Yesterday was the first day of fall, and it seems we have hit a turning point in the foraging season. After a mediocre summer harvest, fall has announced its arrival with a formidable flush.
Today we went on a hike to check on a massive oak we knew hosted hen-of-the-woods (maitake) last fall. The tree was barren, but we took a detour on the hike that brought us to a beech-dominated forest devastated by beech bark disease. A fungus of the genus Nectria causes this ubiquitous disease, which plagues beech bark with scaly craters. The battered bark is in turn infested with insects, leading to a beech population’s premature demise.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, beech forests infected with the fungus go through three stages: the advancing front, the killing front, and the aftermath. This forest was firmly in the aftermath zone. The downed, scarred silver trunks, punctuated by the occasional standing oak or maple, made the glade feel like an elephant graveyard.
Right in the middle of such widespread carnage lay new life. Lion’s mane mycelium was feasting on the downed beech, yielding succulent, toothy growths that taste not unlike crab. As I write, brisket is braising in the oven, and the lion’s mane is soon to be sautéed until the tips become crispy.
As the meandering trail took us out of the beech cemetery, we found ourselves in a healthy white and red pine grove. Lion’s mane disappeared, and in its place a colorful assortment of edible Suillus boletes and hallucinogenic yellow fly agarics (Amanita muscara var guessowii) dotted the forest floor.
The Suillus boletes, from the slippery jacks to the slippery Jill, have a well-deserved reputation for mediocrity. I typically rate them in the “survival food” category, but today we were lucky enough to find my favorite denizen of the genus – Suillus pictus, commonly known as the painted bolete. With its brick-red cap mottled with yellow specks and bright yellow pore surface protected by a cob-webby partial veil, Suilllus pictus is a striking bolete. Its flavor is neither nasty nor notable, but thankfully it is much less slimy than most Suillus species and its looks alone make it a joy to find.
I have not been lucky enough to discover any maitake this September, so I’m not doing my victory dance yet. Regardless, I am feeling like a satisfied forager. The mycelium is hard at work, and mushrooms are popping up throughout the land. The wait was worth it.