Delicious but Deadly Fall Mushrooms

Honey mushrooms (Armillaria mellea). Photo by MdE, Wikimedia Commons

Finding honey mushrooms in the woods makes me hungry and happy. The golden-brown caps stay firm when cooked and have a richer flavor than the white buttons sold in supermarkets.

But after I returned from a foraging walk last year, all proud of my big bag of honeys, I was dejected to find that my own back yard was full of them.

Honey mushrooms (and other species of the genus Armillaria) are tree-killers. Many types of mushrooms have a symbiotic relationship with tree roots, providing a mutually beneficial exchange of nutrients. But Armillaria mellea is parasitic, taking down live trees and plaguing foresters.

Last year, following a much wetter summer, peak harvest for honeys was around September 15. Last Saturday, before the rain, I went foraging. But the northern Adirondack woods were still abnormally dry and I didn’t see any.

Below-right is a photograph of the site of a honey-mushroom mother lode friends and I discovered last year. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of tawny caps spread over an acre or so, the biggest ones at the base of a dying maple.

This hardwood grove stands at about 2,000 feet on a mountain near Saranac Lake. I’d wondered why it was so nicely gladed with grassy openings while the woods nearby were scratchy and dense. Honey mushrooms may have done the clearing.

My friend Jay is a honey-mushroom epicure. He taught me how to identify them by the dark center on the cap, the ring on the stem, their tendency to cluster, and other characteristics. There is considerable variation, however, and there are inedible look-alikes. So here is the usual warning not to eat any mushroom that you have not confirmed beyond a doubt.

There is a wonderful opportunity this week to go into the woods with one of the most knowledgeable mycologists in the Adirondacks. Susan Hopkins, of Saranac Lake, will lead a mushroom walk on Wednesday and on Sunday at the Paul Smith’s College VIC. The walks begin at 10 a.m. Pre-registration is requested (call 518-327-6241). There is a $20 fee.

VIC naturalist Brian McAllister says Hopkins has identified 430 species so far on the property, and recent rains are starting to pop up fall mushrooms.

If you can’t make the walk, Alan Bessette’s guidebooks are a good starting point for mushroom identification. Bessette is a mycologist and professor of biology at Utica College.

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