Mycobank Taxonomy: Fungi, Dikarya, Basidiomycota, Agaricomycotina, Agaricomycetes, Agaricales, Mycenaceae, Sarcomyxa
I bemoan the appearance of this beautiful mushroom. The colors of the cap are wildly variable, ranging from ochre to olive-brown to steely blue-grey. It's subtended by a cute stumpy stem that is sometimes freckled. The gills are close and have an orangey-yellow color. So why does it bring me sadness? I divide my year in half: six exuberant months of mushrooms and six horrid ones of frigid temperatures, denuded vegetation, and dormant fungi. True to its name, the late fall oyster signifies the end of the mushroom season and the beginning of the long winter hibernation. In the Great Lakes region, you can find Sarcomyxa serotina growing from hardwood logs in late October and November. And, sorry to say it, there won't really be any edible mushrooms popping up again until the end of May.
Sarcomyxa serotina is a good representative of the current state of mycology. Even large, fleshy, common mushrooms like this one are in need of taxonomic revision (not to mention the obscure mushrooms and microscopic fungi that make up the majority of Queendom Fungi). S. serotina looks like an oyster mushroom in the genus Pleurotus – indeed, it used to be placed in the oyster mushroom family, Pleurotaceae - but we now know it is more closely related to Mycena than Pleurotus and is placed in Mycenaceae. Around the web and in the literature you will see this fungus referred to as Sarcomyxa serotina and Panellus serotinus (see the above photo of Panellus stipticus, the bioluminescent Panellus and type species for the genus, for an indication why). Molecular data show that Panellus is a hodgepodge in need of taxonomic revision, but there is still no consensus on whether Sarcomyxa is the best genus for this fungus.
Beyond the esoteric discipline of mushroom name calling, Sarcomyxa serotina may actually represent multiple species. In 2003, Dai et al. discovered that the Asian Sarcomyxa serotina was a distinct species from the European type. They realized this after eating S. serotina in Finland and noting that it was bitter and unpleasant compared to late fall oysters in Asia (called mukitake), which are widely eaten and highly acclaimed. Fittingly, they named the new species Sarcomyxa edulis. The few times I have eaten late fall oyster, they have either been terribly bitter and therefore inedible or only slightly bitter and quite delicious. If bitterness is indeed an indicator of species, both S. serotina and S. edulis may be present in the United States, or the continent may have its own unique species. Despite there being over 500 iNaturalist observations of S. serotina from the United States, only a single specimen has been sequenced! This is what I mean - mycologists have a lot of work ahead of them, and we desperately need your help as a citizen scientist!
The late fall oysters that I ate for this post were, fortunately, the delicious kind. They paired very well with stump puffballs, Lycoperdon pyriforme, in a pasta dish with broccolini and gomaae-style spinach.
Dai, Y.-C., Niemelä, T., & Qin, G.-F. (2003). A new pleurotoid species Panellus edulis. Annals Botanici Fennici, 40(2), 107–112.
Mycobank Taxonomy: Fungi, Dikarya, Basidiomycota, Agaricomycotina, Agaricomycetes, Agaricales, Agaricaceae, Lycoperdon
In my opinion, unlike the giant puffball, Lycoperdon pyriforme is actually a good mushroom, even if the translation of its Latin binomial - pear-shaped wolf fart - doesn't suggest it. When young, it looks like a well-behaved toasted marshmallow with a uniform brown color on the outside and white flesh on the inside. As it matures, the entire inside is converted into spores, a tear forms on the top, and the mushroom, well, farts spores when it is impacted by raindrops, falling twigs, or other objects. L. pyriforme makes up for it’s relatively diminutive size and unfortunate Latin name by growing in large clusters on decaying hardwood and conifer stumps and logs, hence its common name: the stump puffball. Its pear-like shape, extensive white rhizomorphs, and growth on wood - a somewhat rare habit for puffballs - make this mushroom fairly unmistakeable.
As always, when harvesting puffballs, each one should be cut in half to make sure it is pure white on the inside. If it is any other color, it has matured and is no longer edible. While stump puffballs’ shape, color, and growth on wood make identification mistakes unlikely, by cutting the puffballs in half you can also look for the outline of a gilled mushroom, the presence of which indicates you actually have a potentially deadly Amanita contained within its universal veil. That is an important check when harvesting any puffball mushroom.
I think I might really like the stump puffball. It doesn’t have a lot of flavor, but it looks and has the texture of a roasted potatoes when quartered and pan fried. For this post, I ate the puffballs with late fall oysters, gomaae-style spinach, stir-fried broccolini with shallots, mirin, and chili oil, and twirly brown-rice pasta. A lot of interesting recipes exist on the internet that I am curious to explore, like eggy puffballs with sherry and soy sauce, "stuffballs", and Sichuan-style stir fry puffballs. Given that stump puffballs are easy to identify, abundant, versatile, and fruit for long periods throughout the mushroom season, they are an excellent addition to every mushroom hunter's repertoire.
