The Mushroom Man

Bill Russell

Bill Russell

“I was trained by the gypsies,” Bill Russell told me.  “They would come to set up camps near my home in Turtle Creek, southeast of Pittsburgh, for six weeks every summer.”

The gypsies may have added to his growing knowledge, but Russell caught mushroom fever while hunting field mushrooms with his parents when he was a toddler.  Because he was closer to the ground, he spied three button mushrooms his parents had missed.  His mother sautéed those mushrooms for him, and he was hooked immediately on mushroom hunting.

Once he learned to read, his father bought him a mushroom guide.  He memorized much of it over the winter and then studied mushrooms in the woods, fields, and backyards near his home.  His first discovery was glistening inky cap Coprinus micaceus.

“I have a deep affection for the inky,” he writes in his excellent book Field Guide to Wild Mushrooms of Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic.  “It’s the first wild mushroom I learned by myself to eat when I was a mycologically precocious youngster.”

Still, he moved slowly and carefully when identifying wild mushrooms, and his book is filled with warnings to go slowly in mushroom identification.  His parents remained leery of his expertise, and every Thanksgiving, when he bestowed a big basketful upon them of velvet stem mushrooms (Flammulina velvutipes) to add to the turkey stuffing, his mother gamely added them, but Bill was the only person who ate it.

Young enoki (velvet stem) mushrooms by frankenstoen on Flickr

Young enoki (velvet stem) mushrooms by frankenstoen on Flickr (Creative Commons Attribution license)

By the time he graduated from high school, he could identify 50 edible mushrooms.  But Russell and his mushroom-hunting pal, Karen Croyle of Osceola Mills, also know many non-edible species, as we discovered during a field trip last July along the Lower Trail in Blair and Huntington counties with Russell and Croyle.

After a wet, late spring and early summer, when mushrooms popped up everywhere, by mid-July it had dried up, and the graveled, wide Lower Trail with grass and young trees on either side wasn’t a mushroom-hunters’ paradise.  Luckily, we had several pairs of young eyes close to the ground, and Jake Miller, almost ten years old, found the first mushroom, and his brother Andy, almost five years old, found the second.

Our son Dave, our 13-year-old granddaughter Eva, who was with us for the summer, and I were eager to learn more about mushrooms.  Eva had already shown great interest in the mushrooms growing in our forest during hikes with me, admiring their many colors and shapes.  Back in June, we had found a large chicken mushroom at the end of Black Gum Trail, and she had urged me to harvest it and carry it the couple of miles to our home in my wide-brimmed hat.

According to Russell’s book, we had picked the white chicken mushroom Laetiporus persicinus, known in our area as “spring chicken,” which has white undersides instead of the sulfur yellow of the true chicken mushroom L sulphureus.  White chicken mushroom grows on dead stumps and logs from late May through the summer, while chicken mushroom, also called “sulfur mushroom,” “sulfur shelf” or just plain “chicken,” appears from late summer through much of the autumn.  Both species taste like chicken breast meat.  “…a skillful cook,” Russell writes, “will make you believe that you are eating real old-fashioned Kentucky fried,” and our son Dave has invented several recipes even mushroom haters like.

We never did find a chicken mushroom on our field trip, although a participant had brought one that she had found in her backyard for Russell to identify.  Apparently, she didn’t have a copy of his book because it has excellent photos of both chicken mushroom species in it.

Russell with the disputed bolete

Russell with the disputed bolete

Of course, not all the so-called edible mushrooms are as easy to identify.  Despite the expertise of Russell and Croyle, they didn’t agree on the identity of Andy Miller’s find.  Was it Boletus bicolor, as Russell thought, or B. sensibilis, as Croyle maintained?  It all depended on how quickly the rosy-capped mushroom with a bright yellow stem bruised blue.  If slowly, it was the edible bicolor, if instantly, the “reportedly poisonous” sensibilis.  Even after they bruised the specimen, it was still debatable whether it had turned instantly or more slowly, so it was not the kind of mushroom I’d ever be willing to experiment with, but I could appreciate its beauty.

A small, fragile, bell-shaped, light-brown mushroom Russell called Coprinus micaceus or “I don’t know it.” Although it was another species, I would not gamble on, this was the first species Russell learned to identify and eat as a youngster.

We also found a polypore, which Russell defines in his book as “usually wood-growing, tough or woody shelf-like mushrooms with a typically off-center stem—or no stem—and a firm layer of pores under the cap.”  The afore-mentioned chicken mushrooms are also polypores.

Once again, there was a little uncertainty about the species. Was it a black-footed polypore (Polyporus badius) or elegant polypore (P. varius)? Both grow on stumps and logs of deciduous trees or on buried wood, both are leathery and a shade of brown, but elegant polypore are smaller than black-footed polypore.  As far as polypores are concerned, though, none are known to be poisonous, Russell told us, although many don’t taste great and/or are tough and chewy.  Some, like chicken mushroom, are choice edibles, some have medicinal uses, and still others produce dyes.

