A delightful trip to the White Mountains on Saturday the 12th tantalized me with a pleasing dampness of the forest, promising an early start to the season, but was ultimately fruitless for edible species.
I decided to try another area that has gotten some rain so far this year. This time the destination was the central Rim Road in the vicinity of Knoll Lake. The area had received upwards of three or four inches of rain in the previous two weeks, according to Doppler radar estimates from the National Weather Service. My companions and I were not disappointed.
In the first hundred yards, we came across a Douglas fir snag, Pseudotsuga menziesii, encircled with several dozen very fresh and bug-free oyster mushrooms. There were enough to split them up equally and still take home enough for a good mushroom supper. I can’t imagine ever becoming so jaded that I would not feel a thrill at spotting the white splotches of an oyster log from fifty yards away.
The white coloration, time of year, and the fruiting on conifer wood suggest Pleurotus pulmonarius, but this is a difficult species to distinguish from P. ostreatus in this area. P. ostreatus tends to be darker, but can also be creamy white or gray, and prefers hardwood but will sometimes fruit on a dead conifer. They are especially meaty and tasty when they fruit on river-bottom cottonwoods in spring and fall, and show a substantially more brownish coloration than what we find at altitude in the summer. We also see oysters fruiting on aspen, Populus tremuloides, from time to time. They have a similar whitish coloration, and it can be presumed that these are the aspen oyster, P. populinus.
Ultimately, it is of little practical difference, as they are all part of the P. ostreatus complex, and among the most coveted species found in Arizona for the table. They are not difficult to identify but there are some “pleurotoid” lookalikes that need to be taken into account before you decide to chow down.
We also found some very young Reishi or “varnish shelf” polypores, Ganoderma tsugae, again growing on dead Douglas fir. A foraging partner who knows her medicinal mushrooms decided they were too young to pick, being largely still soft and white at this early stage of maturation. She wants to see them with a well developed shiny brown cuticle before harvesting them. Being less than devoted to alternative medicine myself, I was satisfied to leave them in the field and let her come back for them when she deems them sufficiently developed.
The other edible species we came across was Neolentinus ponderosus, the giant sawgill mushroom. Some of them were found by Knoll Lake, but others were discovered on another brief outing at lower elevation near the ranger station at the Rim Road and the 260. This species seems to be an obligatory saprotroph of decaying ponderosa pine, Pinus ponderosa, as the name implies. And indeed, we discovered half a dozen growing exclusively on old ponderosa stumps. They previously were designated Lentinus ponderosus, but this name is now deprecated.
These are large, conspicuous mushrooms of creamy white to yellow-brown coloration, and one or two of them will sometimes be enough to make a satisfactory meal. They are distinguished primarily by their serrated “sawtooth” gills, which are white in younger specimens and stain yellowish or brownish in senescence. Relatively long lamellulae (accessory gills) are seen between many of the closely spaced major gills at the periphery. Other typical features include broad, flat scales on the pileus; an inrolled pileal margin, at least when young; a long, sturdy “root” extending several centimeters deep from the base; a white spore print; and a remarkable variation in the gill attachment, which can be adnexed, adnate, notched, or decurrent, depending on which author you consult. Those we found on this trip all appeared adnate with mild notching.
I had not eaten this species before, so I performed a Chet Leathers edibility test before indulging. They are related to the shiitake mushroom, Lentinula edodes, and like that species, they are of a relatively chewy texture, especially when older. In general, they benefit from lengthy cooking with adequate moisture, e.g in crockpot recipes. However, their chewiness is sometimes desirable, for example in a stir-fry. They are said to be a favorite with Asian immigrants in California, who seek them out for this purpose. The taste is very good, but not quite in the same league as the oyster mushrooms we found. They fruit early and abundantly, and are sometimes the only edible you will find on an outing when there has been little precipitation. None of the sawtooths are known to be poisonous.
There were plenty of other species to be seen, including some conspicuous bracket fungi, but nothing else of culinary interest. But don’t be put off! As we left the Rim, a large, wet storm was moving in. In conjunction with the considerable rains the area has already received, it seems likely that the season of 2014 will be a memorable one, at least in the early stages.