Mycobank Taxonomy: Fungi, Dikarya, Basidiomycota, Agaricomycotina, Agaricomycetes, Agaricales, Pluteaceae, Pluteus
Some fungi are "rare" simply because they are obscure and nobody besides myconerds looks for them. P. aurantiorugosis, on the other hand, is a gorgeous, photogenic mushroom. Despite the fact it stands out, it is seldom documented, and thus can be regarded as truly rare. For example, Michael Kuo from mushroomexpert.com has only found it once in 20 years of mushroom hunting.
I am continuously surprised by the forest behind my house. It's a cruddy place - buckthorn, honeysuckle, and box elder run the woods; trash is scattered about or heaped into dumpy piles; and invasive fungal pathogens are devastating the hardwood trees. Yet, it is full of treasures. In addition to the unknown truffle species I recently found, it is also where I discovered this mushroom. The scarlet-red fruiting bodies were growing off the end of a fallen, decorticated trunk. I puzzled over them for a long time. They were so distinct yet they didn't fit any description in my head. Once I noticed the free, pinkish gills, I knew it was a Pluteus species and identification was only a quick Google search away. To my surprise, this was the first documented encounter of P. aurantiorugosis in Michigan since the 1970s!
The first fruiting was quite large. I collected a portion of it for preservation in the MICH fungarium and to sequence its DNA. Unexpectedly, a few weeks later it fruited again. That's when I got the idea to try eating it – I might never see this mushroom again! I first conducted an extensive literature search on P. aurantiorugosus, its synonyms, P. leoninus var. coccineus and P. caloceps, and its basionym, Agaricus aurantiorugosus, for any information regarding edibility. This species was first described in 1857 by the Swedish mycologist Jacob Gabriel Trog (1781-1865) in the journal Mittheilungen der Naturforschenden Gesellschaft in Bern. The original description, in German, can be found here:
Der 1 1/2 - 2 1/2" lange, 2-4" dicke. Strunk ist unten etwas verdickt, wird aber nach oben allmälig dünner, blassgelb, an der Basis röthlich, inwendig dicht, blass, mit braunen Längsfasern durchzogen. Der anfangs glockenförmig, bucklig, dünnfleischig; das Fleisch von weisslicher Farbe; die Oberfläche des Hutes ist uneben, netsförmig-runzlig, von einer gelbrothen Farbe, welche im mittlern Theil des Hutes fast in's Zinnoberrothe übergeht. Die sehr gedruangten Lamellen sind anfangs weiss, dann fleischröthlich, sägeförmig gezähnt, 2" breit und gänzlich frei. Die röthlichen Sporen sind rundlich. Er ist geruchlos.
In other words:
1 1/2 - 2 1/2" long, 2-4" thick. Stipe is somewhat thickened below, but becomes gradually thinner upward, pale yellow, at the base reddish, internally dense, pale, with brown longitudinal fibers traversed. Bell-shaped at first, hunchbacked, thin-fleshed; the meat of whitish color; the surface of the cap is uneven, "netsförmig"-wrinkled, of a yellow-red color, which in the middle part of the cap almost turns into vermilion. The very compacted lamellae are white at first, then flesh-red, serrated, 2" wide and completely free, the reddish spores are roundish, odorless.
A great morphological fit, but nothing on edibility. I wasn't able to access the 1909 journal article by George Francis Atkinson describing the North American species Pluteus caloceps nor was I able to find the article that officially synonymized all these taxa. Else C. Vellinga published a monograph on Pluteus in volume 2 of Flora Agaricina Neerlandica (1990) at which point all these taxa were already considered synonyms of one other. One thing stood out to me in Vellinga's description of P. aurantiorugosus: they report the smell to be absent and the taste to be bitterish. Conversely, these mushrooms had a radishy smell and not much of a taste.
Next, I checked out more modern material to get a sense of the phylogeny of Pluteus and whether P. aurantiorugosus is closely related to more commonly eaten species. P. aurantiorugosus belongs in sect. Celluloderma (Justo et al., 2011), which contains a number of seemingly rare species, including species listed on the IUCN Red List, but all of unknown edibility. No help there.
