Shaggy Parasols are a meaty, tasty mushroom that is indigenous to the Pacific Northwest. It's close relative, the Parasol Mushroom, is only known to occur in the Southwest, but Shaggy Parasols are far more widespread. A large mushroom, Shaggy Parasols can get to be the size of dinner plates when they are fully mature. They have a distinctively shaggy appearance, with large brown flakes on the cap that are present even before the mushroom is large or mature. It is important to exercise caution and self-restraint, however, because the Shaggy Parasol has a very noxious cousin called Chlorophyllum molybdites, or the Green Spored Parasol. If you wish to eat a mushroom that looks like a Shaggy Parasol, make sure that the spore print is white, rather than green or yellowish. Furthermore, the Green Spored Parasol has a green or yellow tinge to its gills when mature, whereas the Shaggy Parasol has pure white gills, sometimes staining a mulberry red color when bruised or cut.
Shaggy Parasols are often found in compost heaps, in the woods, or in shady bits of the park. They normally fruit in the fall, but I have found them during the springtime as well! They usually grow in small groups of 3-5 individuals. Many species of bugs like to eat them too, so be sure you check to make sure that the mushroom is pest free before eating it! Despite the fact that slugs, flies and other creepy crawlies like this mushroom, it is a delicious treat for the avid mushroom hunter. I am personally prone to remove the gills before cooking this mushroom, so that I can enjoy the rich and almost beefy taste of the cap; the gills have a slightly different flavor that is more fungal and mushroomy than the cap itself.
This stately mushroom is a delicate character indeed! The Shaggy Mane grows very quickly; it only takes a day or two to reach maturity. This mushroom shares a peculiar trait with several other species; once the cap opens it almost immediately starts to turn into black, inky goo! This process is called deliquescing, and if you want to eat a Shaggy Mane, you've got to collect and cook it before it starts to digest itself! The goo is a spore infused liquid that can be used as ink, however, if you get to the Shaggy Manes too late. Once collected, Shaggy Manes should be eaten as soon as possible. They have a wonderful taste that reminds me of almonds, and they crisp nicely when lightly battered and fried!
Shaggy Manes typically grow in "troops", often times appearing in very large numbers. They favor disturbed habitats, such as parks, but they can be found growing on the ground in peaceful meadows as well! Like many mushrooms, they like somewhat sunny areas and you're not likely to find them deep in the heart of the forest.
Again, it's best to collect Shaggies before the caps start to open, and so the best ones for the table look like small cudgels with a stem. Once the cap opens, a ring will form on the stalk. Granted, you might not ever see this, because once a Lawyer's Wig opens up it won't take long for it to dissolve! Shaggy Manes have a flaky whitish cap that is marked with bits of brown around the edges of the large, vertical flakes. Often when picking them you will discover small patches of the cap on your hands! The Shaggy Mane is a gilled mushroom; when examining the inside of the cap you will see that the gills are very delicate and closely packed, like the pages of a book. When the mushroom starts to deliquesce, it will start to turn black-reddish and gooey, starting from the bottom of the cap and slowly creeping up until the entire cap disintegrates.
When I asked a Shaggy Mane what other information I should include, it told me to mention that it's amazingly strong despite it's soft demeanor. This is very true! Although they are some of the most quickly spoiled mushrooms out there, the Shaggy Mane pushes up from the earth with such force that it can lift stones and even concrete out of the way! As you can tell, this dynamic and interesting species is not only tasty, but a bit of a delightful enigma as well!
Elusive and sneaky, the Morchella species are the most prized and sought after mushrooms in the United States. They are strange little buggers, often growing in different places each year and sporting deeply lobed caps that are fully attached to a hollow stem. Morels are also quite tough to spot, since they look like so many other things on the forest floor, so it's quite possible to walk right by them and not even notice! I once attended a mushroom foray with about 30 people, and by lunchtime practically no one had found any morels. We all sat down together to sort out the finds for the first half of the day and have our meal, then headed out for a second round of mushroom hunting. Lo and behold, two lucky hunters found a HUGE patch of morels not 10 feet from where the whole oblivious crew of us had our picnic! Obviously, these mushrooms are tricksters and have a sense of humor. When you do spot a morel, it often will be out of the corner of your eye, sort of like noticing a ninja sneaking up on you. If this should happen, hit the deck! Morels grow in patches of several individuals typically, and so if you spot one you're likely to find more very close by, and getting down to the ground will give you a better chance of seeing them!
