Last weekend I wrote about a recent mushroom hunting trek, where we were successful in finding at least three varieties of edible mushrooms in good quantities. We went out again the following day and harvested even more (shown below). One of the varieties we harvested was the honey mushroom, so let's talk a bit about those right now.
I think it's a good idea to know or have at hand the scientific, Latin names of mushrooms you may wish to consume, especially if there is any possibility of confusing them with any other mushroom. Knowing a species' taxonomic name will enable you to do a precise search for information on the mushroom, which in turn will allow you to go through the very specific identifying markers for that species. Plus, it's just pretty neat to be able to use a little Latin whenever you get an opportunity. Honey mushrooms are classified as Armillariella mellea (or perhaps better said, armillariella mellea is commonly known as the honey mushroom).
Where I live people also call honey mushrooms "buttons", potentially confusing the identification of the mushroom even further for anyone not a native to the area, as button mushrooms are the more widely accepted name Ofagaricus bisporus, the common white mushroom we find in grocery store produce sections. With apologies to my fellow local mushroom hunters I'll use the more widely accepted name, honey mushroom, rather than buttons, for Armillariella mellea.
My first encounter with honey mushrooms was in high school when my friend Tom, who I spoke of in last week's post, showed them to me in the woods his family owned behind their home. Back then I hunted squirrel, deer and the occasional ruffed grouse in their woods, and one day Tom introduced me to honey mushrooms (he called them buttons) and Entoloma abortivum, which he called pig snoots (we'll talk pig snoots in a separate blogpost). Tom learned how to identify and collect these mushrooms from his father, who also referred to them by the colloquial names Tom used. We collected a pail full of both kinds and sauteed them in butter. That particular afternoon trek, and its delicious harvest, was another one of those revelatory moments that foragers like me point to in our history of pivotal foodie experiences.
Up until then I had known about and purposely hunted for only two wild mushrooms: morels and giant puffballs. Mushrooms other than those two easily identifiable species had seemed a little daunting, so I pretty much just stuck to the two I knew I could not confuse with anything else. But suddenly, with Tom's tutelage on "buttons" and "pig snoots", my knowledge base, as well as my wild mushroom menu, instantly doubled. Once I saw how relatively simple it was to visually confirm the identities of a couple of mushrooms I had not known until then, I became enthusiastic at the prospect of increasing my personal edible mushroom catalog even further. The ensuing years saw me add more wild mushrooms to my list, including maitaki, sulphur shelf, dryad's saddle, shaggy mane, chanterelle, black trumpet, and more. But there are many more mushrooms that I am still not knowledgeable or confident about, that I could easily confuse with toxic look-similars. No doubt one's fungi education could continue for a lifetime.
Back to honeys...
Of the edible fungi that I am confident about correctly identifying, honey mushrooms are the ones that require the most attention to detail, because they can vary slightly in appearance, although there are some markers that are pretty constant to help enable confident identification. Let's go through them.
1) Location. Most commonly associated with hardwoods (oaks have been our favorite partner tree), especially around old stumps and rotting timber. If found on open ground there's a good chance that the soil is hiding the rotting remains of a tree or fallen limbs. It's been rare that we've found isolated honey mushrooms; usually they are found in clusters where they are either tightly grouped and overlapping or within no more that a couple of feet from one another. Autumn is the time we hunt for honeys, although I understand that in some regions they may appear year-round.
2) Cap. The caps of young honey mushrooms are noticeably different from those of older mushrooms. Immature honey caps are bulbous and domed, but they spread out and become planar, depressed or occasionally umbonate as they continue to grow. The young honeys more aptly conform to the description of "buttons" than do their mature versions. Cap color varies from yellowy-tan to reddish-brown or cinnamon, with the ones we usually find of the rusty red-brown variation. It's worth noting that the name of the honey mushroom refers to its coloring, not its flavor, and, as we know, honey also varies in hue from light blonde to reddish to darker browns, depending on the primary flowers used by the bees. Cap color is not always a sure-fire key with some mushrooms. Colors vary by degree and may also be dependant upon things like location (terroir), prolonged weather or climate conditions, age of mushroom and other variables. Color is an important key identifier, but it should be taken into consideration with all of the other identification keys.
