I have always been fascinated by mushrooms. As a child, growing up in Louisiana, they would turn up overnight as if by magic, great big toadstools and bright clusters the color of Halloween pumpkins, in ones and twos and eerie circles of faerie rings. As a naturalist, I am something of a generalist, fascinated by everything in the world out-of-doors, but mushrooms have always held a special place in my heart. Enchantment seemed to sparkle round about them. I could easily imagine the Good Folk sheltering under them when it rained. Some even glow in the nightwood and a few fungi will crawl about, looking for tasty morsels. I have always collected books on the mysterious mycological world, and good portion of a shelf in the library of ancient Twa Corbies’ Cottage is devoted to fungi of various sorts.
If one is interested in this marvellous form of life, Nova Scotia is a great place to be. They grow here in every variety and from the beginning of spring the woods are fair teaming with them. Tasty morels. Huge penny buns. Sulfur-hued chanterelles. Glowing jack-o-lanterns. Beautiful but toxic fly agaric. Puckered pigskins. And hundreds more. Enough to occupy any naturalist or mycologist for a lifetime.
This article is about some lovely local edibles, and some fascinating local oddities. It is by no means comprehensive and should not be considered a guide to identification, especially if you plan to eat mushrooms. It is just the ramblings of a naturalist on his favorite fungi.
Unlike my friend over in Brittany, Stephanie Scofield, who lives in a country so rife with mycophiles that the September and October forests are full of mushroom harvesters–yea, even poachers–hardly a soul in Nova Scotia can tell an edible mushroom from a bump on a log. Good for Clan Seruntine, though! My forest is literally burgeoning with boletes of every variety, chicken-of-the-woods, jelly ears, old-man-of-the-woods, corral mushrooms, shaggymanes and many more. It’s a bit late in the season but today I thought I’d go mushrooming instead of hunting. Here is tonight’s main course, about a kilo of fresh-as-can-be apricot-smelling chanterelles.
The chanterelle is special to Nova Scotia. It is abundant, easily found in forests ranging from hardwood to softwood. I usually find them on south facing slopes in spruce forests where they grow in a mycorhizal relationship with the trees’ roots. However, mycological lore tells us chanterelles are associated with the roots of hardwoods, but in this part of Nova Scotia I find them almost exclusively among spruces.
These tasty mushrooms are considered in some countries to be the prince of fungi. These are boletes, also known as ceps or by their common name: penny buns. They are a safe, easily identified mushroom and fairly common in Nova Scotia. Sometimes you can’t walk through the forest come August without trampling them. The top of the caps are between brown and golden-brown and closely resemble the crowns of baked rolls (hence the common name). The caps usually have a sticky surface as if they’ve been glazed in honey (again, hence the common name). Underneath, they do not have gills. Rather, they have pores but until the pores are mature they look like a sponge underneath. They have fat stems but are not emerged from bulbs and are often enlarged toward the base. They do not have gills, nor do they grow from sacks, as do the deadly amanitas.
Some boletes are poisonous but they are easily identified. The caps may be orange or red or brownish-green. Underneath, the pores or spongy part may be red or yellow, and the pores of the toxic varieties will bruise blue if you mush them. Fortunately, poisonous boletes are not only easily identified, but rarely cause more than stomach cramps. A cautious mushroomer needn’t worry. They are easily sorted out.The edibles are supremely tasty and may be huge, the caps as much as a foot in diameter and weighing a kilo. Sliced and grilled with butter and garlic, they are incomparable.These were harvested in the Elfwood a mere 50 yards from the cottage yesterday and weigh about 1/4 lb each. In the image you can see all the key identifying features: bread-colored cap, stout stems, spongy cap underside. Note that while the underside has some yellow it is really more of a brown-yellow, and when bruised it retains its color.
About mid-spring, usually just after prime morel hunting season, this friendly mushroom–the dryad’s saddle–will appear. It is also known as polyporous squamosus, and has several other common names. This polypore is a bracket or shelf mushroom that grows on the sides of hardwoods. It grows on deadwood attached to live trees, and I found these on two mature sugar maples near a river, growing out of cracks in the trees where old wood had died and turned yellow-black.
The back of the dryad’s saddle (shown right) reveals it is in the polypore family. Similar to the boletes, there are no gills; rather, a dense collection of pores. Ergo, polypore (“many pores”).
