Mycobank Taxonomy: Fungi, Dikarya, Basidiomycota, Agaricomycotina, Agaricomycetes, Russulales, Hericiaceae, Hericium
This magnificent mushroom was growing right off a busy path in the woods. I watched it for days hoping it would grow bigger but not get snatched up by somebody else. Finally, it was ready (and I actually had time to harvest and cook it). Unlike more familiar edible mushrooms with gills or pores, Hericium coralloides has icicle-like spines, or teeth, similar to hedgehog mushrooms (Hydnum spp.). We might be inclined to lump these toothed mushrooms together into the same group, but spines are not a trait indicating shared ancestry. Rather, spines convergently involved in very distantly related taxonomic groups – in this case, Hericium in Russulales and Hydnum in Cantharellales – to achieve a similar mechanism of spore dispersal.
Four Hericium species occur in North America, three of which are found in the Northeast. These are H americanum, H. coralloides, and H. erinaceus. The fourth, H. abietis, only occurs in the Pacific Northwest. All are excellent edibles. Separating the three northeastern species (if you care) is relatively straightforward. H. erinaceus produces long spines on an unbranched structure - kind of like a giant pom pom. The other two hang their spines on branches and can be separated by the length of the spines. Those on H. coralloides are up to 1 cm in length whereas H. americanum has spines up to 4 cm long. In immaturity, all three species are unbranched and have small teeth, making identification impossible without microscopy or sequencing.
Although I hesitate to discuss putative biomedical benefits of mushrooms, I would be remiss to not mention the research being conducted on potential therapeutic applications of Hericium species, in particular H. erinaceus. There is a whole lot of excitement on the possibility of consuming Hericium species to counteract neurodegenerative disorders; however, very few studies on this topic have been published in reputable journals using robust methodologies. Recently, though, a publication in PLoS ONE (Li et al. 2019) took a different approach and instead researched whether the compound erinacine A extracted from H. erinaceus mycelium promoted longevity in fruit flies and mice. They found that both species lived longer on average when fed this extract – approximately 20% longer (an extra two months) for mice on the highest dose compared to the control.
While this research is exciting for its potential implications for human health, we are far from understanding how erinacine A affects the mental functioning and longevity of our species. Also note that erinacine A was extracted from the mycelium and concentrated before being administered to the flies and mice, so we shouldn't necessarily expect the actual fruiting bodies (the mushroom that we eat) to supply any appreciable quantity of erinacine A. Regardless of any real or imagined health benefits of eating Hericium mushrooms, a walk in the woods and a homemade meal with one's community might be one of the best things for an individual's wellbeing.
Regarding edibility, Hericium mushrooms excel for their seafood-like taste and texture. They are not at all fishy, but something about them screams... crab cake, probably because I feel like I am scuba diving when I find one. Never would I have thought that crab cakes could be made vegan and taste so good, but Hericium coralloides achieved it. Modifying this recipe by Forager Chef Alan Bergo, I substituted vegan cheese for the parmesan, chia eggs for the real eggs, vegan Worcestershire sauce for the regular anchovy stuff, and – my favorite – Miyoko's vegan butter for real butter. The final product was excellent – crispy, rich, and golden brown on the outside, soft, sweet, and crab-like mushroom meat on the inside. These Hericium crab cakes are uncannily like the real stuff and just as good, too.
In conclusion, I dedicate this post not to Hericium coralloides and its potential to allow us to live forever, but to chia seeds. It's not easy to compete with Goliath chicken eggs, but in their gelatinous aggregation, these zygotes rallied together and were a sight to behold, binding the patty together with a champion's strength. The seeds that were on the outside of the patty even got extra crispy, resulting in a nice texture bonus. Great job, chia!
Li, I.-C., Lee, L.-Y., Chen, Y.-J., Chou, M.-Y., Wang, M.-F., Chen, W.-P., … Chen, C.-C. (2019). Erinacine A-enriched Hericium erinaceus mycelia promotes longevity in Drosophila melanogaster and aged mice. PLoS ONE, 14(5), 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0217226
Mycobank Taxonomy: Fungi, Dikarya, Basidiomycota, Agaricomycotina, Agaricomycetes, Boletales, Suillaceae, Suillus
If Suillus species were placed under the Hogwarts sorting hat, most would be sorted into Slytherin. They are slimy and downright no good. Suillus ampliporus, on the other hand, would be sorted into Gryffindor because of its firm constitution. It was a pleasure to meet the this noble mushroom in the mossy boglands of northern Michigan. Also known as the larch bolete, S. ampliporus prefers soggy lowlands where it associates as a mycorrhizal fungus with tamarack (Larix laricina). Highlighted by the late afternoon sunshine on the first day of fall, these boletes greeted me in great numbers.