Despite the paucity of interesting mushrooms, Russell and Croyle never ran out of mushroom talk.  For instance, oak-loving collybia (Collybia dryophila), a flat, brown, gilled mushroom that grows in groups in oak or pine forests, is easy to identify if “it’s infected with collybia jelly, Syzygospora mycetophila, because the jelly covers the oak-loving collybia’s cap with distinctive pale, gnarled lumps.” Sure enough, Russell pictures both species in his book.

Chicken mushroom

Chicken mushroom

Later, as we drove back up our mountain road, I spotted a huge chicken mushroom growing in the steepest part of the hollow.  Dave and Eva leaped from the car, ran down the slope to the stream, crossed it, and harvested the mushroom from a fallen log.

“We should have had the walk here,” Eva said.  Unfortunately, the Lower Trail lacks the moist, deep oak forest we have, which yields so many wild mushrooms and continued to yield them throughout the rest of the summer and fall.

Eva and I had caught mushroom fever from Russell and Croyle, and on one walk found many we couldn’t identify, despite my five mushroom guides, and four we could, including golden fairy spindle (Clavulinopsis fusiformis), horn of plenty (Craterellus fallax), jack o’lantern (Omphalotus olearius), and fuzzy foot (Paxillus atrotomentosus).  Eva also made spore prints of several species, following directions in Russell’s book, and pored over the guides with me.

We did not find enough horn of plentys (also called “black trumpets” or “woods truffles”) to harvest, although in previous years we had eaten what, Russell writes, “some of my chef friends…consider …the very best of all the edible mushrooms.”  These trumpet-shaped mushrooms come in black, gray, or dark brown and are as unmistakable as chicken mushrooms.

Golden fairy spindle (Clavulinopsis fusiformis) by Ian Bryson on Flickr

Golden fairy spindle by Ian Bryson on Flickr (Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license)

The golden fairy spindle is one of dozens of lovely coral mushrooms with either simple clusters of stalks or branching, coral-like growths, many of which are beautifully colored.  Russell writes that mushroomers have also called the golden fairy spindle “tongues of flame,” “slender golden fingers,” and “yellow-colored coral.”  Another mushroom guide calls them “spindle-shaped yellow coral,”  which is why it is important to learn the scientific names.  Of course, there are several differences even in those names from book to book.

The jack o’lantern grows in large, orange clusters on the base of tree trunks and glows an eerie green in the dark, hence its name.  Folks in our area sometimes mistake it for the edible golden chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius), but the jack o’lantern causes nausea and vomiting.  Russell spends several paragraphs explaining the difference between the two species.  He also says that the same chemical reactions that cause bioluminescence in fireflies is responsible for the jack o’ lantern’s glow.

Black horns of plenty

Black horns of plenty

Fuzzy foot may also be poisonous, according to Russell.  “Its fat, dark brown, fuzzy stem [and] tan gills that run down the stem are its identifying characteristics.” But other guides dispute the poisonous claim, and some folks eat it with no problem.  Again, I’m not willing to risk it.

Even after Eva left for home, I continued my mushroom study.  Small, white, parasol-like caps on top of thin, black stems that grew in our hollow turned out to be Marasmius capillaris (many mushrooms don’t have common names). Shiny cinnamon polypore or fairy stools (Coltricia cinnamonea), a stalked, reddish-brown species grew beside Guesthouse Trail.  Under the hemlocks, I found the red-stalked dog stinkhorn (Mutinus ravenelii).  And one day on our road bank, I identified dye maker’s polypore (Phaeolus schweinitzil), the pale yellow crown coral (Clavicorona pyxidata) and another orange-yellow coral Ramariopsis laeticolor.

None of these species are mentioned in Russell’s book because he only covers 100 of the most common species in our area.  And one expert, Dr. David L. Hawks worth, says there are six species of fungi for every plant and about 1.5 million species of fungi on earth.  Of those, only five to ten percent of fungi have been discovered and named.  From 1980 to 1999, an average of 1,100 new species have been found and described per year.  With this possibility in mind, Russell even tells readers what they should do if they suspect they have found a new species.

Grilled red sea bream with hen of the woods (maitake) by Yumi Kimura on Flickr

Grilled red sea bream with hen of the woods (maitake) by Yumi Kimura on Flickr (Creative Commons BY-SA license)

But my final find, in late September, was what Russell calls “excellent tasting.”  It also specializes in oak forests — the incomparable hen of the woods (Grifola frondosa) or what the Japanese call maitake.  Because it looks like the ruffled brownish-gray feathers of a domestic hen tucked beneath a tree, it’s difficult to spot.  It’s so delicious that “competition for this species can be intense,” Russell says.  Mine was at least a foot across, but Russell has seen one that weighed forty-two pounds.  Nevertheless, we had enough for a delicious stir fry and cream of wild mushroom soup.  What a perfect ending to my mushroom-hunting year.

“What are mushrooms?” Russell asks in his book.  “To those who study and admire them, they are a lifelong source of exploration and adventure.”

Bill Russell has a website, Wild, Wild Mushrooms. It is “all about the wild mushrooms, (including morels, oyster mushrooms, chanterelles, boletes and other exotic fungi) that grow in Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic states,” and includes links to other mushroom sites and recipes.

Photos by Dave Bonta except where otherwise indicated. Larger versions of the photos from Flickr may be seen on click-through.