Lion’s Mane

ForageCast: Fall Feast

IMG_2112With crispy autumn leaves underfoot and newly naked branches overhead, we took the little one to climb her first mountain. Winter is the longest season in Vermont, a sprawling and frigid affair, and autumn the most ephemeral. But when the leaves are peaking, and the harvest heavy, we are overwhelmed by abundance and undaunted by the coming cold.

After a prolonged dry spell, the recent rain will give foragers one last chance to find fall favorites like hedgehogs, yellowfoot chanterelles, matsutake, maitake, and lion’s mane. Even the most conspicuous fungi are hard to spot beneath the freshly fallen leaves, so the fall forager must rely on an intuitive knowledge of the landscape to guide her gaze. Subtle cues, from the age of the forest to the structure of the soil, can make the difference between an empty basket and a full frying pan.

I look at baby Eliana, riding in the snuggly with Mama, her wide eyes fixed on the canopy of beech. Those eyes seem to be absorbing everything, missing nothing. It occurs to me that a forager’s eyes are not unlike a child’s eyes, forever open and awaiting the next surprise. Foraging is, fundamentally, the art of seeing.

And even on this dry October afternoon, I see a cluster of lion’s mane on a downed beech right along the path. Just a little lion, but pristine and fresh, and accompanied by several others flashing their pearly white teeth. I leave the emergent pink fungi to ripen in the log’s cavities, and pick just enough for Jenna to make an all-local fall feast – pan seared chicken breast topped with poblano peppers and caramelized  shallots, served with a winter squash stuffed with lion’s mane and a side of roasted Brussels sprout tops. Behold the harvest!

ForageCast - 10-12-11

Northeastern ForageCast for the next two weeks!

ForageCast: Fall Flush

The painted bolete’s cobweb-like veil protects its yellow pores in young specimens.

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.

A lovely lion’s mane specimen found on today’s foray.

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 painted bolete’s speckled cap stands out with its autumnal hues.

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. 

Northeastern ForageCast for the next two weeks!

ForageCast: The Lion’s Lair

Lion’s mane has arrived!

Forgive me, foragers. Life has been hectic, and a month has past since my last ForageCast. Fortunately, I have nothing but good news to report. After two long-awaited prolonged showers, the woods are beginning to burst with mushrooms. The rain coincided with a cold front throughout the region, which means we are starting to see the full cast of fall fungi. The past couple days I have been starting to find yellow foot chanterelles, hedgehogs, and porcini, and today a reader submitted a photo of a maitake that generously fruited on a stump right in his backyard!

Ari and Shelburne Farms workshop participants admire a log covered in lion’s mane.

Perhaps the biggest September surprise came during Saturday’s foraging workshop at Shelburne Farms, an environmental education center on the shores of Lake Champlain in Shelburne, Vermont. After I gave an introductory presentation and discussed the ForageCast, we headed into the windswept woods. The ground was drier than I expected, and at first the mushrooms seemed to be in hiding. But then, a white clump about thirty feet off the trail caught my eye. I ran over to take a closer look and sure enough, I had spotted a hefty, pristine lion’s mane (Hericium americanum) specimen. I let out a victory yelp and called the workshop participants over to take a look at the lion’s mane.

As we hiked on I told participants to look out for more lion’s mane, since we had entered a forest predominantly composed of beech and birch. Within a minute, a participant downhill of me hollered out that he had spotted another specimen. Before I even had a chance to take a look, somebody uphill of me exclaimed that she had found a lion’s mane too! Soon, we had found at least two-dozen lion’s mane clusters, some larger than soccer balls! Shelburne Farms allows only educational use of its trails, so we were not able to sample any lion’s mane. Still, it was astounding and auspicious to stumble upon such an epic patch during a brief workshop foray. 

While most mushrooms have gills or pores, lion’s mane is instead covered in white teeth that collectively resemble a frozen waterfall. Its unique appearance makes it one of the most foolproof gourmet mushrooms to ID. Lion’s mane has a delicate flavor reminiscent of scallops, earning it first place in a mushroom tasting party last fall. We like it sautéed at a medium to high heat in our cast iron pan until the tips get slightly crispy.

Now that fall weather is here, be sure to keep your eyes open as you walk through beech, birch, aspen, and poplar woods. You might just stumble upon the lion’s lair!

Northeastern ForageCast for the upcoming two weeks!

ForageCast: Week of August 30, 2011

A taste of the recent bounty: yellow feet, lion's mane and smooth chanterelles!

Now is the time to be a mushroom forager. I thought this to myself yesterday as I followed an epic vein of porcinis down a moist wash at the forest’s edge. While Hurricane Irene wrought havoc upon many parts of the Eastern seaboard, in Ithaca all we got was rain. This rain, on top of plentiful August showers, has awakened the legions of fungi in the forest.

With cooler temperatures, we are seeing a whole new set of species begin to emerge. As new species come, those that prefer milder weather go; in fact, this week I have removed the chanterelle from the ForageCast since I am only seeing the occasional rotting specimen. But nature is all too kind – those of us who cannot part with the chanterelle’s singular apricot aroma and delicate floral notes have been provided with a new cluster of chanterelles to pursue.

After almost getting lost following my porcini path, I decided it was time to get back on trail and see if there were any mushrooms waiting for me ahead. At that point I realized my luck with the porcini was no fluke – the forest was littered with mushrooms. It didn’t take me long to find a nice flush of mature smooth chanterelles (featured in last week’s ForageCast), followed by an even nicer crop of yellow foot chanterelles.

There are two types of chanterelle often referred to as “yellow foot” – the orange-capped Craterellus ignicolor (what I found) and the brownish-capped Craterellus tubaeformis. Both have semi-hollow stems, well-developed false gills, and the fruity scent and flavor of their bigger brethren. Newer foragers should stick to the smooth chanterelle, which is safer to ID because of its larger size and distinctive, slightly wrinkled underside.

The safest chanterelle-like mushroom of all to forage is definitely the hedgehog, featured in the ForageCast for the week of August 15. With its orange-yellow cap, toothed belly, and chanterelle-esque aroma, the hedgehog is difficult to mistake for anything else. It comes in two sizes: big (Hydnum repandum) and small (H. umbilicatum). I still have not seen any this fall, but people have reported sightings to The Mushroom Forager.

Even without any hedgehogs, by last night my fridge was stuffed with wild mushrooms. To top it all off, this morning before work I took Judah for a quick hike only to find a downed tree covered in lion’s mane – my first of the season. With so many gourmet mushrooms popping up across the Eastern seaboard, I urge you to seize the day and go for a jaunt into the woods.  Let me know what you find!

Northeastern ForageCast for the week of August 30, 2011!

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!”

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