Monthly Archives: September 2010

Lion’s Mane: A Foolproof Fungus

Log-grown H. erinaceus at a perfect stage for harvest. This species has long, non-branching spines.

The lion’s mane season has arrived, bringing white, cascading icicles from the forest to my plate! I conveniently use the common name “lion’s mane” to refer to a constellation of fungi of the genus Hericium, including the native northeastern representatives H. americanum and H. coralloides, as well as the commonly cultivated H. erinaceus. Most mycology texts call these three mushrooms bear’s-head tooth, comb tooth, and bearded tooth, respectively. Distinguishing amongst Hericium species can be difficult at first, but this is irrelevant to the forager interested in a good meal. Lion’s mane has no look-a-likes, edible or poisonous, and all forms are edible and delicious in the kitchen. With that said, Jenna does prefer the texture of H. erinaceus, which looks like a faceless hedgehog or a truffula tree out of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. Instead of H. erinaceus’ tight, pom-pom shaped clusters, H. americanum forms looser, interconnected clumps that look like the tufted form of a weeping willow tree. H. coralloides resembles H. americanum, but reminds me of branched brain coral with its shorter teeth.

A mature H. americanum fruiting on a downed beech tree. It appears just slightly overripe, as the teeth are fully extended and it is beginning to brown on the margins.

Fruiting occasionally in the spring but typically in the fall in the Northeast, lion’s mane is fairly common and easy to spot. This saprophytic fungus is not very discriminating when it comes to log selection, growing on many dead or dying hardwood trees including maple, beech, oak, birch, walnut, and sycamore. It can be cultivated indoors on sawdust or outdoors on logs or totems, though H. erinaceus is the only lion’s mane species you can readily buy spawn for on the Internet.

Another log-grown H. erinaceus ready for harvest.

However, Jeanne Grace, a recent Masters student of Dr. Ken Mudge in Horticulture at Cornell University, cloned several strains of wild H. americanum growing near Ithaca and has had great success cultivating it on hardwood totems in its native habitat. The totems, which are created by sandwiching spawn between two large log butts, produced bumper crops both this summer and last, forming much bigger fruits than I have ever seen with H. erinaceus. The wild Hericium strains did not perform as well in her indoor experiments on sawdust in “The Mushroom,” a grow room in the Cornell Department of Horticulture’s Plant Science building. In this environment they “pinned,” but were unable to find their way out of the plastic bag to grow as their cultivated relative does.

"The Mushroom," in Cornell's Plant Science building

You usually have to wait a year from the inoculation date to enjoy cultivated lion’s mane, but the impatient mycophile can find lion’s mane in the woods right now! Last fall I stumbled upon a large, rotting log covered in frozen waterfalls of lion’s mane. I was so transfixed by the sight that it took me a few minutes to notice a hidden pocket in the log, harboring the biggest lion’s mane I have seen to date. The mushroom was bigger and heavier than a soccer ball! Today I returned to the spot, expecting either nothing or another jackpot. I got something in between; four medium sized lion’s mane clusters had fruited in the hollowed out portion of the log, all perfectly ripe. Two were covered in debris from the eroding ceiling of the log cavity in which they had formed, so I took the cleaner two and walked out of the forest a satisfied man.

A young wild lion’s mane specimen, probably H. americanum. The pinkish tone and tight clusters of short teeth indicate that it is still growing.

When not overripe, lion’s mane has a delicate seafoody flavor and sublime texture that reminds me of scallops. Cooking it perfectly takes practice, however. I like it best sautéed in butter and garlic on a medium heat, until it gets just slightly brown and crispy on the tips. Today’s lion’s mane I sautéed with sliced local apples in ginger, garlic, and butter. Yum! All lion’s mane species are very absorbent, so specimens should be squeezed out like a sponge after washing (or not washed at all if fairly clean when found). The mushroom holds up to a good wringing out surprisingly well, whereas sautéing wet lion’s mane spoils the texture.

If you are fairly new to mushroom foraging, lion’s mane is a great species to start with. In the words of mycologist David Fischer, “If it looks like a cluster of white fungal icicles hanging off a decaying log, stump, or dead tree trunk, and it seems very fresh, bake it (or fry it slowly in a mix of butter and oil) and enjoy!”