The dryad’s saddle grows huge and is edible but quickly becomes too tough–even woody–to be enjoyable. But when found young, with pliant, rubbery flesh, it can be cut into thin strips and fried in bacon grease to be quite delectable. Michael Kuo, author of “100 Edible Mushrooms” and a mycophile for whom I have much respect, rates the flavor of this mushroom as mediocre. I must disagree, and am always delighted to find dryads’ saddles. I know of several excellent recipes for them, most involving garlic, bacon, butter and slow simmering. They also make great additions to stews.
This mushroom can be harvested quickly and in quantity. I harvested a good five pounds when I took these pictures in about two minutes. Just cut the tough stem with a knife, though try to leave a bit of it on the mushroom for identification. The mushroom has a distinctive black and tan scale pattern and a cream to yellowish underside with angular, tiny to small pores. Most distinctively, it has a strong farinaceous odor, which resembles flour or watermelon rind or cucumber.
There are old mushroomers and there are bold mushroomers. I intend to be an old mushroomer, and only ever hunt those that are safe, easily identified and have only non-lethal lookalikes. In fact, I strongly prefer those mushrooms that are insanely easy to tell from anything else, and this is one. Once you learn what a polypore is, you can hardly go wrong with the dryad’s saddle. No polypores are toxic. If they aren’t good to eat, they will either be tough or taste foul. I suppose you could choke one down anyway, but that just goes from honest mistake to stupidity, and there is no remedy for that.
This is a mushroom a novice can gather safely.
Many mushrooms are poisonous. Most of them will just make you nauseous for a little while, perhaps cause cramps or diarrhea, but a few can be deadly. And yet don’t let that scare you off mushrooming. There are more than a hundred common edibles that are easily identified and quite safe for gathering. The best way to learn the skill is join a mychophile or mycology group in your area so you can learn from experienced persons. If you already have background in wild food identification, you could get by with a good field guide, such as my favorite: 100 Edible Mushrooms by Michael Kuo.
A wonderful edible is the puffball. Most puffballs are edible, and they are a smooth eggshell white. The best is the giant puffball: smooth, white and bigger than a softball (I heard tell of one once about a yard in diameter). You should always cut puffballs in half before eating, though, to ensure it’s not actually another mushroom in juvenile form. If it is, you will be able to see the juvenile mushroom like an outline in the cut whereas a puffball will be pure, seamless white. Never eat juvenile mushrooms as it is hard to be certain of its identity.The mushroom in this image is a poisonous puffball, the scleroderma citrina, a.k.a. pigskin. It is easily identified by the warty, brown marks on the skin. It may be found anywhere in or near forests in Nova Scotia, as well as open meadows and yards. It would only make you nauseous but you still wouldn’t want to eat it. This was shot under a white spruce in the Elfwood. Unfortunately, it is the most common puffball in Nova Scotia, and indeed I’ve never seen the giant edible variety here–such a shame.
But pigskins do have one particular use. If you start fires the old way, with flint and steel or by way of any other sparker, save a few of these in autumn when they are dry and full of spore dust (but be careful to keep them in a zip-lock bag and don’t let the spores on food; they are poisonous). A spark struck into the dry spore dust will catch and can be easily mouth-blown into flame. Other puffballs and mushrooms such as chaga (which grows on the trunks of birches) are also useful for this.
Amanitas: Beautiful But Scary
Above all, the mushrooms of the amanita family are to be avoided. Nearly all are poisonous. Some contain muscimol, such as the red capped amanita muscaria (shown left), which in North America may contain such massive doses that it can leave a person in a brain damaged state. (Unfortunately, this is probably the most common mushroom depicted in storybook illustrations, and therefore has become a quintessential ideal mushroom for mycological laymen.)
If you’re a novice mushroom hunter, stay safe! Avoid all mushrooms with gills, caps, stems, skirts and bulbs. These are all telltales of amanitas. Even though I know mushrooms well, I simply do not harvest gilled mushrooms. It’s just not worth chancing an absentminded mistake. The deadliest amanitas will kill in three days by way of a painful poison that has no antidote.
Amanitas, regrettably, are quite common. This one (right) was photographed in the Elfwood not ten yards from the cottage. There are some 600 types of amanitas, and it doesn’t matter to me which this is. Only a fool chances anything that remotely looks like one, but for the mushroomer, knowing how to spot them is essential. This is the one you want to avoid most.