By Tom Nauman
Fall mushroom hunting can be a very rewarding experience. The rains received over the first weekend of October seemed to bring all kinds of fungi out. Five members of the Nauman family went to the woods on the following Monday. The LBMs (Little Brown Mushrooms) were in abundance. Mycologists call them LBMs because there are so many mushrooms that fall into this category with differences so miniscule you need a microscope to tell them apart. I usually carry a magnifying glass with me when mushrooming which is borderline fanatic. But I think I'll quit before I carry a microscope. So, we really don't pay a lot of attention to the LBMs. There are much bigger, better, and safer mushrooms available.
After about ten minutes our son, Josh, discovered a sulfur shelf. The scientific name is Laetiporus sulphureus. It's a member of the Polyporaceae family which means they produce spores in a layer of tubes on the under surface. The more common name is "Chicken Mushroom" because some think the taste resembles chicken. This mushroom has no poisonous look alikes. It always grows on wood in singular or multiple layers of shelves. The top of each shelf is orange while the underside is sulphur yellow. The outer edges are rounded and repeat the yellow color. With age, the entire mushroom becomes pale in color.
Mushrooms play a very important role in Mother Nature's game plan. They are the original recyclers. They were recycling long before it became popular. When the sulfur shelf grows on dead wood, it is breaking it down and helping the wood to decay. The mushroom can also appear on live wood, usually where a limb has been cut or torn off. This won't help the living tree at all. If left unchecked, the mushroom will kill the entire tree. If you discover one on a tree you'd like to keep, it is time to call the tree surgeons. They may be able to do something to save the tree. Maybe not!
After converging on Josh and the sulfur shelf, the family went their separate ways. Only to be summoned by Josh again after about another ten minutes. This time he had discovered an oak log with a good sized patch of oyster mushrooms. The scientific name is pleurotus ostreatus of the Tricholomataceae family (mushrooms with gills). Oyster mushrooms get their name from their shape. The appear to be clam-shell shaped with white gills underneath that extend all the way from the outer edge to where the mushroom meets the tree. Most mushroom hunters consider it choice for edibility. When we go mushrooming in the winter months we'll check the same log because the oyster mushroom is one of the few edibles that will grow in the winter. After helping Josh harvest the oysters we again parted ways.
Ten minutes later - you guessed it, another call from Josh! This time he was up the hill. Having just come down the hill, no one wanted to climb it again. Besides that, we were almost tired of his successes - and our failures. We're really glad we taught him to share! So we asked him to bring his find down to us. Some mushrooms are more easily identified by knowing the environment they grow in. So, it is not wise to try and identify a mushroom that you didn't see growing in its original area. Josh said that he found the mushroom growing inside a hollow stump and couldn't reach all of it. What he had found turned out to be a "comb hedgehog" - Hericium romosum of the family Hydnaceae (tooth fungi). It resembled white sea coral. The major identifying characteristic is the comb like rows of "teeth" hanging from the spines. The "teeth" are where the spores are produced. The mushroom is edible. And, if anyone's interested, Josh is available as a mushroom finding guide.
In other related news, 160 Elm experts from all over the globe are converging on Oak Brook, Illinois for the first International Elm Conference. The Elm Conference is sponsored by the Morton Arboretum and is coincidentally happening during one of the strongest outbreaks of Dutch Elm Disease since the 1960's. The disease is caused by a parasitic fungi transmitted by the elm bark beetle. The fungi multiplies inside an elm's circulatory system and cuts off the sap flow. Regular readers of this column know the relationship of morels to dead elm trees. Those of you that hunted morels during the last outbreak in the Sixties never had it so easy. My dad tells me of one patch that weighed in at 57 pounds. You probably haven't had it as easy since then either because a lot of the ems died all at once leaving nothing to produce the mushrooms for several years. It is only recently that the life cycle of the elm trees is becoming normal again. Good luck to conference attendees.
Remember, whenever you want to try eating a mushroom you're not familiar with, check it in at least two field guides. If they say it's edible, try just a nibble, wait 24 hours, and if there are no ill effects then consume larger amounts.
Please feel free to contact us with questions or comments. Especially if you have ideas or suggestions for future columns: Tom and Vicky Nauman, Morel Mania, RR1 - Box 42, Magnolia, IL 61336, Phone 309-364-3319, Fax 309-364-2960.