Saturday, February 23, 2008

To Pluck or To Cut: The Myth of Overpicking

Over the years I have heard many people talk of mushroom hunters etiquette. A common issue is to cut or to pick the morels you find. Not a season goes by that I don't see countless pictures of morels plucked from the ground with their earthball in tact. These photos are often followed by suggestions, some polite others not so much, from well-intended hunters about how the person should cut the mushroom so as not to damage the roots for future years.

I have researched this and there is no scientific proof that plucking causes any more damage than cutting. However, I always cut mine. If you have ever put one mushroom with dirt on it in a bag of nice clean ones, you'll soon find yourself spending more time cleaning than eating. So I always make sure and trim away any parts of the morel that have dirt attached. So I choose to cut.

Regardless of which you choose, the real issue being debated is does our picking the mushrooms effectively serve as over harvesting and deprive mushroom growth for the future. The debate on this subject is pretty exhaustive. Next time you see a few mushroom hunters ask them and see how heated the arguments can get. I have seen numerous articles and websites talking about how hunters are overpicking and that they need to use mesh bags. It's interesting because the people who write these, often are the same people who market mesh bags. So, they stand to make a pretty penny from perpetuating this myth and spreading ignorance. The trust is within the first 24 hours from when a mushroom "pops" or fruits, it releases like a million spores that scatter to the four winds. There is no proof that using mesh bags is any better for the mushrooms than using a paper or plastic grocery bag. So, I save my 10-20 bucks for a mesh bag to buy gas.

Forget science for a moment, my own experience speaks to the contrary. I have hunted the same spots for over a decade. And at first I bought into the propaganda and used mesh bags, but as many soon learn, if you get a pound or two of morels in a mesh bag, they start to crumble. The mesh tears them up a bit. So I stopped using them. And you know what, my spots produced just like before. The mushrooms didn't seem to care whether I used mesh or plastic.

I started experimenting. In one spot I picked every mushroom I could possibly find, from the little ones only about 1/2 inch tall to the old decrepit ones that I would never eat (I scattered these in my yard). In other spots near it I left the little and the old ones and in other spots I left about 20-30% including at least one perfect mature yellow. I did this for three years in a row. And I could tell no difference between the patches. My picking the fruiting body of the mushrooms didn't seem to effect the mycelium that produced them year after year. In fact, the spot that I picked all of the mushroom actually produced more in the following years. It was only like 2-3 more a year, so not really a significant difference, but still contrary to the conventional wisdom. The only things that did effect my patches was the weather (i.e. air & soil temperature, precipitation, etc). But the patches were all effected the same; in dry years all would produce less, regardless of how I had picked them the year before.

Checkout MushroomExpert for a great rundown on the myths surrounding overpicking.

So, the next time someone tells you that you need to use a mesh bag to save the mushrooms, first ask yourself what is this person selling.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Morel cabin fever...

As the days warm up, I start itching for the hunt so I decided to watch some morel hunting home videos over on YouTube. (a great thing to do by the way when you have the fever before the time is right) Anyway, I came across this quaint story from a St. Louis station about a Missouri morel hunting festival and contest they hold every year down in Louisiana MO. It's an amusing look at a first timers efforts in the contest and introduction to the sport.

Living St. Louis - Mushroom Hunting

They mention some hunter's etiquette such as pinching the bottoms and using mesh bags. Some hunters swear by these rules, but I have a different opinion. I will comment about this in my next entry. For now enjoy the video and think of the woods.

Here is another video I found of a short segment from the MO Department of Conservation showing you how to make a really tasty morel pepper foccacia. I think I am tempted to make it with some rehydrated morels, though I am sure it would be much better using fresh ones.

Morel Pepper Foccacia

Monday, February 11, 2008

Winter Reading Part 2: Paul Stamets Interview

Today I read this superb interview with Paul Stamets on the "vast intelligent network beneath our feet." This is a must read for mushroom lovers as it introduces you to one of the foremost experts on fungus and their cultivation. Stamets best explains how important fungi is to our environment and illustrates many of the symbiotic relations and vital roles they play in the environment. he also introduces you to his philosophy about fungus. More of which you can get from reading his book Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Save the World (which i highly recommend).

The interview is in The Sun Magazine, so I am not sure how long this link will work.

Going Underground: Paul Stamets on the Vast, Intelligent Network Beneath Our Feet

(sorry unless you subscribe to the magazine they don't give you access to the entire thing. If you would like to read the full article email me and I'll send you a copy).

