Words and Photos by Ellen Zachos
Lobster mushrooms (Hypomyces lactifluorum).
Mushrooms depend on moisture. In the desert, this means that if there’s no monsoon, there’re no mushrooms—or, at least, very few fungi. But in a good year, when the rains come and the temperatures are just right, fall can be a productive mushroom season in northern New Mexico. Now is the time to look for bright-orange lobster mushrooms, tasty oysters, and plentiful honey mushrooms. If you want to safely hunt for (and eat) wild mushrooms, here are some fundamental beginners’ guidelines.
1. Never, EVER eat a mushroom you’re not 100 percent certain of. That’s a good general rule for all wild edibles, but the stakes are especially high with mushrooms because, yes, some are deadly when eaten.
2. Make a spore print. Many mushrooms look similar on the outside, and taking a spore print will help you differentiate among species. To make a spore print, detach a fresh cap from its stalk, then cut the cap in half. Place one piece on a light sheet of paper and the other on a dark sheet. (Dark spores will show up better on light paper, and light-colored spores will be easier to see on dark paper.) Cover each piece with an upside-down drinking glass, and let it sit overnight. In the morning, lift the caps and check the paper for a dusting of spores. Spore color is an essential identification factor for many mushrooms. For example, honey mushrooms produce a white spore print, setting them apart from some toxic look-alikes.
3. Cook your mushrooms. The cell walls of mushrooms are made of chitin, not cellulose (which is what we find in plants’ cell walls). Humans do not digest chitin well. We may not be able to digest it at all. (Scientists disagree on this point.) Cooking breaks down chitin, making mushrooms easier to digest. It also makes the nutrients in mushrooms more accessible to the human body. Need more convincing? Some mushrooms can cause stomach upset when eaten raw, but are entirely harmless when properly cooked.
Ready to get started? Let’s begin with the lobsters. Not only are they easy to identify, but their story is especially interesting. Lobster mushrooms (Hypomyces lactifluorum) are actually two fungi in one. They begin as a species of either a Russula or Lactarius, which is then parasitized by the Hypomyces fungus. This gives the outside of the mushroom its lobster-orange color, contorts its shape, and improves the flavor of the host mushroom. These are large, bright-orange mushrooms, and they generally grow singly, emerging from soil.
Lobsters are meaty, dense fungi. When you open a bag of freshly picked lobsters (or a jar of dehydrated ones) they do indeed smell like shellfish—but that’s where the similarity ends. This shouldn’t discourage you from foraging for them, but will help you manage your expectations. If you think of them as big, chunky fungi with a pleasant mushroom flavor, you won’t be disappointed. But if you expect to use them as a lobster substitute, you may feel like you’ve been duped.
The lobster not only has excellent mushroom flavor, but is also easy for beginning mushroom hunters to identify. Look for them in long-established forests, among conifers.
Oyster mushrooms are another good choice for beginner foragers. There are several species of oysters (in the Pleurotus genus) that grow in New Mexico, with the aspen oyster (P. populinus) being the most common. All oysters grow on wood (sometimes on subterranean roots) and have gills on the underside of their caps. The color of the caps may vary from white to brown, but aspen oysters tend to have a light tan color. When oyster mushrooms grow upright from subterranean roots or from the tops of branches, they may develop off-center stems. When they grow from the sides of logs or trees, they may have no stems at all. Oysters grow all year round, but are most common in fall, and they are often found in large clumps. Oyster mushrooms produce a white to pale-gray spore print.
Honey mushrooms (of the Armillaria genus) are not beginner mushrooms, but they’re tasty and often very abundant. If you’re an experienced mushroomer, or lucky enough to know someone who is, look for honeys in conifer forests at elevations over seven thousand feet. They grow from wood, have brown caps that flatten with age (with dark brown or black scales on the caps), and they produce a white spore print. A. ostoyae (the most common honey mushroom in New Mexico) has a ring on its stem. Honey mushrooms should be cooked for at least ten minutes to avoid gastrointestinal distress.
The thrill of the mushroom hunt is real. If you want in on the action, buy yourself a few good field guides, take some classes, and join a local club. Knowledge is power—and mushrooms are delicious.