The advertised special at the restaurant where my wife and I ate recently was “cheese ravioli with wild mushrooms.”
I asked the server, “Can you please tell me what exactly are the wild mushrooms in the special?” Dutifully, the server headed to the kitchen to find the answer and quickly returned, proudly reporting that the special contained “three kinds of mushrooms: portobello, criminis, and white button mushrooms.” I thanked him, and ordered the fish.
Why? Those are definitely not wild mushrooms. Those three varieties are cultivated in large warehouses and available in most grocery stores.
You might ask, “Who cares? What difference does it make?” In short, real wild mushrooms are better. For one thing, they are often more flavorful, more tantalizing to the palette. There are wild mushrooms that smell like maple syrup (candy caps), some that smell of apricots and taste of black pepper (chanterelles), and even some that taste like raw beef and ooze juice reminiscent of blood (beefsteak mushroom). It is also just more fun eating mushrooms picked in a wild place, preferably by you and your friends.
Do not get me wrong. I like cooking with store-bought mushrooms once in a while. Indeed, all mushrooms are nutritious and can be delicious when properly prepared. But living in Mississippi provides so much opportunity to enjoy real wild mushrooms. The woods and fields are often bountiful with them. Plus, hunting for wild mushrooms can be fun.
It is a great way to enjoy getting outside — alone, with a friend, with kids, with your dog — for exercise, relaxation, or stimulation. It is a real, wild treasure hunt, and the prize is something beautiful to observe and maybe delicious to eat.
Some species of wild mushrooms are poisonous. Many of those will only make you vomit and feel violently ill for a few hours, but some will kill you by causing organ failure. How can you tell which species are poisonous and which ones are edible? You need to be 100 percent sure which species you have found and have 100 percent reliable information on the edibility (or poisonous status) of that species from a reputable book. There are no shortcuts. Rules like “if it bruises blue it’s safe, but if it bruises red it’s poisonous” are just myths. You need to learn how to identify your local, reliable, edible species, and how to distinguish them from any poisonous species, using a book. Information about mushroom edibility has accumulated during human history the only way possible — through trial and error. You risk your life by ignoring this information and conducting your own trial and error.
Wild mushrooms are beautiful, colorful, and fascinating organisms. And you can simply enjoy finding, studying, drawing, observing, and photographing them, whether they are edible or not. Even poisonous mushrooms can be safely handled, so no need to worry about mushroom poisoning unless you swallow the wrong mushroom.
All you really need to get started are some woods to walk around in. There are at least some mushrooms in the woods near where you live in Mississippi, 365 days a year. Other habitats — grasslands, pastures, swamps — can have mushrooms too, but the woods have the most. Walk around and look. If you find something that might be a mushroom, study it. Make note of its shape, size, texture, and color. Notice where it is growing: Is it on a standing dead tree, a downed log, or growing out of the soil? Is it growing on pine or hardwood? Is it under oak, hickory, green ash, sweetgum, pine, or a mixture of trees? All of this information can provide clues to your mystery mushroom’s identity.
If you want to actually collect and possibly identify mushrooms, you will want to bring a few things with you. At the very least, you will need a paper bag or (ideally) a basket in which to carry your collected mushrooms. Wax paper sheets or bags are great for wrapping individual specimens. A sturdy knife helps, to make sure you dig up the whole mushroom (including any root or stump), or to cut it free from wood. If you have a camera (most phone cameras are adequate), take close-up photos of any new mushroom before you pick it. But also consider some arrangement: Turn one mushroom upside-down and place it next to another of the same type, so you can see both the top and bottom surfaces of the same species in one photo, along with its habitat. Make notes in a notebook, or at least put some clues in each bag — a leaf to remind you of the tree it was growing under, or a piece of wood to tell you it was a log-dweller. If you are artistically inclined, make a sketch or a quick watercolor.
Once you have returned home with a few of your first specimens, you must find a good resource for mushroom identification. Start with a good book or two. One that you must have on your shelf is the classic, “Mushrooms Demystified” by David Arora. Published originally in the 1980s, it is still the most complete mushroom identification book for the United States, and the first 51 pages provide a great introduction to mushroom identification techniques. Study those pages, choose a fresh mushroom specimen, and try working your way through the key (beginning on page 52). Start by trying to make a spore print to determine the color of your mushroom’s spores.
Another good book for your shelf is “Mushrooms of the Southeastern United States” by Alan E. Bessette, Arleen R. Bessette, William C. Moody, and Dail L. Dunaway. This one has no key, but it has great descriptions, up-to-date mushroom names, and a thorough portfolio of photographs of species in our area. Paging through the photos in both of those books in your spare time, familiarizing yourself with names, shapes, colors, and other characteristics of common species will hone your instincts. A great online resource is David Kuo’s mushroom identification website (www.mushroomexpert.com).
Finally, if you think you have identified an edible mushroom, one more step is required: verify with an expert. Do not eat any wild mushroom without first confirming with an expert. There are other experts in our area, and you may be able to find them at a nearby university or extension office. Personally, I am happy to examine some good close-up photos and notes (sent by email to firstname.lastname@example.org), or you can bring your specimens to my office in Shoemaker Hall at the University of Mississippi, and I will do my best to confirm your identifications. Another good option is to post photos on the Mississippi Naturalists Facebook page, where I or someone else might be able to help.
EDIBLE SPECIES TO LOOK FOR
There are many delicious edible wild mushrooms in Mississippi, but some are particularly common, delicious, and fairly easy to identify, so we will focus on those here (for details on identification, see one of the resources mentioned above).
Chanterelles: These mushrooms abound in Mississippi during summer and early fall (generally from June through September in north Mississippi, with a longer season closer to the coast) in oak or hickory woods, but only when we have had lots of deep, soaking rain. Their bright orange color makes them stand out like little lanterns in the dark forest. To distinguish them from other orange mushrooms, chanterelles have a flared trumpet shape and lack of true gills on the underside of the cap. Cook them in butter or olive oil, and marry them with eggs or pasta.
Puffballs: This type ranges in size from golf ball to softball, and can be eaten when you find them young, while their interior is still firm and pure white like a stiff marshmallow. They grow well in lawns and pastures during wet, mild weather. Do not eat them from lawns sprayed with chemicals, and beware the false poison puffball, which has a thick (1 millimeter) skin and dark interior, and the poisonous baby Amanita, which has the shape of an embryonic mushroom inside. Puffballs have a pleasant, mild-but-wild mushroom flavor, and are great battered and fried, fritter-style, with salt and pepper.
Chicken-of-the-woods: These beauties grow in huge, stacked-and-wavy, clustered shelves on standing or downed trees. A single cluster can weigh up to 40 pounds or more. The flesh is thick and soft when young (do not bother picking when it gets older and tough), and pink to bright yellow in color. There are two common species: one with bright yellow undersides, and one that is pale orange to pink. Chicken-of-the-woods is a pungent, slightly sour mushroom that actually can be treated like chicken. I like it in a stir fry, casserole, or breaded and fried like chicken tenders with a honey-mustard dipping sauce.
To learn more, I teach an annual half-day workshop at Strawberry Plains Audubon Center in Holly Springs, usually in mid-June. Occasionally, the Oxford Mushroom Club holds field trips (see their Facebook page). On the web, look for Gulf States Mycological Society, North Alabama Mushroom Society, and Arkansas Mycological Society. But mushrooming can be fun anywhere, on your own, or with family and friends. Give it a try.
Jason Hoeksema, Ph.D., is an associate professor of biology at the University of Mississippi and a freelance writer for Mississippi Outdoors.