While I'm on the subject of books, I have just ordered my copy of 100 Edible Mushrooms by Michael Kuo. This is a good book to read for those thinking about hunting wild mushrooms. Kuo's books, like his website, are full of information in a style that is a lot easier to read compared to the more traditional mushroom identification tomes. And his books usually have some super pictures. You know, the kind that when you look at them this time of year, you can almost smell the woods of spring and summer.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Winter Reading...

Here are a few articles on hunting wild mushrooms in Missouri I had copied from stories off the Internet over the past 5 years. Never hurts to do a little research in the off season.

This first one (circa. 2006) is very well written and researched and appeared in the Springfield News-Leader. It even includes a tasty recipe. As suggested in the article, the chicken of the woods is a good beginner mushrooms for those moving beyond the morel.

Stalking the Wild Mushroom

By Nina Rao

This is not a shy mushroom.

Far from it.

Its sulfur-yellow color is so loud that you can hunt it from your car seat. Its flavor and texture are so appetizing that it is commonly known as "chicken of the woods." And it's plentiful in Missouri.

On top of that, this is considered a beginner's mushroom, the kind that amateurs should be able to identify.

"There aren't any poisonous look-alikes," said Mike Skinner, a biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation's Springfield office. "It just seems to be pretty distinctive."

But don't expect to just wander through the woods and scoop it into your basket by the bushel-load.

You have to know where to look and when. And despite the mushroom's distinctive appearance, it's best to take precautions.

"It makes me very nervous to have rank amateurs collect mushrooms, thinking they can eat them," said Jeanne Mihail, a professor in the Division of Plant Sciences at the University of Missouri. "I would strongly urge anyone to go out with someone knowledgeable."

Mihail mentioned three mushrooms that beginners might confuse with chicken of the woods: Grifola frondosa (which is commonly known as "hen of the woods," brownish in color and edible), Meripilus giganteus (which looks very much like the hen of the woods and is also considered edible) and Inonotus hispidus (whose edibility is unknown).

Skinner echoes Mihail's caution: "If you don't know it, don't eat it."

The basics

Given that caveat, chicken of the woods was listed as one of the "Foolproof Four" in a book about edible mushrooms published in 1943.

It is one of 10 edible mushrooms a Missouri Department of Conservation brochure considers easy enough for beginners to identify.

And Michael Kuo, the fungus guru behind the Web site, categorizes chickens as "recommended for beginners" in his upcoming book, "100 Edible Mushrooms" (which will be published in fall 2007). In the book, the only mushroom category easier to identify is named "in the store."

But the fact is people make mistakes, and mushrooms are generally more difficult to identify than, say, trees or birds.

"I tell beginners not to collect any mushrooms — to eat — for two years. Collect lots, but don't eat them. Just study them," Kuo said.

So here are some hints from Kuo on how to identify chicken of the woods. Just check with an expert before eating your finds.

First, there's the signature color, a bright yellow-orange. Second, chicken of the woods grows on hardwood trees, such as oak or maple. Third, it appears from late spring to late fall, depending on the weather. Finally, it is soft and fleshy.

Sulphureus vs. cincinnatus

There is a catch.

In the U.S., there are numerous species of chicken of the woods. Missouri is home to at least two: Laetiporus sulphureus (so named for the color) and Laetiporus cincinnatus (so named because the first person to name it lived close to Cincinnati).

Both sport the signature color. Both are soft and fleshy. Both grow on hardwoods.

Here's how you tell them apart:

Laetiporus sulphureus, also called sulphur shelf, fans out from the tree trunk like shelves. Its pore surface is yellow. It usually appears from late summer to late fall.

Laetiporus cincinnatus grows at the base of trees or on the ground (from buried roots) in a rosetta-like pattern. Its pore surface is white. It usually appears from late spring to mid-summer.

Good eating

Both are delicious. But they may not be equally delicious.

Kenton Olson, for example, claims Laetiporus cincinnatus tastes better. For that reason, Olson, a mushroom enthusiast and retired botany professor who lives in Branson, considers himself especially lucky that a cincinnatus has been appearing regularly in his yard for the past five years.

Either way, however, Olson ranks the chicken among his top three edible mushrooms, along with morels and chanterelles.

"It really has the texture of chicken," he said, "but it still has that nice flavor of wild mushroom."

He tends to sauté his chickens with butter or add them to stews and casseroles.

There's another benefit to the chicken mushroom. Unlike the elusive morel, which offers just a nibble, one chicken of the woods can provide a whole meal. Or 10.

That's what Ty Whitmore discovered in the fall of 2005 when he found a 56-pound chicken of the woods in northwest Missouri.