A more vital key to honey mushroom cap identification, especially on the younger, more desirable mushrooms, is the presence of tiny, scaly "hairs", that look not unlike a man's 5-o'clock shadow or like teeny-tiny feathers (see image below). As the mushrooms age and the caps widen and become more planar these tiny scales or hairs kind of flatten out and the cap surface may become smoother and somewhat mottled or speckled in appearance.
3) Gills. The gills of honey mushrooms are most often decurrent, which means that they attach to and run down the stem for some short distance. The underside of younger honeys, where the gills are located, also displays a cottony or spider-webby veil that is attached from the stalk to the rim of the cap, and which covers the gills. The veil is mostly gone or broken by the time the mushroom matures and the cap flattens out. See the image above for a good example of the veil on the upturned mushrooms.
4) Stalk. The stalk is fibrous and pithy, with a white interior and a whitish to brown, mottled exterior. In mature mushrooms it appears relatively straight and symmetrical, although in young mushrooms it may also appear a bit bulbous at the bottom. Some stalks will show a ring where the veil was attached and some will not, so there's not a hard and fast rule concerning the presence of a ring.
5) Spore print. Spore prints are an important key identifier, and should be taken as part of identifying any mushroom you are not already completely familiar with. Sometimes a spore print can be the confirming key in identifying a mushroom, and sometimes it can be the one key that firmly declares that the mushroom you think is a honey mushroom is actually not, and that is indeed a very good thing to know. The spore print of honey mushrooms is white. To take a spore print you simply lay a cap, gills side down and with stem removed, on two pieces of paper, one dark and one white, and allow it to sit undisturbed for a few hours. Remove the cap and check the color of the spores that were deposited.
Below is a print I unintentionally made on our stove top, which has a mottled black surface. You can see the white pattern or print left by the spores. Also, sometimes when you find honey mushrooms tightly clustered and overlapping, mushrooms that lie partially covered by ones above will show white spore deposits on their caps from the mushrooms above.
There is a toxic mushroom that looks similar in some respects to mature honey mushrooms, the Deadly Galerina (Galerina autumnnalis). The spore print of the galerina is brown or rusty brown.
Take another look at the image in the middle of this post of the "Small, immature honey mushrooms" and note the following keys again:
The fuzzy or "whiskery" surface of the tops of the caps shown.
- The cottony veil on the larger upturned mushroom - the veil is attached to the stem and outer rim of the cap, and still covers some of the gills.
- How the gills attach and briefly continue down the stem.
- The appearance and coloration of the stem, both outer surface and interior.
Honey mushrooms are a wide ranging popular edible (popular around here anyway; I've heard that in some places they are not highly desirable). They are richly flavored and lend themselves well to drying as a means of preserving them (although they can toughen and be a bit chewy when dried). I like them sauteed in butter and olive oil, added to egg and risotto dishes, game dishes such as squirrel, venison or grouse, or as toppings for hamburgers, steak or meatloaf.
As with any new mushroom, be absolutely sure of its identity, refer to several sources and at least one knowledgeable mushroomer to confirm your assessment, and try only a small amount at your first eating. That's good advice for any food, as people have all sorts of reactions to all sorts of foods, both domestic and wild. When learning about a new mushroom or wild edible it's smart to have several texts at hand. Fortunately, there are good ones out there and the catalog of books on mushroom identification seems to be growing each year. Here are just three that I have stacked on my desk at this very moment:
Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora; Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America by David Fischer and Alan Bessette; North American Mushrooms; A Field Guide to Edible and Inedible Fungi by Orson Miller Jr and Hope Miller.