Amanitas: From Deadly to Delicious

Amanita muscaria var guessowii

A few years ago, Jenna and I spent a summer in the rural Costa Rican rainforest, interning at the environmental learning center Rancho Mastatal. The second day, Jenna decided to practice yoga, leaving me with an opportunity to ignore her repeated snake warnings and foolhardily wander off alone into the beckoning jungle. I knew there were only were a handful of venomous snake species in the area, and I approached the clearly blazed trail with all the fiery zeal I usually have in the North Country. Hopping from rock to rock to cross a small river, I was roused into a mid-step leap when I noticed a well-camouflaged snake, coiled in a thick ball and firmly holding its ground on the stone that I was about to step on. I barely managed to jump over the snake, which I soon learned was the deadly and highly territorial fer de lance, or terciopelo in Spanish. Unfortunately, my first encounter with the terciopelo was not my last; over the course of the summer I saw more of them than all other types of snake combined.

Amanitas are the terciopelos of the kingdom of fungi. Though the genus only accounts for a small percentage of all mushroom species, it contains some of the most ubiquitous and deadly, making it the culprit for 90% of deaths caused by mushroom poisoning. The vast majority of these deaths are from the destroying angel or death cap, both of which look meatier and more appetizing than most other deadly mushrooms, such as Galerina autumnalis, a nondescript LBM (little brown mushroom). A disproportionate number of people who die of Amanita poisoning in the United States are Southeast or East Asian immigrants, as the death cap bears more than a passing resemblance to the paddy straw mushroom (Volvariella volvacea) popular in their homeland.

Incidentally, the Amanita genus is not only the province of death and destruction; it also contains some of the most beautiful and delicious of all mushrooms, such as the orange-red Amanita caesarea, or Caesar’s mushroom, prized by Roman emperors and contemporary Europeans alike. In fact, even the destroying angel and death cap taste pretty good, according to those who have lived to tell the tale. Of course, you should not even consider eating any of the edible Amanitas until you are an expert, though Caesar’s mushroom is the safest and most commonly enjoyed, with its orange cap and yellow gills and stalk.

Amanita muscaria var guessowii's warts are remnants of the universal veil.

Once you become familiar with Amanitas, you can recognize the genus from afar by its undeniable regal glow, what David Aurora calls the “Amanita aura” in his classic Mushrooms Demystified (264). Until then, you can distinguish Amanitas by the universal veil that envelops emerging mushrooms in an egg-like cocoon that can look dangerously similar to an edible puffball if you don’t slice it open. The universal veil soon gives way, leaving species-dependent remnants. Most species retain a trademark sack or collar-like volva at the base of the stalk, and some have a volval patch or warts on the cap. Many Amanitas are also equipped with a partial veil that covers the nascent gills, splitting to leave a ring or skirt called the annulus on the upper stalk as the mushroom matures. All Amanitas have white spores and white to off-white or yellow gills, and most are mycorrhizal and therefore found near living trees.

In Ithaca, by far the two most common Amanita species I see are the all-white eastern destroying angel (Amanita bisporigera) and the yellow-capped fly agaric, Amanita muscaria var guessowii, which is closely related to the quintessential red fly agaric of Mario Bros. fame. These mushrooms seem to have an unusual tolerance for drought, and they often stood out prominently this year against a tapestry of dry, cracking soil and crispy leaves. Ironically, the deadly destroying angel is deceptively innocuous looking, while the much less poisonous fly agaric screams “don’t eat me!” with its brightly colored, warty cap.

A young destroying angel. Note that the cap has not yet fully opened up, and the partial veil has not yet broken to form an annulus (ring) on the upper stalk.

The destroying angel and its equally deadly relative the death cap (Amanita phalloides) contain amatoxins that cause liver and kidney failure, leading to death in about 60% of cases. Amatoxins, also found in some Lepiota, Conocybe, and Galerina species, are sneaky toxins. Though they cause a bout of gastrointestinal malaise five to 24 hours after ingestion, these symptoms typically then retreat before coming back a full day later and taking their final toll of liver and kidney failure. Medical support should be sought immediately if you have reason to suspect you or a friend was poisoned, but there is no reliable cure for amatoxin poisoning. One Cornell student was lucky enough to survive a destroying angel poisoning in 2006 – read his story here. The destroying angel and the death cap both have volva and annulus, but the latter’s cap often contains greenish, yellowish, or olive hues.

