Submitted Photo/Andrea Lee Lambrecht
Disappointment or delight -- that is the question. For some people the "summer that wasn't" has been a disappointment, for mycologists it's been a delight. Recent weeks of cool, cloudy and wet weather have mushrooms sprouting everywhere.
So, as you may have guessed, mycology -- the branch of biology dealing with fungi -- is the topic of the day. To clarify terminology, fungus is singular, fungi is plural. Mushroom is the term used to refer to the fruiting or spore-producing structure of a fungus that is above ground. The technical term for the spore-producing structure of "true" mushrooms is the basidiocarp.
Worldwide there are several thousand wild mushroom species. In Minnesota there are nine genera that are relatively easy to identify as edibles. They are morels (Morchella spp.), inky caps (Coprinus spp.), shaggy mane (Coprinus comatus), oyster (Pleurotus ostreatus), fairy ring (Marasmius oreades), meadow (Agaricus campestris), sulfur shelf (Polyporus sulphureus), club fungi (Clavaria spp.) and puffballs (Lycoperdon spp. and Calvatia spp.).
Did you know Minnesota has an official state fungus? It's the morel. While many fungi fans tout the morel for its delicate taste, my favorite edible fungus is Polyporus sulphureus, more commonly referred to as sulfur shelf. Three other names, chicken of the woods, chicken mushroom and chicken fungus all describe its delightful culinary aspects. And for a very good reason; when prepared properly it tastes just like chicken. Really, it does.
Sulfur shelf is one of the largest of the edible fungi, with a capability of reaching a width of several yards and a weight of several pounds. With its multi-layered, shelf-like rings of bright orange or yellow it is also one of the most brilliantly colored and easily identified fungi of the forest.
Chicken of the woods is perennial found on rotting hardwoods and softwoods throughout much of North America. At my place I find it on declining, dying or dead oaks. This year I was surprised to see a nearly circular specimen growing on the ground on one of the paths rather than on a tree. It was about a foot across and probably was sprouting from a buried oak root.
For the adventurous, Polyporus sulphureus plugs colonized by pure mushroom mycelium are available to be grown at home. Stumps, rather than cut logs, are the recommended site for plugging. Given the right conditions, mushrooms will form in 6-12 months, the stump will begin to decompose, and mushroom crops will form for several years thereafter.
By the way, there are two other fungi that are sometimes thrown in with chicken of the woods. One is hen of the woods (Grifola frondosa), also known as sheep's head and maitake, a mushroom commonly found on or near stumps and bases of oak trees. It, too, is edible, and most people find the taste appealing. However, the mushroom is known to cause allergic reactions in some people.
The second fungi group is called white-pored chicken of the woods, Laetiporus spp., pronounced lay-tee-PORE-us. According to Thomas J. Volk, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, these species have been separated from Polyporus because they cause a brown rot and have a dimitic-binding hyphal system in their fruiting bodies. The only part of Laetiporus sulphureus that is usually edible is the growing edge of the fruiting body, Laetiporus must be cooked and never eaten raw.
For readers interested in collecting and cooking chicken of the woods, here are a few ideas. Burhan Elturan from Northern or Turkish Kurdistan, a highly mountainous region in the Middle East, offers a simple recipe.
Ingredients: the mushroom (sliced), a medium size onion, two cloves of garlic, a tablespoon of thyme (dried or fresh), two tablespoons of soy sauce or tamari and olive oil. Fry the chopped onion and the garlic in olive oil slightly, then add the soy sauce or the tamari, sprinkle the contents in the frying pen with thyme. Pour in the sliced mushroom. Fry the whole mixture until well cooked. Serve immediately.
Here's how I prepare chicken of the woods. Cut firm, fleshy chunks of the fungus in its prime color of bright orange-yellow; inspect the pieces for insects; wash and pat it dry; slice it into thin strips and saut' it in butter. Bon appetite!
Few fungi can be as clearly identified as chicken of the woods. It truly is a delicacy, but in closing allow me to leave you with a lifesaving thought in regard to eating any mushroom. "When in doubt, throw it out!"
Every year a very small number of people die from eating wild mushrooms. I do not encourage the uninformed and inexperienced to collect specimens for eating. Before embarking on a mushroom foray, precautions must be taken when collecting, preparing and eating mushrooms from the wild. I cannot overemphasize the importance of adhering to the expertise of field guides and professional mycologists in following all the guidelines for proper identification of every mushroom picked.
Invest in a high-quality field guide with color photos. In addition, take a class in mycology. Although not on the schedule for this fall, on occasion, Deep Portage Conservation Reserve offers a seminar and foray for those interested in learning more about the topic.
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