Wild Mushrooms: Pickers Should Bring An Expert Along

Musky, dusky and risky for the uninitiated, wild mushrooms are gaining in popularity as American palates look for new taste treats. Although the Pacific Northwest is known as Mushroom Mecca, a mycologist in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences says Pennsylvania should not be faulted in the fungus department.

"I don't think people from the Northeast should look to the Pacific coast as the North American haven of exotic wild mushrooms," says Elwin Stewart, professor of plant pathology. "Pennsylvania is blessed with a diverse fungal flora that includes many of the most revered of edible species."

Indeed, Pennsylvania fields and forests are home to at least seven species of popular wild mushrooms. Bearing such exotic names as king bolete, morels, chicken of the woods, shaggy mane, horn of plenty and oyster mushrooms, you can find these fungi growing abundantly throughout the state -- if you know where to look. "Most of the edible wild mushrooms grow in forested areas, although there are several that thrive in open fields," Stewart says.

Despite Pennsylvania's rich bounty of wild species, Stewart sharply warns against picking any kind of mushroom unless accompanied by an expert. "You should either learn from a mycologist or join a mushroom club that has very knowledgeable amateurs," Stewart says. Mushroom pickers should buy a good field guide as well.

Stewart recommends first learning what mushrooms not to pick. Most, but not all, deadly mushrooms in Pennsylvania are Amanita species. These mushrooms vary widely in appearance, but some common characteristics are white spores, a veil hanging from where the cap meets the stalk, and a cup-like or bulbous base.

"Poisonous mushrooms are very toxic and in most cases lethal," Stewart warns. "Although there are few deaths annually from mushroom poisoning, in this case, one mistake could be your last."

Once toxic mushroom recognition has been mastered, Stewart suggests tackling edible wild mushrooms one species at a time. "Learn its developmental stages and habitat, then branch off into other species. Learn three or four edible species in your area that have a fruiting season spanning from spring to mid- or late fall," he says.

Here are some of the better wild mushrooms available in the Northeast.

Boletus edulis. Called "king bolete," these have a thick stalk and a nut-like cap. They are found near the roots of trees.

Laetiporus sulphureus. Called "chicken of the woods," this fungus grows as a parasite on dead wood. The creamy yellow/orange mushroom forms a cascading series of shelves resembling a lava flow, and yes, it tastes like chicken.

Coprinus comatus. Known as "shaggy mane," these are abundant in the fall. They have a large cap that looks somewhat like an artillery shell. These should be eaten shortly after picking or the cap will deteriorate into a gooey mass. This mushroom is found in grassy fields.

Langermannia gigantea. Known to kids far and wide as a "giant puffball," this fungus must be eaten fresh, when its flesh is white. They are found in fields.

Craterellus cornucopiodes. The "horn of plenty" is black and looks rather unappetizing, but its trumpet-like shape is recognizable, and the mushroom is quite tasty.

Pleurotus ostreatus. Called "oyster mushrooms," these fungi look fragile and flare from the stem. They have a slightly meaty taste.

Morechella esculenta. The morel, which resembles a pine cone or Christmas tree-shaped sponge on a stalk, is commonly found in the spring in wooded areas. Stewart credits the wild mushroom renaissance in part to Americans' fascination with outdoor activities and environmental causes. "There is also increasing cultural diversity as Asians and Europeans immigrating to this country bring their love of mushrooms," Stewart says. "I've been collecting these things for 22 years, and they seem to get more popular every year."

Stewart cautions that most wild mushrooms should be eaten as soon after harvest as possible. He adds that almost all wild mushrooms can be frozen or dried without losing much flavor. If stored in a refrigerator, the mushrooms should be in a paper sack. "If you put them in a plastic bag, humidity builds up, and the small amounts of bacteria and yeasts that are present when the mushroom is picked will multiply rapidly. Then, there is a good chance you will get sick from the bacteria, not the fungus," he says.

Although wild mushrooms can be delicious, freshness can be a problem. For instance, the giant puffball emits a terrible odor once it has gone bad. Stewart says the best way to judge freshness is by appearance. "If it looks bad, it probably is bad," he says.

Stewart says wild mushrooms can be found in almost any location. Indeed, he has found several species in areas only a short distance from Penn State's University Park campus.

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