I collected this mushroom and ate it mistakingly thinking it was Suillus spraguei. The two species can be differentiated by the fact that S. ampliporus has a hollow stem and its cap is brown and deeply felty whereas S. spraguei has a pinkish to red cap and a solid stem. True to its name, S. ampliporus also has wide, radiating pores that zigzag outwards from the stem in a beautiful pattern.
S. ampliporus was known as S. cavipes only three years ago and still masquerades under that name. A comprehensive phylogenetic study of the genus conducted in 2016 showed that Suillus cavipes is actually a European species distinct from North American lookalikes. Thus, the name S. ampliporus was resurrected for our continent's prized larch bolete.
I prepared S. ampliporus by chopping off the fibrous, lackluster stem and tossing any mushrooms that showed signs of maggot activity. I coated the caps with oil, salt, and pepper and grilled them with some onions in an aluminum foil boat. At first, the caps lost all their color and the mushrooms sweated a dark liquid. As the juices evaporated, the mushrooms began taking on color again, sometimes even bright red hues. The final product was delicious caps with a portobello-like texture and deep richness. I was extremely satisfied.
Nguyen, N. H., Vellinga, E. C., Bruns, T. D., & Kennedy, P. G. (2016). Phylogenetic assessment of global Suillus ITS sequences supports morphologically defined species and reveals synonymous and undescribed taxa. Mycologia, 108(6), 1216–1228. https://doi.org/10.3852/16-106
Mycobank Taxonomy: Fungi, Dikarya, Ascomycota, Pezizomycotina, Pezizomycetes, Pezizales, Morchellaceae, Morchella
Morels are one of the most sought-after fungi across the world. They are delicious and – for the most part – defy cultivation. Morchella taxonomy and ecology have long been active fields of mycological research, clarified in part by DNA studies, but a long way off from being fully understood. I am fascinated by their ecological dynamism, Morels seem to be saprotrophic, mycorrhizal, and endophytic, depending on the species and the lifecycle stage. Some species also have intimate relationships with fire. As a result, morels are found in an enormous range of habitats and most statements about ecology seem more like recommendations rather than definitive guidelines for how to find them. The same is true for morphology. In the past, species were defined by rigid dichotomies but now we know each species to exist as a probability cloud of various features in which a holistic view of a given specimen is required to determine the name that best applies. Identification is further aided by collecting locale as a good amount of regional endemism is involved in morel biogeography.
Globally, as of 2017, mycologists separate 66 genetic lineages (30 of which are linked to species binomials) in the genus Morchella into three clades: section Rufobrunnea, section Morchella, and section Distantes. These correspond to the rufescent (bruising reddish brown) morels, the pale (i.e., grey to yellow) morels, and the dark brown to black morels, respectively.
Fortunately, the morel situation in the northern Midwest seems fairly worked out. You can count on at least seven species: Morchella americana (synonymous with M. esculentoides), M. angusticeps, M. diminutiva, M. prava, M. punctipes, M. septentrionalis, and M. ulmaria (synonymous with M. cryptica). Long-time collectors have used even more species names to describe North American morel specimens that, in the end, actually represented variations of a single species. In particular, grey morels, blond morels, and swollen-stem morels were all given their own species names, but DNA sequencing has shown that these are actually all M. americana. In early spring M. americana is grey, turns blonde as it ages, and can sometimes form a large swollen base later in the season. M. ulmaria, on the other hand, is morphologically identical to M. americana but is actually a distinct species. Until the day that I can carry a mini sequencer in my pocket to analyze the DNA of fungal specimens on the spot, the best we can do is label them both as M. americana, as that seems to be the more common of the two.
The common morel (M. americana) and half-free morel (M. punctipes) seem to be the most frequently encountered morel species in the upper Midwest and these are the two that I ate for this blog post. I ate them on pizza. What can I say? They were really good.
Beug, M. W., Bessette, A. E., & Bessette, A. R. (2014). Ascomycete Fungi of North America - A Mushroom Reference Guide. University of Texas Press.
Loizides, M. (2017). Morels: The story so far. Field Mycology, 18(2), 42–53. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fldmyc.2017.04.004
Mycobank Taxonomy: Fungi, Dikarya, Ascomycota, Pezizomycotina, Pezizomycetes, Pezizales, Discinaceae, Gyromitra
Elephant ears mushroom is the most common Gyromitra species in Wisconsin. It grows as a saprotroph and possibly as a mycorrhizal fungus with oaks. You can find it fruiting during morel season along with other spring ascomycetes such as the scarlet cup fungus and devil's urn. These mushrooms can get huge, which is all the more reason to wonder, can I eat them? Confusion and uncertainty reigns about the edibility of this species and other Gyromitra mushrooms. In field guides, Gyromitra is universally labeled as poisonous, even deadly. However, other sources suggest a much more nuanced picture.
