identify.

It was a simple task to identify the host tree as a very tall stump of a dead oak tree.

It was a simple task to identify the host tree as a very tall stump of a dead oak tree.

Sure enough, when I returned with my field guide I was able to identify them as Laetiporus sulphureus and harvest a decent amount. This mushroom is also known as the Chicken Mushroom for its flavour or Sulphur Shelf for the bright yellow colour of the underside. The parts of the bracket that are closest to the tree can take on a woody texture so only the outside fringes of young fruit bodies are considered choice edibles.

There have been some reports of illnesses caused by the type of chicken mushroom that grows on conifers (usually pines) in northeastern North America so it’s important to identify the host tree before harvesting. Often these trees will be somewhere between dying or a tall, standing, dead stump. Generally, the base of dead trees is a great place to look for mushrooms.

These are probably shaggy manes growing right out in the lawn.

These are probably shaggy manes growing right out in the lawn.

After the success with the chicken mushroom I started noticing others. I found these in the frontyard and even though the copper-brown / white / black caps look too exotically coloured to be edible they probably are shaggy manes (coprinus comatus). They are what is called an inky cap mushrooms because the fringes turn black and dissolve into an oozy mess as a way of spreading their spore material, but young ones that haven’t gotten to that stage are quite edible.

The guidelines for both safety and success when mushroom hunting go well together with plenty of overlap. I’d start by finding two good references (at least the field guide should be a published, widely-respected book) that are specifically tailored to your part of the world. It’s best if one is a guide to finding the best edible mushrooms (and avoiding their lookalikes) while the other is a field guide to certainly identifying a found specimen. I think the general guide can be geared to a global audience (it’s surprising how widely some of the best edible mushrooms range) but the field guide should be more specifically local. So, I have The Complete Mushroom Hunter: An Illustrated Guide to Finding, Harvesting, and Enjoying Wild Mushrooms and the Lone Pine Field Guide to Mushrooms of Ontario & Eastern Canada.

Then the obvious key is to only eat wild mushrooms that you are certain are safe. Steps toward this goal include carefully following your field guide’s instructions about recognising habitat, host trees, what parts to identify before harvesting, and how to carry harvested mushrooms home. Many start with the mushrooms that David Arora, in his book Mushrooms Demystified calls the fool-proof four: chicken mushrooms, morels, chanterelles, and giant puffballs. (In 1943, in Common Edible Mushrooms, Clyde Christensen included shaggy manes instead of chanterelles in his list of four.)

Once they’ve mastered these four many intermediate mushroom foragers will add the other edible shelf fungi (like maitake) and the boletes (porcini and its relatives), while leaving aside the gilled mushrooms. It’s a good idea to seek the assistance of a professional mycologist when trying to identify a particular mushroom for the first time. Also, even a mushroom identified as edible should be treated cautiously at first and tasted in small pieces once cooked because, like any new food, we never know which ones will cause an unusual or allergic reaction.

Later this week I’ll have a recipe for Chicken Mushroom Risotto.


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