Finally, I found one published source that mentioned edibility. Boa (2004) lists P. aurantiorugosus as a species consumed for food in Mexico, but cites www.semarnat.gob.mx as the source of this information. Unfortunately, this citation is completely useless for determining the veracity of their claim. The last source I can mention is an anecdote on the website Abney Fungi in which the author reports "One man in Abney tried it for possible psychedelic properties because its colour looked as if it might be interesting. It wasn’t. He was unwell for a week after very few sample caps were eaten." Besides being a terrible idea to eat mushrooms because their colors are interesting, blue bruising - not red caps - is suggestive of the presence of psilocybin. Furthermore, P. salicinus is the only member of the genus with magic traits and there is no reason to believe that other species in the genus are psychoactive. But yes, there is indeed a Pluteus species that is psychedelic and it is found scattered across eastern United States. Moving on...
So, I found two reports mentioning the edibility of P. aurantiorugosus, both secondhand and unverifiable. One report says it is eaten in Mexico, the other that it is poisonous in England. With that, I collected a mushroom for edibility testing as outlined by Dr. Chester Leathers from the Arizona Mushroom Society. I chopped the mushroom into thin sections and fried them in vegan butter. At first, the odor was unpleasant, sour, acidic, like vomit. Then, it mellowed out. Finally, once the water had evaporated and it browned, the mushroom smelled deliciously nutty, like hazelnuts. The first step was taking a small amount (less than a teaspoon), chewing it, spitting it out, and waiting an hour to see if I had an allergic reaction. The taste was very good. No allergic reaction. Next, I ate a teaspoon. In a short bit, I developed mild stomach discomfort that eased over two hours. I am sensitive to the powers of placebo and can't be sure if that experience was a direct result of the mushroom, but given the noticeable change in my stomach, I think it would have been foolish to continue with the testing. Maybe it was foolish of me to test this unknown mushroom in the first place.
This was my first experience testing the edibility of a truly unknown mushroom. I felt comfortable doing so given the absence (as far as I am aware) of poisonous substances in the family Pluteaceae, which was affirmed by Danny Miller, Education Chair for the Puget Sound Mycological Society. Any mentions of poisonous Pluteaceae species seem to be directed at the aforementioned psychedelic P. salicinus, in which case "poisonous" is subjective. From this website, I also learned that a radish-like smell is characteristic of species in sect. Pluteus, not sect. Celluloderma, which are supposed to be odorless. I observed a radishy smell in this specimen, which makes me extra curious to sequence it to solidify my identification.
Anyway, this experience affirmed a few important things for me. For one, just because there are edible species in a genus does not mean that other members of that genus are edible. Amanita, Agaricus, Cortinarius, Entoloma, and probably most other genera with some edible species also contain species that are poisonous, even deadly. It's something obvious that nevertheless must be restated and reminded again and again. Why else would mykoweb.com list P. romellii, sister species to P. aurantiorugosus, as "probably edible" if not for the unsubstantiated belief that edibility can be inferred across a genus? Ignorance is not evidence to reject the null hypothesis of not edible. While the consequences of recklessly testing this belief might be less severe for genera that are not known to contain deadly mycotoxins, it might still lead to bad outcomes. Be cautious!
"Yeah, Alden, be cautious!"
Boa, E. (2004). Wild Edible Fungi: A Global Overview of their Use and Importance to People. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Justo, A., Minnis, A. M., Ghignone, S., Menolli, N., Capelari, M., Rodríguez, O., … Vizzini, A. (2011). Species recognition in Pluteus and Volvopluteus (Pluteaceae, Agaricales): Morphology, geography and phylogeny. Mycological Progress, 10(4), 453–479. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11557-010-0716-z
Trog. (1857) Mitt. naturf. Ges. Bern, 388, 32.
Vellinga, E. C. (1990). Pluteus. In: Bas, C., Kuyper, T. W., Noordeloos, M. E., Vellinga, E. C. (eds.). Flora Agaricina Neerlandica Volume 2. A. A. Balkema, Rotterdam, 31–55.
Mycobank Taxonomy: Fungi, Dikarya, Basidiomycota, Agaricomycotina, Agaricomycetes, Agaricales, Agaricaceae, Calvatia
Calvatia gigantea is not a good mushroom. It can be so huge, such a massive marshmallow, that I want so badly for it to be tasty. I’ve baked it as pizza crust, sautéed it, and deep fried it as puffball parmesan, but it’s never good. The smaller the ratio of puffball to other things (fried bits, sauce, veggies) the better. I’m no mathematician, but I think if you take that property to it’s limit, the best puffball dish is one that does not contain any puffball at all. In my opinion, this mushroom smells and tastes chemically, like a permanent marker. Chalk it up to bad cooking or subpar specimens, but I would argue that I’m a pretty good cook and that I’ve selected the finest, youngest, whitest, firmest, maggotless puffballs around, but Calvatia gigantea still makes good food taste bad. It’s not a good mushroom.