Morels are one of the few mushroom species that fruit in the springtime instead of the fall. The Blond Morels tend to fruit earlier in the season and in warmer climates than the Black Morels, which are often hidden up in the mountains. It is not totally clear if these are separate species, but they are classified as such at the moment. As for where to look for them: morels like disturbed habitats. Don't ask me why. They are common on river banks, in apple orchards and in landscaped areas in beauty bark. They are also classically associated with burn zones. Some people suspect that Morels are 'first responder' mushrooms that take hold in damaged habitats and start the process of bioremediation. One way or the other, Morel mycelium grows very quickly and dies back dramatically at the end of fruiting, which is one reason why it's hard to know where they will be from year to year. They also disperse their spores from the lobes on their caps, rather than straight down from gills, and so Morel spores drift freely in any direction they please!
There are few other mushrooms that look like Morels, but it's important to note that one mushroom, Gyromitra Esculenta, or the Brain Fungus, looks somewhat similar and can be lethal if cooked improperly. To be on the safe side, always make sure you consult a good field guide and mushroom expert before munching! Another similar species, Verpa Bohemica, or the Early Morel, looks very similar to it's Morchella cousins as well. However, it tends to fruit a couple weeks earlier in the spring than the true morels. In addition, it has a cottony fiber in its stem, whereas a true Morel has hollow stem. Finally, the caps of Early Morels are not attached to the stem entirely; the cap will be attached to the top of the stalk, with the rest of the tissue hanging free, like a thimble placed on top of the stem. The caps of true Morels are attached to the stem completely. If you can't tell for sure, slicing your mushroom in half should tell you if it's a Verpa or a Morel. Verpas also tend to grow more frequently in undergrowth, and true Morels tend to be found in areas with more direct sunlight. Please note: some people eat Verpas and reportedly love them, but there are some concerns that they might have trace amounts of the toxins found in Gyromitra Esculenta.
Morels are delicious and their texture is unique. They are delicious when stuffed with goat cheese, veggies and pecans and then baked. I also like to add them to anything I am cooking on the range. The flesh tastes mild, but meaty! Like all wild mushrooms, do not consume Morels raw; some people are allergic to them and report bellyaches from doing so!
Chicken of the Woods
AKA Laetiporus Sulfureus, Sulfur Shelf Mushroom
This aptly named fungus is both striking and delicious; it really DOES taste like chicken! A handsome salmon or vermillion color on top and pale to brilliant yellow on the bottom, this mushroom is also dazzling and really stands out in the forest. This chicken grows in layered shelves, and can become quite large! The Chicken of the Woods mushroom is a polypore, meaning it has a smooth, porus surface underneath from which it drops spores, instead of gills. The spore print is whitish. Chicken of the Woods is my personal favorite when stir fried with teriyaki. It also is a wonderful addition to homemade pasta sauce, omelettes, and does reasonably well when marinated and grilled! The flavor is very like poultry, and good specimens have the texture of chicken breast.
Chicken of the Woods can be found all over the United States. Like most mushrooms, it primarily fruits in the fall, but it can also be found during springtime. It is a saprophyte, meaning it decomposes and digests wood. Sulfur shelves are therefore most common on rotting logs and dying trees, but I have found them on ground, rotting wood that is buried beneath the forest floor. Unlike many wild mushrooms, it doesn't have any trouble establishing itself on conifers, so they aren't limited growing on hardwoods like many other edible species! When collecting this mushroom, you will notice that it oozes a lot of water when it is cut; sometimes enough to soak your entire hand!
Although some people report that Chicken of the Woods upsets their bellies, this has largely been linked to sulfur shelves that were found growing on eucalyptus. Furthermore, it's important to note that you should only eat the outer growth layer of the mushroom; you will notice concentric lines on the cap, indicating different phases of growth. If you eat the older parts of the mushroom they will be both tough to chew and tough to digest! As with all wild mushrooms, or any other food for that matter, it's best to try a small portion at first to see if it agrees with you. It certainly agrees with me, and it's a dramatic species to find in the wild.