Last Saturday, July 19, I decided to head back to the White Mountains to see if another week of intermittent storms had made any difference since my empty-handed scouting foray of the previous weekend. Arizona Mushroom Forum reader Kevin Widner of Nutrioso had been reporting some rainfall accumulation in the vicinity, and posting some nice photos of fruiting oyster mushrooms on the AMF Facebook page. Those are one of my favorite edibles, so I arranged to meet him up there for a day of foraging.
At almost the last minute, I also made a connection with Serjio Jitser, another of our local mushroom aficionados here in the Valley. He originally hails from the Ukraine, with its well-developed mushrooming culture, and now wishes to learn the types that grow here in Arizona so as to pass on this part of his cultural heritage to his own children. I was happy for his agreeable and well-educated company on the long early-morning drive up to the hills.
Serjio and I had a pleasant trip up via the US 60, traversing the spectacular Salt River Canyon and then the White Mountain Apache Reservation. When we got to Nutrioso, we were not disappointed. There is a great deal of downed and standing timber in the Nutrioso area, especially in the vicinity of the Three Forks Road, left over from the immense Wallow Fire of 2011. And now, happily, it appears much of it is being colonized by oyster mushrooms.
Within a few miles of town, we started to see oysters on numerous dead trees. These were primarily Ponderosa pines, Pinus ponderosa, but also Douglas fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii. The fruitings were especially common and bountiful where stacks of downed timber had been piled up horizontally by the Forest Service. This is probably because the multiple overlapping logs provide for slower runoff of rainwater, and shady crevices where conditions can remain relatively moist. It was often the case that younger mushrooms in the best condition for the table were found hiding well beneath the lower logs in the pile, especially on the north-facing aspects. You really had to work for them, breaking through the branches and slash, and it was unavoidable that we all got covered in soot from the burned bark.
Flushes of mushrooms that were more exposed, especially on the south-facing sides, were older and pretty far gone to desiccation and bugs. No doubt they had recently been in excellent shape for eating, and if we had been here two or three days earlier, we probably could have harvested a hundred pounds of pristine oyster mushrooms in a few hours.
These log-piles in the burned-over area of the Wallow Fire are worth keeping in mind for future forays. They will likely produce good quantities of delicious mushrooms for years to come. As Pleurotus is a relatively cold-tolerant genus, they may be a particularly worthwhile target for late-season excursions if we get some autumn rains. This is especially true if these are P. ostreatus rather than P. pulmonarius, which prefers warmer weather. As we discussed last week, these closely related species are of variable morphology and quite difficult to tell apart by sight in our area. The rather pale coloration of the mushrooms we found– the color of a barely-toasted marshmallow– as well as their appearance on dead conifer wood in the middle of summer would favor P. pulmonarius but do not confirm it.
As always, be aware of the potential for lookalikes. Spore prints are easy to obtain from the highly fecund oyster mushroom, often appearing in only a few minutes when they are fresh, and are a good idea when you’re getting used to hunting them. Most of the troublemaking impostors will have brown, pink, or other non-white spores. Use dark paper to identify the white or very light lilac-tinged spores thrown off by oyster mushrooms. The impostors can also potentially be distinguished from the real oyster mushroom by a non-translucent appearance and darker pigmentation, especially orange or brown; by differences in the gill attachment, or in the morphology of the stem (or lack thereof); or by a cap cuticle that is not smooth and does not show the oyster’s typical lobulation and cracking at the periphery in maturity. And importantly, none will have the scent of anise or seafood and the truly delicious taste of a real Pleurotus. Some of them are quite foul to smell or taste.
One of the interesting sort-of-pleurotoid saprobic species we ran across on this trip, but did not collect for eating, was the pretty orange-colored specimen above with a markedly hairy cap. It resembles the mock oyster, Phylotopsis nidulans, but the prominent stem would rule this out. Still not sure what we are looking at….
Adjacent to a Douglas fir stump, we discovered what we believe to be deer mushrooms, Pluteus cervinus. These are recognizable by their free pink gills, brownish cap, and a strong vegetal scent that is reminiscent of cut grass or radishes. Supposedly they have nothing to do with the living animal, but are named because their basidia bear a resemblance to a deer’s antlers under the microscope. They are said to be edible but definitely not worth the bother. We left them behind also.
We also saw some tight clusters of medium sized yellow-brown mushrooms that look very much like the velvet foot, Flammulina velutipes. However, these were growing on aspens, as depicted below, and are therefore likely instead to be its nearly indistinguishable relative, F. populicola.
This is said to be a good edible, but I have not yet collected it or consumed it in the wild. There are some troublesome mushrooms of similar appearance that grow on wood, notably the potentially lethal members of the genus Galerina, and I would not dare to try to eat them without carefully keying them out and consulting more experienced collectors. I now regret not taking a few for spore prints and other cautious study.
Flammulina is commonly collected in the wild by knowledgeable foragers, but it also is a variety of considerable commercial importance. When cultivated in conditions of darkness and high carbon dioxide concentration, its morphology and coloration change dramatically into the distinctive long, skinny, pale enokitake of Japanese and other Asian cookery. One of the finest mushroom meals I’ve had was at ShinBay in Scottsdale, and depended heavily on this species.
Another specimen of modest culinary interest that we examined on this trip was a Polyporus squamosus, also known as “Dryad’s saddle” or “Pheasant-back.” This meaty, conspicuous species with decurrent pores running down its fat stipe looks more appealing than it tastes, from what I have heard. The texture is quite chewy, with an insipid or bitter taste depending on the age, and a pronounced odor of watermelon rind. In some cultures it is commonly eaten early in the season when it may be the first edible discovered, and the famed “Wild Man” Steve Brill has a recipe for this species that he recommends. It can also be used for making artistic craft paper.
Kevin also located some roadside Agaricus outside Nutriosio a day or two before we arrived. We returned to the site where he had found them, but the survivors were pretty far gone. Not entirely sure what they were, but did not notice any yellow staining or phenolic smell to suggest the vomiter, A. xanthodermus. The pink gills on some of the mushrooms Kevin picked days earlier pointed away from A. arvensis, and there was no definite double ring or uplifted dirt to correlate with A. bitorquis. Presumably it is A. campestris or a closely related species. It smelled very pleasant and I will do a taste test if I discover it again.
There were no boletes, chanterelles, or other choice edibles. Kevin found a Phaeolus schweinitzii, the Dyer’s Polypore, which is a large and conspicuously colored species that gets some use creating yellow and orange and brown dyes for yarn.
Our party stayed in the field until well after 6 pm. We had enjoyed a good hike with pleasant company, not to mention filling our baskets with delicious oyster mushrooms, and I look forward to seeing these guys out there again. Heading for home, we were treated to a brilliant sunset that helped remind us all why we live in this beautiful state.