However, a constellation of identifying features should always be used to distinguish any edible mushroom from an Amanita, as the annulus (ring) can fall off and the volva (sack at stem base) can be hidden underground or broken. Thus, the popular field mushrooms of the Agaricus genus, which have no volva, should always be dug up before eating. If you have even an iota of doubt about your “meadow mushroom,” take a spore print as well to rule out the white-spored Amanitas.

The fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) and its slightly more dangerous relative Amanita pantherina do not contain the amatoxins, instead possessing ibotenic acid that the body converts to muscimol. Though these mushrooms theoretically could be fatal in great quantities, there are responsible for very few reported deaths, but many sweaty, nauseated, occasionally enlightening trips. In fact, Amanita muscaria may be humanity’s oldest hallucinogen, enjoyed by Viking berserkers, contemporary Siberian shamans, and likely Vedic peoples as well. Muscimol passes through the body unmetabolized in the urine, a fact that has not escaped users of the sacrament throughout history. Some even claim that drinking the urine of somebody who has eaten the mushroom minimizes the negative physical effects and maximizes the psychedelic properties.

Whether or not this is true, the nature of ibotenic acid/muscimol poisoning does vary significantly depending on the regional variety as well as the preparation method, making recreational use inane. Common physical symptoms include nausea, vomiting, tiredness, loss of muscular coordination, heavy sweating, chills, twitching or convulsions. Cognitive effects range from harrowing to euphoric to harrowingly euphoric (think the Viking bersekers), and commonly include a feeling of heightened strength and an altered perception of the size of objects. No wonder Mario grows when he grabs a mushroom!

It’s not just digital Italian plumbers and berserkers who like the fly agaric –various animals apparently get their kicks from them as well! While maggots certainly tend to infest fly agaric stems, bigger-brained creatures also like to take part in the fun of helping these fungi spread their spores. There are many historical and anecdotal reports of reindeer eating them in Siberia, and mycologist Tom Volks says he has seen squirrels in Wisconsin hording their stash safely out of biped reach in a tree canopy. Indeed, while slug and insect damage are common on most mushroom species, the fly agaric is one of the only fungi I see that frequently has several large chomps taken out of the cap, clearly mammalian in origin. I have long wondered if the culprits are deer, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, or a combination of furry denizens of the forest. Perhaps one day I will put a “myco-cam” next to an emerging fly agaric and catch the guilty party red-handed!

Amanita muscaria var guessowii

Northwestern and European mushroom hunters have long known the fly agaric to be a porcini indicator, something I have found to be true of the yellow-capped Amanita muscaria var guessowii more common in the Northeast as well. Porcinis are currently in season in the Northeast, so be sure to pay extra attention if you spot a fly agaric in the woods!

Though Amanitas can be as deadly as even the fiercest terciopelo, they don’t bite! While even the most seasoned rainforest explorer can still fall victim to a deadly snake, mushroom experts do not die of Amanita poisoning. In fact, you don’t even have to be a mushroom expert to avoid having Amanitas for your last supper – all you have to do is be responsible, and only eat mushroom species whose identity you are 100% sure of. Many gourmet mushrooms are almost foolproof once you have basic training, such as black trumpets, lion’s mane, hen of the woods, and chicken of the woods. And, quite frankly, if you even have to consult a field guide to rule out whether your mushroom is a deadly Amanita or an edible look-a-like, you probably shouldn’t be eating it to begin with!

By |September 21st, 2010|Amanita|2 Comments|

In Pursuit of the Porcini

Once again, the maggots have beaten me to the porcinis. Jenna found the first lone porcini over the weekend, on a hike with a friend from our undergraduate years. With whiteish pores and a plump, reticulate stem, I immediately knew this was the prized cep, or king bolete (Boletus edulis). “Seeing is Boleting,” as the mushroom hunter’s adage goes, and once we were aware of the porcini presence, we all started to spot them with some regularity throughout the trail. Most were growing alone or with one or two comrades, though we discovered one goldmine of a hillside that was littered with small, early specimens. This spot too began as a single porcini, but as we glanced down the slope and focused our vision we began to notice many small caps barely lifting up the leaf litter on the forest floor. All were young, appearing to be in pristine condition, and we picked just enough for a garnish on the whole chicken from the Ithaca Farmers’ Market that we planned to roast later that evening.

