Pennsylvania’s Wild Mushrooms
Posted: February 12, 2012
By Elwin Stewart, Plant Pathology, PSU
Musky, dusky and risky for the uninitiated, wild mushrooms are gaining in popularity as American palates look for new taste treats. Although the Pacific Northwest is known as Mushroom Mecca, Pennsylvania should not be faulted in the fungus department. Indeed, Pennsylvania fields and forests are home to at least seven species of popular wild mushrooms. Bearing such exotic names as king bolete, morels, chicken of the woods, shaggy mane, horn of plenty and oyster mushrooms, you can find these fungi growing abundantly throughout the state - if you know where to look. Most of the edible wild mushrooms grow in forested areas, although there are several that thrive in open fields.
Despite Pennsylvania's rich bounty of wild species, I sharply warn against picking any kind of mushroom unless accompanied by an expert. You should either learn from a mycologist or join a mushroom club that has very knowledgeable amateurs. Mushroom pickers should buy a good field guide as well.
First learn what mushrooms not to pick. Most, but not all, deadly mushrooms in Pennsylvania are Amanita species. These mushrooms vary widely in appearance, but some common characteristics are white spores, a veil hanging from where the cap meets the stalk, and a cup-like or bulbous base. Poisonous mushrooms are very toxic and in most cases lethal. Although there are few deaths annually from mushroom poisoning, in this case, one mistake could be your last.
Once toxic mushroom recognition has been mastered, tackle edible wild mushrooms one species at a time. Learn its developmental stages and habitat, then branch off into other species. Learn three or four edible species in your area that have a fruiting season spanning from spring to mid-or late fall.
Here are some of the better wild mushrooms available in the Northeast.
Boletus edulis: Called "king bolete," these have a thick stalk and a nut-like cap. They are found near the roots of trees.
Laetiporus sulphureus: Called "chicken of the woods," this fungus grows as a parasite on dead wood. The creamy yellow/orange mush- room forms a cascading series of shelves resembling a lava flow, and yes, it tastes like chicken.
Coprinus comatus: Known as "shaggy mane," these are abundant in the fall. They have a large cap that looks somewhat like an artillery shell. These should be eaten shortly after picking or the cap will deteriorate into a gooey mass. This mushroom is found in grassy fields.
Langermannia gigantea: Known to kids far and wide as a "giant puff- ball," this fungus must be eaten fresh, when its flesh is white. They are found in fields.
Craterellus cornucopiodes: The "horn of plenty" is black and looks rather unappetizing, but its trumpet-like shape is recognizable, and the mushroom is quite tasty.
Pleurotus ostreatus: Called "oyster mushrooms," these fungi look fragile and flare from the stem. They have a slightly meaty taste.
Morechella esculenta: The morel, which resembles a pine cone or Christmas tree shaped sponge on a stalk, is commonly found in the spring in wooded areas.
Most wild mushrooms should be eaten as soon after harvest as possible. Almost all wild mushrooms can be frozen or dried without losing much flavor. If stored in a refrigerator, the mushrooms should be in a paper sack. If you put them in a plastic bag, humidity builds up, and the small amounts of bacteria and yeasts that are present when the mushroom is picked will multiply rapidly. Then, there is a good chance you will get sick from the bacteria, not the fungus.
Although wild mushrooms can be delicious, freshness can be a problem. For instance, the giant puffball emits a terrible odor once it has gone bad. The best way to judge freshness is by appearance. If it looks bad, it probably is bad.