A post for the average Morel hunter as she encounters these (non-Morchella) Spring Shrooms
A short guide to some of my favorite, under-appreciated Springtime mushrooms
It's Springtime in the Woods, and you're out hiking with your dog. You spot a dead Elm with peeling gray bark and decide to take a look around it's base and see if it's your lucky day. Approaching the tree, you do see a mushroom out of the corner of your eye. Bending closer, your excitement turns to disappointment. This particular mushroom is far from a Morel- it looks more like a burnt goblet than the delicious blond you were hoping for. You turn away, frustrated, and hike down the trail, stopping momentarily to kick aside an old brown puffball sitting along the path. What good is it having all these random mushrooms around if none of them are Morels?!
Well, that's what this post is about! Here I will identify many of the mushrooms we commonly find growing alongside the Morel as well as provide a little extra information about the species. In my experience, knowledge of and enthusiasm for a study (like Mycology!) are positively correlated. Read on!
Turkey Tail Mushrooms
This extremely common mushroom has as many medicinal uses as it has look-alikes. It is dried and used in tea or taken as supplements around the world to help fight cancer, a claim supported by recent studies indicating that the Turkey Tail has certain compounds that are effective as anti-cancer drugs. For those interested in identifying this mushroom, take a specimen and go through this Totally True Turkey Tail Test, provided by mushroomexpert.com
Totally True Turkey Tail Test
1) Is the pore surface a real pore surface? Like, can you see actual pores?
No: See Stereum ostrea and other crust fungi.
2) Squint real hard. Would you say there are about 1-3 pores per millimeter (which would make them fairly easy to see), or about 3-8 pores per millimeter (which would make them very tiny)?
3-8 per mm: Continue.
1-3 per mm: See several other species of Trametes.
3) Is the cap conspicuously fuzzy, velvety, or finely hairy (use a magnifying glass or rub it with your thumb)?
No: See several other species of Trametes.
4) Is the fresh cap whitish to grayish?
Yes: See Trametes hirsuta.
5) Does the cap lack starkly contrasting color zones (are the zones merely textural, or do they represent subtle shades of the same color)?
Yes: See Trametes pubescens.
6) Is the fresh mushroom rigid and hard, or thin and flexible?
Rigid and hard: See Trametes ochracea.
Thin and flexible: Totally True Turkey Tail.
Tumbling Puffballs and other puffballs
While in the woods, no matter what time of year, you will likely encounter Puffballs. The more common species include The Tumbling Puffball and older (from last Fall) specimens of the Gem-Studded Puffballs or Giant Puffballs. Although similar in color (all will be some shade of brown) and character (exuding a 'smoke-like' puff of spores when squeezed) the Tumbling Puffball is 'freshly popped' and found more frequently in the Spring than the other two kinds mentioned. You can tell these three apart by a number of characteristics. For example the Tumbling Puffball is deep brown with irregular cracks through with the pores escape, and little to no visible stipe (allowing it to tumble freely, distributing it's spores as it goes). Compare this to the to the rounded hole and pear-shaped base of the Gem-Studded Puffballs. Finally, the remains of the fascinating Giant Puffball can also be found and identified by their huge size alone (often basketball-sized or larger). In the Springtime, they are likely to resemble old nerf balls or piles of foam. This foam-like substance is actually the mushroom's spores, Giant Puffballs create more than a trillion of them!
Compare to LBM's, Little Brown Mushrooms. You will no doubt encounter many mushrooms that fit this description throughout the Spring (and Summer. and Fall.). They are notoriously difficult to classify, and not worth it. But at least now you know you're not missing a meal when you pass these by!
I will discuss these more in my coming Morchella post. For now I will just say that if you find these KEEP THEM- they are choice edibles. I made the mistake of confusing them with a type of False Morel and am still kicking myself about that one.
Inky Caps are a type of mushroom in the genus Coprinus. The name refers to the tendency these mushrooms have to dissolve or self-digest into a dark-colored, sticky mess- usually within a matter of hours after they appear. I have known contemporary mushroom enthusiasts to use the inky residue to create a natural watercolor paint. Many consider these mushrooms to be a Morel indicator, insisting that where species such as the Alcohol Inky (named because it is edible but poisonous if taken with alcohol) fruit, Morels are sure to follow. In my experience this is true, so if you see these little guys on your hunt take some time to explore the surrounding area!
A great Morel indicator (and one of the more ominous signs of Spring), Devil's Urns are often present in areas where Morels are, were, or will be growing. Some even use this species to determine when the Morchella season will start!
Dead Man's Fingers
Found at the base of dead hardwoods, this is a saprobic (helps decay wood that is already dead) fungus. A parasitic fungus attacks live wood.
Chicken of the Woods
Most people think of Chicken of the Woods as a Fall Mushroom, but I know for a fact that huge, delicious quantities of both the yellow pored and white pored variety can be found in late Spring/Early Summer. If you see something similar to the photo above growing on a tree, remember the spot and check back in a week or so
Also known as Pheasant Back, this common polypore (has pores instead of gills) can be found growing on dead trees in the early Spring, particularly Elm. If you don't find any Morels, try bringing a few (very young) Dryad's Saddles home instead. You will know this species from the beautiful 'feathery' pattern on it's light brown cap as well as the strong, sweet odor that resembles watermelon rind. The biggest concern with eating Dryad's Saddle is that the mushroom gets tough very quickly and it can be difficult to find a cooking method that does not enhance this unfortunate attribute. A friend of mine recommends covering the Dryad's Saddle with generous amounts of olive oil and spices, wrapping it in tin foil (to seal in the moisture) and grilling the whole thing. I have also heard this mushroom can be made into candy, something I may look into doing later this year (these mushrooms fruit throughout the Fall in much of Eastern North America).
White Jelly Roll
Black Jelly Roll
Both are found on dead trees and when encountered it immediately becomes obvious why 'Jelly' is part of their names. Although some Jelly Fungus are certainly edible and can be dried and later rehydrated in soups and other dishes (more common in Asian cuisine), the edibility depends largely on factors such as the age, location, storage, and proper identification of the specimen... I'd take a picture but leave the Jelly Rolls to do their work on the trees.
I hope you enjoyed this post and that your next foray is made more meaningful as you perhaps find and identify some of these Spring mushrooms. Happy Hunting!