It was only when we returned home and emptied our backpack to clean the mushrooms that we realized we were not the first to have discovered their presence. Upon slicing the stems, we noticed they were unusually pithy, even on the smallest and freshest mushrooms. Our friend noticed a couple of maggots inside one stem, which he squished and discarded. Just like the epiphany of stumbling upon the porcini patch, which began as one mushroom and quickly turned into 50, the first couple maggots soon became hundreds, burrowing their way up the stems of each porcini. After such a dry summer, the maggots must have been just as happy as I was to find a good meal. They are more discriminating than I would have imagined, though – even the edible, though inferior, nearby bay boletes (Boletus badius) were spared.

Luckily, the maggots had not yet completed their pilgrimage to the most succulent part of the porcini – the cap. After thoroughly cleaning them, which meant slicing off all but one of the stems in their entirety and brushing off the caps with a damp towel (but not rinsing), our bounty looked much smaller. Still, we had enough left for Jenna to make a stellar white wine, lemon, maple syrup and porcini broth for the roasted chicken. I will try my newfound porcini spot again periodically in between now and the frost. While the season’s first porcinis are always exciting, the later ones are much less likely to be infested with maggots!

By |September 8th, 2010|Porcini|Comments Off on In Pursuit of the Porcini|

The Forager’s Eyes

Ari holds an unusually large log-grown shiitake mushroom

Fledging foragers beware: once you begin learning how to recognize edible mushrooms, you will never see the forest in the same way again. Just as growing your own vegetables for the first time changes the way you look at supermarket shelves and industrial corn fields, finding your meals in the forest alters the way you look at the landscape. This paradigm shift is empowering, even revelatory, but it can also be dangerous. Indeed, in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan warns the aspiring forager that nature can start to feel like one vast grocery store, where everything is free for the taking (though potentially poisonous). “It was almost as if I had donned a new pair of glasses that divided the natural world into the possibly good to eat and the probably not,” he explains. And all this was before he even went out in the woods and tried his luck at foraging for the first time, when he was merely an “incipient forager, a forager-in-waiting,” eagerly awaiting his hunting license and a foray with a mycophilic friend (285). It seems our evolutionarily acquired forager mentality is so deeply rooted in our minds that even the mere expectation of foraging can rouse it. Though he concedes that the nature-as-delicatessen mentality “might not have been the most exalted way of experiencing nature,” it did grip his attention “in a way it hadn’t been engaged in years.”

This is exactly what I find so magical about foraging – it engages your attention in new, often surprising, but always rewarding ways. The human perceptual field is intrinsically selective, so when your eyes are constantly peeled for mushrooms, you will start to notice more of certain things (like unusual types of insects, newts, and moss) at the expense of others (like the clouds in the sky above). In fact, many mushroom hunters make the mistake of exclusively looking down, which has caused me to get lost in the woods on more than one occasion.  In August, looking down (combined with greed, carelessness, and a desire to access remote, private foraging spots) took the lives of 18 Italian mushroom hunters in ten days.

Another danger of only looking down is that it can cause the forager to lose sight of the bigger picture in terms of tree species composition and ecology. While the random, haphazard foraging approach can work at times, I am much more likely to be successful if I have a particular mushroom in mind. Say, for example, I were to go foraging tomorrow morning. Instead of driving to a random patch of woods and scanning the ground while hiking without any particular target, I would first assess the “forage-cast,” as I like to call it. In particular, I would consider the temperature and soil moisture, and from this I would determine which mushrooms might be popping up in the Ithaca area. Then, if I already had a tried and true spot for one of these species I might go directly there, knowing exactly what to look for and where to look for it. Otherwise, I might go to a type of forest known to support a mushroom that could be fruiting at this time of year. If it was particularly dry (as it is right now), I would be sure to stay to lowlands and other wet sites regardless of forest ecology.