And that was only half of it. The other half apparently fell off when Whitmore chopped the monster mushroom off the maple tree where it was growing.

Realistically, however, a 56-pound chicken of the woods is old and tough. The fungus is only appetizing when it is young and tender, but even then, it is usually big.

"When you do find it, you can really make a meal out of it," Olson said. "And when you catch it when it's fresh, it cuts like butter."

Freshly cut "chickens" wait to be prepared and cooked during a Missouri Mycological Society meeting.

Roasted Chicken
(of the Woods) with Parmesan Polenta


2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt

1/2 cup coarse yellow cornmeal

Freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 to 2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Heat 2 & 1/2 cups of water and the salt in a 2-quart saucepan over high heat. Reduce the heat to a simmer and very gradually pour the cornmeal into the water, stirring constantly. It should take about 3 minutes to add all the cornmeal. Continue stirring until the mixture is the consistency of oatmeal and the individual grains of cornmeal are tender, about 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the pepper to taste, the Parmesan and the butter, if using. The polenta can be covered and held off the heat for about 10 minutes before serving. Stir 1 or 2 tablespoons of hot water into the polenta before serving.


1 pound chicken mushrooms

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon minced fresh tarragon or sage

3/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1/3 cup chicken stock

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. Slice the mushrooms into 2-inch strips. Combine the olive oil, tarragon and salt in a medium bowl. Add the mushrooms, sprinkle with freshly ground pepper and toss until coated with the seasoning mixture.

3. Spread the mushrooms in a single layer in a flameproof roasting pan. Roast, stirring from time to time, until well browned and tender, about 15 minutes.

4. Place the roasting pan with the mushrooms still in it over medium heat on the stovetop and stir in the stock. Continue stirring, scraping up the little brown bits that stick to the pan, until the stock is almost completely evaporated, about 1 minute.

Divide the polenta among four bowls. Spoon the mushrooms and juices alongside the polenta.

Serve immediately. Serves 4

Source: “Mushroom Lover’s Mushroom Cookbook and Primer” by Amy Farges

Here are more details on that huge chicken found back in 2006:

Man Finds 56-Pound Mushroom in Missouri

  • Ty Whitmore found the giant fungus in Maysville, near Kansas City
    KANSAS CITY, Mo. - The mushroom Ty Whitmore found on a relative's farm near the northwest Missouri community of Maysville this week tipped the scales at 56 pounds - and that was only part of it.

    Whitmore, 19, of Kansas City, was cutting firewood Monday when he saw the orange and yellow mushroom growing from the base of a maple tree. He cut it off with a saw and said the biggest half of it fell into a creek.

    "I wanted to see if I had a world record," said Whitmore. "It was so heavy, and I was trying to carry it without damaging it, which was hard because I had to wade across creeks, and the brush in the woods was hitting it."

    Whitmore got it to his pickup truck, half a mile away, and had it weighed at a Maysville grocery store. He did some checking on the Internet and determined the big fungus was a sulfur shelf mushroom. Its scientific name is Laetiporus sulphureus, and it's commonly referred to as the "chicken of the woods" for its good eating qualities.

    "I hunt and fish, but this is the best thing I ever got, a real trophy," Whitmore said.

    On the Internet, the Guinness World Records lists the largest edible fungi as a giant puffball weighing 48 pounds, 8 ounces.

    Whitmore said he can tell his mushroom has lost some moisture weight, and he was undecided about whether to weigh it again and submit it to Guinness.

    The mushroom, measured Tuesday by a Missouri Department of Conservation, was 30 inches wide and 16 inches high. Harold Burdsall, a retired U.S. Forest Service fungus expert in Madison, Wis., said after looking at e-mailed photos that it was the biggest sulfur shelf mushroom he had ever seen.

    James W. Kimbrough, an expert on molds, mildews and mushrooms at the University of Florida, said reference books list the biggest sulfur shelf mushroom as being about 20 inches wide.

    While experts say it's doubtful anyone has a reliable record book for individual mushroom species, Kimbrough said the one Whitmore discovered has "got to be among the largest ever found in North America."

    Burdsall says sulfur shelf mushrooms taste great, with a firm texture and plenty of flavor.

    "If there are two wild mushrooms on the table, I'd always take that one, even over morels," he said.

    The mushroom probably took about two weeks to grow. Whitmore said the part that fell into the creek was a larger clump growing on top of the one he got. He said the water was too cold and deep for him to retrieve it.

    "It might have weighed 120 pounds altogether," he said.

    ...120 pounds, can you imagine that?