Winter mushrooms a welcome find
Most people who hunt mushrooms do so in late summer and fall when an array of choice edibles are abundant or in spring when morels are in season. It’s easy to forget — or maybe never even know — that there are a couple of tasty “winter mushrooms” which appear during warm spells from late fall until early spring.
These winter mushrooms may not be quite so exquisite tasting as morels, milks, wishies, or a few other prime-season species, but when found in the dead of winter they’re especially welcome. Hunting for them on a bright wintry day is exciting, providing, an excuse — if you need one — to get out the door.
The “velvet foot” mushroom (Flammulina velutipes) is also known by many as the “winter mushroom” since it will survive freezing and continue to produce spores after thawing out. It has a viscid yellowish-orange to orange-brown cap that accounts for the genus name; that is, “flamma,” means “a flame.” The species tag “velutipes” means “velvet stalk” in reference to the stem, which in maturity is dark brown or black in color, being covered with a velvety pubescence.
It’s common throughout Western North Carolina, appearing as a wound parasite in tufts or clusters on or near stumps, logs, roots, and living trunks of slippery elm, willow, poplar, and perhaps other trees. The deadly “autumn skullcap” (Galerina autumnalis), which fruits on wood in October and November, has a brown stalk but usually displays a ring, has brown spores, and a stalk interior that’s brown whereas velvet foot never has a ring and white spores.
To prepare velvet foot, dry or remove the viscid skin covering the, cap and discard the fibrous stalks. A form cultivated and sold in markets as “enotake” or “snow-puff mushroom” looks very different from the wild species as it has almost no cap and a long pure white stem resembling a bean sprout.
The “oyster mushroom” (Pleurotis ostreatus) is very common throughout WNC, appearing singly or in shelving masses on stumps, logs, and living trunks of a variety of deciduous trees, especially poplar and walnut. It may be observed year around, being very white in warm months and more brownish-white in winter.
The genus name refers to the “pleurotoid” habit of the fruiting body; that is, it has a cap that may entirely lack a stalk or a stalk that’s noticeably off-center. The species tag “ostreatus” refers to this mushroom’s oyster-like fragrance and flavor. There are no poisonous look-alikes for this species that I know about, but still check a field guide every time you harvest something for the table. It does harbor beetles in the deep gill slits. These are easily removed by immersing the cap in water or by tapping the top of the cap and dislodging them. The portion of the cap attached to the tree (and the stalk, if present) is tough and should be severed from the fleshy outer part of the cap.
An “oyster log” dragged home will supply successive crops of this tasty species. They are cultivated commercially in some areas. When breaded and fried, the oyster mushroom does resemble its namesake seafood. Both species can be made into soups or prepared as casseroles.
Mushroom identification books have proliferated in recent years. The following are recommended by George and Elizabeth Ellison:
• Gary H. Lincoff, The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms (Knopf, 1981) separates the excellent color photographs from the excellent textual entries. Nevertheless, if you’re going to have just one field guide, this is the one.
• Alexander H. Smith and Nancy Smith Weber, The Mushroom Hunter’s Field Guide (University of Michigan Press, 3rd edition, 1980) was written by one of America’s foremost mushroom experts and his daughter, also a mycologist at the University of Michigan. Published in a handy 5.5-by-11-inch format, the book provides a checklist of 22 “Edible Mushrooms for Beginners.”
• Nancy Smith Weber and Alexander H. Smith, A Field Guide to Southern Mushrooms (University of Michigan Press, 1985) is by the same father-daughter team (with author credits reversed) in the same format, with an expanded 28-entry list of “Edible Species Recommended for Beginners.” The Smith-Weber books are obviously intended as companion volumes. If you’re going to buy just one of the Smith-Weber’s, make it the 1980 model, but consider purchasing both to use as companion volumes since there is a overlap of northern and southern species in WNC.
• David Aurora, Mushrooms Demystified: A Comprehensive Guide to the Fleshy Fungi (Ten Speed Press, 1986) is a 959-page soft-cover tome containing a wealth of information largely focused upon California’s varied fungi population. But Aurora — a non-academic mycologist — presents a wealth of technical and anecdotal information on species found in WNC.