For those who are new to the issue, some Gyromitra species, particularly Gyromitra esculenta, contain gyromitrin, a chemical that is hydrolized to monomethlyhydrazine when consumed or heated. Monomethylhydrazine is also used as a propellant for rockets and is dangerously toxic and carcinogenic. Gyromitra is perhaps one of the few fungi with the distinction of being poisonous not only through direct consumption but also through inhalation of its cooking fumes.
It would seem clear cut: these fungi contain known carcinogens in significant quantities to cause documented deaths, especially in Europe - don't eat them! Yet, in Finland, the most toxic of the Gyromitra species, G. esculenta, is sold in markets and consumed by the public through a double parboiling method. Here in the United States, Gyromitra esculenta and closely related species should probably be avoided, but a whole suite of other Gyromitra species seem safe enough to eat and are "probably no more dangerous to consume than Morchella species" according to Michael Beug, North American ascomycete expert.
After reading through Forager Chef's detailed post on eating false morels, I felt ready to try them for myself. While parboiling would not be necessary for Gyromitra species with very small quantities of gyromitrin, I opted to double parboil as if I were in Finland eating Gyromitra esculenta, just to be safe. My skepticism turned into paranoia and I ended up double parboiling the poor mushroom for about 40 minutes total before dabbing it dry and frying it in a pan. By that point, it looked like something biological that had been collected in the 19th century and preserved in a jar of formaldehyde for all this time. There wasn't much taste left in it, although the crispy texture was great. I couldn't get the image of preserved tissues out of my brain and ate only half of what I cooked.
For the adventurous eaters and risk takers, all the anecdotes and expert evidence suggests that Gyromitra brunnea is a fine edible when cooked thoroughly. Forager Chef recommends frying the mushroom whole, but I suggest cutting it into pieces like normal so that the cooking and texture is even across the mushroom. Personally, I will not be trying this mushroom again until I can gain some reassurance that it doesn't pose longterm health problems through the cumulative effects of rocket fuel. In all cases, safe consumption begins with knowing what you are actually eating. Make sure you can confidently distinguish the different Gyromitra species before consuming any of them.
Beug, M. W. (2014). False morels: Age-old questions of edibility. FUNGI, 28–31.
Methven, A. S., Zelski, S. E., & Miller, A. N. (2013). A molecular phylogenetic assessment of the genus Gyromitra in North America. Mycologia, 105(5), 1306–1314. https://doi.org/10.3852/12-397
Mycobank Taxonomy: Fungi, Dikarya, Ascomycota, Pezizomycotina, Pezizomycetes, Pezizales, Sarcosomataceae, Urnula
Finding devil's urn wasn't a problem until I was hunting for it. In the past I would stumble across large flushes of this mushroom and be intrigued by its bizarre look, but honestly I never considered eating it. Then I read about it in Michael Kuo's 100 Edible Mushrooms and was on the hunt. Suddenly, it wasn't so easy to find.
But I also can't say I hunted hard or with much enthusiasm. Michael Kuo writes: "The devil's urn is not a tantalizing tidbit for your taste buds.... to be honest, I doubt you're going to try the devil's urn more than once." When I found a few of them, I grabbed the ones that weren't full of springtails (I wish I had a photo of these little buggers - I thought the mushroom was sending out a cloud of spores before I realized they were insects springing forth). I did appreciate the scaly exterior, which was reminiscent of gold flakes on a chocolate cake. Back at home, I sloppily chopped them up and tossed them in a pan with some butter, cooked out their juices until I figured they had crisped a bit, and drizzled some salt on top.
I think I took my first bite with a scowl and a humph, expecting them to be truly unpleasant. My face eased a bit as I chewed more and more - they were kind of chewy, in a satisfying way. The flavor was never gross. They were not bad, good even! Was I a "devil's devotee," in the language of Kuo? I turned out and the mushroom was already gone. My collection had been reduced to a spoonful, half of which was lost on me as I doubted its potential.
So went my first experience eating devil's urn. This is a fascinating fungus and one that could have good eating potential. I'll definitely give it another shot. Urnula craterium is a parasite and saprotroph of oaks in eastern North America, fruiting before and during morel season. It could be a good conciliatory prize if morels are not found - or maybe even a delicious companion.
Kuo, M. (2007). 100 Edible Mushrooms. The University of Michigan Press.
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.