A leccinum button emerges from the duff

I want to love Leccinums, the scaber stalk boletes. They are hefty and often abundant from June through October in Ithaca, and their solid, pockmarked stalks make them profoundly satisfying to pick. In the right patch, I can fill up a basket in minutes, and Leccinums are some of the only mushrooms that actually provide a good bicep workout as I carry my haul out of the woods.

Trouble is, they don’t taste so good.  The grotesquely phallic shape of Leccinums doesn’t help their cause, either. Neither does the fact that many bruise black, and even the most delicately handled specimens look like they’ve been sprayed with squid ink upon hitting the frying pan. My standard practice with boletes is to slice off the squishy pore layer in the woods, flamboyantly flinging pieces in every direction as I imagine the spores producing new satellite colonies. I tried this once with Leccinums, and by the time I got home my mushrooms had been reduced to black mush.

Not everyone agrees with my assessment of the scaber stalks’ culinary merit; apparently, some people find a bland, slightly mushy phallic symbol to be well suited for the table. Eastern Europeans particularly love the scaber stalks, drying or pickling them to ensure their pantries remain stocked through the winter. Langdon Cook, a Northwestern forager who runs the blog Fat of the Land, reports seeing groups of Eastern Europeans in the woods furtively filling five gallon buckets high with scaber stalks and slippery jacks, another bolete I consider worthy of its unappetizing name.

Of course, the joke is really on me, since I don’t get to have the pleasure of savoring these ubiquitous boletes, which only taunt me with their resemblance to the more elusive and later arriving porcini. The Eastern Europeans boletivores certainly must be happy to have the scaber stalks and slippery jacks all to themselves!

A nice plump leccinum

Leccinums are one of many examples of cross-cultural differences in mushroom affinities. The woodear, first cultivated in China 1,400 years ago, remains a beloved staple of Chinese cuisine, even though most Westerners do not appreciate its gelatinous texture and ear-like appearance. The Italians go to great lengths, even risking their lives, to find and protect their porcini patches. The French adore chanterelles, driving much of the Pacific Northwestern mushroom trade. Most Americans never get beyond the grocery store button mushroom, but hordes of Midwesterners make an exception for the morel, which they hunt along with wild turkeys every spring (full camouflage attire required). Similarly, the mycophobic British forage meadow and horse mushrooms, close relatives of the cultivated portabella and button Agaricus. Otherwise, mushrooms are  “toadstools,” only to be eaten by the foolhardy.

In the unlikely event that my musings about the scaber stalks filled you with Leccinum lust, you’re in luck – they’re not hard to find or recognize. With their scaber-spotted stalks, primarily orange-brown caps and light pores, Leccinums are easy to ID to genus. However, there is a constellation of genetically distinct Leccinum but morphologically similar species fruiting in North America, each with its own favored mycorrhizal partners and growth habits. Each of these species also has its own suite of scientific names, depending on whom you ask. “If you are a North American collector at this point in time, it is probably not possible to identify most Leccinum species with scientific certainty,” explains Michael Kuo of MushroomExpert.com. Determining the mycorrhizal host, be it birch, poplar, oak, beech, spruce, or pine, is an essential part of IDing most Leccinums to species. Unfortunately, this is not always so easy in the field, where several different tree species may be growing within close proximity of your scaber stalked specimen.

The conventional wisdom is that all Leccinums are edible, meaning this quibbling about genetics would be strictly a matter of mycology rather than mycophagy (the practice of eating mushrooms, particularly wild ones). Antonio Carluccio, author of The Complete Mushroom Book, acknowledges that Leccinum taxonomy is fraught with contradictions, but says, “Anyway, the main similarity is that every single one of them is edible, and I love them all.”

While countless people (including myself) have indiscriminately consumed the various scaber stalks without penalty, I can no longer advocate this practice without a warning. Two summers ago, an elderly man was hospitalized in New Hampshire with life threatening internal bleeding and gastrointestinal distress following the consumption of Leccinum mushrooms. He had shared the mushrooms with two adults; one suffered less severe GI symptoms, and the other had no reaction whatsoever.

It is disconcerting to be told a food you have long enjoyed is potentially poisonous, and skeptics posted indignant comments following the publication of this report. One person who had been eating Leccinums since age two accused the author of “fear mongering,” and another life-long devotee said, “Now my two toddlers are eating them with no problems in both Russia and Boulder, Colorado.” However, the poisoning was not an isolated incident; the Rocky Mountain Poison Control Center and North American Mycological Association have also reported Leccinum poisonings in recent years.

Leccinums of all shapes and sizes

How can one person’s food be another’s poison? Do Eastern Europeans simply have stomachs of steel? The record has not yet been set straight, and the fact that Leccinum taxonomy is so murky makes it difficult to pinpoint whether the culprit is just one species or the entire genus. Given the rich history of humans consuming Leccinums of all shapes and sizes, I tend to agree with a mycologist whose opinion is summarized in this Fat of the Land article. He believes that a few percent of the population is allergic to the overall genus, and that this explains the discrepancy.

So, what is the upshot of all of this? If you have been eating Leccinums your whole life, do not fear – you obviously enjoy them more than I do, and your body seems to digest them just fine. If you have never tried a scaber stalk before, you’re not missing much. If you’re ever lost in the woods and stumble upon a patch they’d make good survival food, but they’re unlikely to make you everybody’s favorite chef in town.

If you must try them, start with just a few bites, and then put your feast on hold until the following day. By then, the risk of an allergic reaction will have passed. If your palate is anything like mine, your desire to eat more Leccinums just might have passed too!