Not only does this approach ensure that I go to spots where mushrooms are likely to be popping up, but it also means I know how to focus my perceptual field to increase my chances of coming home with a full basket. For example, my approach to finding chanterelles, with their brilliant egg yolk color, is very different from my approach to finding their highly camouflaged relatives the black trumpet. I can run through the forest with a broad visual field and still spot chanterelles, whereas I often wind up on my hands and knees when pursuing black trumpets. Similarly, biking through suburbs can be a good method for spotting hen of the woods, which grows in large brown clumps at the base of hardwood (usually oak) trees or stumps, but only if your attention is directed and tuned into your target.

On Michael Pollan’s first foraging adventure, his friend and teacher Angelo made chanterelles the target species based on the time of year and rainfall pattern. Though Pollan was at first “blind” even as Angelo spotted chanterelle after chanterelle, suddenly he had a perceptual epiphany. “I began to understand what it meant to have my eyes on, and the chanterelles started to pop out of the landscape, one and then another, almost as though they were beckoning to me,” he explains in The Omnivore’s Dilemma (368). Without the tangible (and seasonally timed) target of chanterelles, he likely would never have found any worthwhile mushrooms, though even with this target he was still “blind” until he experienced the perceptual paradigm shift.

This is why many consider mushroom hunting to be an art; it requires a delicate balance between planning and improvisation. You increase your chances of success by doing your homework beforehand and knowing what to look for, yet mushrooms like to defy expectations and logic. You never know when you’ll find the unexpected mushroom fruiting outside of its normal parameters, and sometimes the mushroom you are so fastidiously searching for might be right beneath your feet, only indicating its presence by a slight bulge in the leaf cover on the forest floor.

Thus, while my pre-foraging preparations may be more intellectual, when I step outside and actually begin the hunt, I enter a state that is akin to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of “flow.” I sometimes become so thoroughly absorbed in the activity that I stop thinking or processing. Instead, I am acutely aware of my direct sensory experience, particularly sight and scent, and have the image of the mushroom I am looking for almost superimposed over the landscape in my mind’s eye.

Judah in a state of "flow"

This is the state of rapture that I imagine our dog Judah enjoys as he tromps through the forest. Without any preconceived route, he is possessed by sensory intuition, following any sign of an animal (be it bear, butterfly, or shadow) to hunt without stopping once to think. This quality of open-minded awareness and spontaneous movement is a meditation on alertness and instinct, and often results in unique finds or experiences for the human and canine forager alike. While I envy the ease and reliability with which Judah enters this often ecstatic state of flow, his lack of premeditation does occasionally get him into trouble (think skunks and porcupines). Luckily, being human, I have enough foresight to think twice before taking a bite of that pretty white destroying angel on the side of the trail.

A young destroying angel. Note that the cap has not fully opened up, and the partial veil has not yet broken to form an annulus (ring) on the upper stalk


While our instincts facilitate our enjoyment of mushroom foraging and can lead us to good finds, they are a worthless, even deceiving, guide when it comes to distinguishing edible from poisonous species. The destroying angel, one of the deadliest and most common mushrooms in North America, looks as innocuous as the white button mushrooms you find at the grocery store. Conversely, many of the safest and most delicious wild mushroom species look alien or poisonous to the neophyte going on intuition alone, such as chicken of the woods, lion’s mane, cinnabar red chanterelles, lobster mushrooms, hedgehog mushrooms, morels and black trumpets. Despite being divinely edible, the black trumpet looks like it should be in a flower vase on the Addams Family’s table instead of on your focaccia, earning it the name trompette de la mort, or “trumpet of death” in France.

A couple years back, before I knew the difference between a black trumpet and a black lab, I was chanterelle hunting with Jenna when she spotted a patch of bizarre looking, wrinkled black fungi growing out of a clump of moss. They were fragrant and distinctive enough to warrant identification, so we took one home along with our chanterelle harvest. We were delighted (though shocked) to discover it was a choice edible, and the next day we returned to the spot and took home a basketful. As much as I love chanterelles, they paled in comparison to their trumpet-shaped relatives, their exquisite and heady flavor seeming to embody the essence of the forest itself. Jenna’s find was not a fluke – she has since proven to have a highly developed eye for black trumpets, making her an invaluable member of any foraging brigade!

By |September 3rd, 2010|Foraging Philosophy|Comments Off on The Forager’s Eyes|
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