Are you a forager? If so, then you already understand that we’re surrounded by flowers, plants, herbs and fungi in the wild that are edible and nutritionally dense. So much natural food goes to waste because people see it as invasive — weeds that should be mowed down or obliterated with toxic sprays. If you visit The Hot Mess Press often, you might have read this article about foragable foods in the archives. It mentions one of three edible mushrooms that I’m going to tell you about, today. First, a warning and a disclaimer:
CAUTION: Harvesting mushrooms from the wild carries a potential risk for ill health! There are many lookalike fungi in the wild. Some mushrooms are edible and healthy to eat. Others are HIGHLY TOXIC and should never be consumed. It’s best to avoid harvesting mushrooms, unless you can identify edible mushrooms with 100% certainty.
DISCLAIMER: The Hot Mess Press is not responsible for anything a person does after reading this article.
Now, let’s talk about edible mushrooms
There are approximately 50,000 or more species of mushroom. A small percentage of them are poisonous. (That doesn’t mean that you should disregard the warning I placed at the start of this post!) While the majority of mushrooms that grow in the wild are edible, most people eat only 20 species or so. The others, although abundant in nature, tend to be malodorous or don’t taste good. Out of the 20 commonly consumed species of edible mushrooms, we’re focusing on the three types included in the following list:
- Morel mushrooms
- Turkey tail mushrooms
- Hen of the woods mushrooms
Edible mushrooms contain healthful properties, such as riboflavin and potassium. You probably know riboflavin by another name: Vitamin B2. It’s essential to the body because it helps convert the food you eat into energy. It’s also needed for healthy growth and development. Potassium helps keep kidneys functioning properly and also supports heart, muscle and nervous system health. Some mushrooms also have antibiotic properties to help fight infection. Others help manage cholesterol levels.
I’ve been searching for these edible mushrooms for years
Hunting for mushrooms or growing edible mushrooms is a popular hobby in the rural area where I live. It might seem easy to identify morels because of their spongy or corrugated appearance. Morels have a toxic lookalike, though, so it’s important to learn how to differentiate between the two. (More on that in a minute.) When hunting for morel mushrooms, it’s easier to hunt for the trees they typically grow near than it is to hunt for the actual mushrooms.
Unfortunately, our property contains several of the trees, but I haven’t been able to find any morels yet. This spongy fungi often grows on south-facing hills. This type of hillside warms up faster in spring than a north-facing hill. As for trees, if you know where there are elm, ash, poplar or oak trees, it’s a good place to hunt for morels. They also spring up in swampy, marshy areas, such as near creeks or in old apple orchards.
Identify edible morels from toxic lookalikes
There are a number of species of morels, all of which are edible mushrooms. However, there are also several toxic lookalikes. When forensic experts who are trained to spot counterfeit money learn the tools of their trade, they spend hundreds of hours studying authentic money. In other words, becoming an expert in what real money should look like, makes it easy to spot fake money. The same is true with mushrooms.
It’s easier to differentiate between a true morel and a toxic lookalike by knowing what characteristics a real morel has that toxic mushrooms do not have. For instance, the stem on a real morel blends into the base of the cap. Toxic lookalikes often have more of an “umbrella” appearance. Morels are longer than they are wide. A few lookalikes are wider than they are long. Morels typically do not have any shades of red on them (although they might be yellowish, tan, olive or black). One of the most distinctive ways to identify a true morel is to slice open the mushroom in question from top to bottom. A morel will be hollow inside. A toxic lookalike might have “stuff” in its stem.
Turkey tail mushrooms are a boost to the immune system
The proper name for a turkey tail mushroom is “trametes versicolor,” but “turkey tail” is much easier to remember. This lovely spray of fungi is an antioxidant powerhouse! Eating turkey tail mushrooms can help boost immune system health. Its antioxidant properties help reduce inflammation and increase protective compounds that help fight against diseases such as cancer. In fact, a study in mice showed a substantial reduction in tumor size after the mice were treated with an extract from coriolus versicolor glucan fungi (another species of turkey tail mushroom).
If you take a walk in the woods, you’ll typically find turkey tails springing out of the sides of logs or decayed and rotting wood. While some types of edible mushrooms only grow in particular seasons when soil temperature reaches a specific degree, turkey tails grow throughout the year. There are a few turkey tail lookalikes. However, none are believed to be poisonous. They just don’t have the same medicinal properties as true turkey tail fungi.
How to tell real from false with turkey tails
If you’re going by surface appearance only, you might encounter challenges trying to identify a true turkey tail mushroom from a lookalike. It’s the underside you need to observe. The bottom of a true turkey tail will be light in color and have tiny pores (circular holes). The underside of a lookalike will either be smooth and crusty looking or have pore-like openings that are more like slits than round holes. Some lookalike species have circular pores that are much larger than the pores on a true turkey tail. I’ve read that you can use the tip of a ballpoint pen to help identify real from false. On the underside of a turkey tail mushroom, approximately three pores will fit in the area of the pen’s tip if it’s a true turkey tail.
You can eat turkey tails whole, but they’re known for being tough and chewy. Most people dry it out using a dehydrator or by setting it out in direct sunlight. The dried fungi can be steeped for tea. Some people grind it into a powder and add to soups, stews, tea, salads, etc.
Edible mushroom hunters love hen of the woods
These beauties are colloquially referred to as “hen of the woods” but their proper name is “maitake” fungi (Grifola frondosa), which translates to “dancing mushrooms.” You’ll notice similarity to turkey tail, although hen of the woods are more monochromatic in color. Avid mushroom hunter hobbyists consider hen of the woods a “great find.” They have several other nicknames and can be prepared and eaten in a variety of ways. Mitake mushrooms are great for novice hunters because there are no known toxic lookalikes. (“Known” is the important word in that phrase.)
Hen of the woods can help lower bad cholesterol levels. They’re rich in vitamin D, which is an essential nutrient for good health! Studies show that millions of people in the U.S. are vitamin D deficient. Clusters of maitake fungi can weigh up to 50 pounds! I’ve never tasted them but have read that they are similar in flavor to venison or other game meat.
I’ve spent the past several years studying edible mushrooms but haven’t felt comfortable enough to harvest any yet. My goal is to try to harvest some turkey tail mushrooms before summer. They grow in abundance in our woods. Are you a mushroom hunter? If so, what are your favorites? Do you have favorite recipes or ways to use them? Tell us about it!