Regardless of my personal opinions, it is my unpartisan mycological civic duty to give you the resources necessary to find and prepare this mushroom. Fortunately for you, other people find this mushroom tasty – or ignore its taste and eat it in celebration of bounty – and lots of information exists out there on how to locate, dissect, and consume giant puffballs. The best resource I know of is this detailed post by Alan Bergo at foragerchef.com. Reading this page, Alan even makes me want to give them another try.
Mycobank Taxonomy: Fungi, Dikarya, Ascomycota, Pezizomycotina, Pezizomycetes, Pezizales, Tuberaceae, Tuber
I did it! I’ve eaten 1001 different mushrooms! What, you thought my goal was to eat “one thousand and one” mushrooms? That’s absurd! Isn’t everything binary in this age of computers?
To celebrate the accomplishment of the binary version of this project (1001 = 9), I endeavored into the exquisitely funky world of truffles. While some people make the distinction between “true truffles” (Tuber spp.) and “false truffles” (everything else that grows underground), I’ll refer to them all as truffles. Recently, I learned that truffles are all around us. There are actually over 40 Tuber species native to North America (Guevara et al. 2013 listed 38, and more have been described since) and if you consider underground fungi in other genera, there might be hundreds of species present in the United States!
In mycologese, mushrooms that grow entirely underground are called “hypogeous”. Those that grow aboveground are “epigeous”. So, by definition, all truffles are hypogeous mushrooms. This type of growth has evolved many times over the past few hundred million years. It’s really a clever strategy - if you fruit underground you can avoid drying out as quickly and temperatures are more constant. However, there is a trade off. Air currents are no longer a means to disperse spores. Instead, you must entice animals.
This is where I come in. As a mammal, I fall for truffles’ alluring smells. The odors produced by truffles actually mimic sexual pheromones that are exchanged between mammals. While “arousing” is not quite the descriptor I’d use for truffles, their aroma is unique, bizarre, funky, interesting, and - for some people - one-of-a-kind delicious, so much so that the demand vastly exceeds the supply and truffles (well, one species in particular, Tuber magnatum, the Italian white truffle) are one of the most expensive food items in the world.
With the knowledge that I could find truffles in Michigan with simply a four-tonged garden cultivator - no dog or pig required - I set about carefully removing the organic layer (duff) around the base of trees and inspecting and scraping at the mineral layer. Seemingly miraculously, while searching around a Norway spruce (Picea abies), I began to see small, whitish, potato-like things. They were no larger than one cm in diameter, but they were abundant and fairly easy to spot once I had my eye trained. Cutting them in half, I knew I scored big time. The firm texture and marbled interior indicated that I probably had a Tuber sp. Combined with the funky smell – reminiscent of rubber, gasoline, raw garlic, and musk – I felt sure of it.
With exquisite funk in hand, what was I to do? Throwing caution to the wind - or maybe to the animal digestive tract - I decided to try some of the truffle. Now, you should never eat a mushroom whose identity you are not absolutely sure of. While I had no idea what species this was, I was sure of its genus. That wouldn’t work for most other fungi, but it is widely reported that all Tuber mushrooms are edible because they have evolved to be eaten by mammals and are thus hypoallergenic. I have to point out that in my search for truffles, I turned up all kinds of tiny mushrooms in their primordial (baby button) stage as well as non-edible basidiomycete truffles. That’s to say, you should not eat any old fungus that you rake up!
Back in the kitchen, I prepared simple garlic bread by toasting slices of baguette, rubbing raw garlic cloves on the toast, lathering with Miyokos – my favorite vegan butter – and topping with delicate slices of truffle. I chose the largest and most ripe truffles and really piled them on to get the most flavor possible. And wow, it was good garlic bread. But, I actually didn't notice the truffle so much. I should have done a blind taste test. I think the garlic bread with the truffle was better, more interesting, more of a mouthful of flavor, but I can't be sure it wasn't a trick of my brain. The difference wasn't that noticeable... I wonder why the smell was so strong yet the taste didn't manifest much?
I now have more confidence and incentive to look for truffles and I am really eager to explore native truffles' culinary potential. Given how under-sampled truffles are – this was the first Tuber sp. reported for Michigan on iNaturalist – there are no keys to identify them. I am in the process of sequencing this specimen's DNA, which will help me figure out its identity. Who knows, this specimen might be more than a culinary curiosity – a new species perhaps?
Guevara, G., Bonito, G., Trappe, J. M., Cázares, E., Williams, G., Healy, R. A., … Vilgalys, R. (2013). New North American truffles (Tuber spp.) and their ectomycorrhizal associations. Mycologia, 105(1), 194–209. https://doi.org/10.3852/12-087
The material on aldendirks.com is presented for general informational and educational purposes only, and under no circumstances is to be considered a substitute for identification of an actual biological specimen by a person qualified to make that judgment. Some fungi are deadly poisonous. Please be cautious when foraging fungi.