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Tips for beginning mushroom hunters from a Wellfleet enthusiast

Chicken of the woods
Elspeth Hay
Chicken of the woods

I’m walking the woods on a beautiful fall day looking for fungi with Alex Emmons.

He shows me dead oak trees and explains how they have a symbiotic relationship with mushrooms.

"So you can see this oak tree that's dead. It's just a standing stump, basically about 15 feet tall, but it's got a number of shelf mushrooms growing all over it," he said.

This particular dead oak is covered in a polypore called reishi, which makes a potent medicinal tea. Alex says any dead oak is worth investigating because oaks are by far the most common deciduous tree in our area, and anywhere they have dead wood they play host to a huge array of edible fungi.

"You also want to look up the trees, if there’s a dead branch, you’ll be surprised how high up a tree you can find mushrooms growing, chicken of the woods particularly grows that way, it’s very easy to identify and it is safe for consumption and pretty delicious with a healthy amount of butter and you know fresh herbs," Alex said.

Chicken of the woods is usually bright orange but can also be a pale creamy or more yellow color and it grows like a ruffled collar out of dead oak stumps and branches. It doesn’t have a lot of edible look-a-likes, but other species do, which is why Alex recommends always bringing a pile of books out into the woods with you.

Elspeth Hay

He said Mushrooms of the Cape Cod National Seashore is a classic and Mushrooms of the Northeast, and Edible and Medicinal Mushrooms of New England and Eastern Canada are also helpful.

"It's always good to have a number of books with you so you can cross-reference. Especially because if you're identifying by picture, you're never going to find a mushroom that looks exactly like the picture in the book. And there's so many mushrooms that have the same color or the same shape, you know, the same gills."

Gills are what they sound like — ridged lines under the cap of the mushroom that look exactly like the gills of a fish. But not all mushrooms have these — some have pores, others have teeth, and still others have ridges, and these are just one of many features that can vary in species that look a lot alike at first glance.

"A safe way to identify mushrooms is to take them home, lay them out on a clean like a I'll use like a black piece of paper, or a clean cookie sheet, and wait for 6 to 8 hours and see what color the spores that they drop are."

This is called a spore print. It’s hard to see the spores just looking at the mushroom, but when they drop, knowing their color can be the difference between life and death. For instance, spore prints are very important with a common local edible called the honey mushroom.

Honey mushroom
Elspeth Hay
Honey mushroom

"Honey mushrooms drop brilliant white spores versus I believe it's the deadly galena that looks like it."

It’s the deadly gallerina, and no, you do not want that one. That one has rust or brown colored spores. And spores it's important to note are a mushrooms’ way of reproducing — imagine the mushroom as a fruit and spores as the seeds it’s trying to drop and spread. For this reason, it’s good to go picking with a basket.

"The baskets supposedly will let the spores of the mushrooms fall out of the mushroom as you're walking through the woods, which will help to propagate mushrooms in the future. And so if you're using a plastic bag or a bucket or something like that, it doesn't allow for that."

Mushrooms also spread underground vegetatively through what’s called mycelium. For this reason, even though there’s a lot of debate about whether it’s ok to pull up mushrooms or if it’s better to cut them, at least one long-term study suggests it doesn’t really matter— the fungi above ground is just the fruiting body, and there’s a whole fungal network still left undisturbed and ready to reproduce underneath.

That said, you may want to bring a knife and a little paint or pastry brush, because these tools will help you get your mushrooms home intact, sand free, and ready to eat.

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.