Cauliflower Tales: Arizona’s unique Sparassis

The North American Mycological Association’s journal of amateur American mycology, McIlvainea, is a rich source of information for the intermediate and advanced mushroom enthusiast. It’s available online for free at the NAMA website.

(Audrey Owens)

(Audrey Owens)

This month’s issue features Ron Peterson and Karen Hughes’ detailed article about the cauliflower mushrooms of the genus Sparassis. That by itself is enough to get the interest of anyone who’s ever eaten one of these beautiful and relatively rare treats. Not only is it one of the most delicious and versatile of all edible mushrooms while fresh, it is also perhaps the single most suitable type for preservation by drying. It shows very little change in taste and texture when it is rehydrated later. Moreover, it is often so large it can hardly fit in your basket, with some individuals weighing twenty pounds or more, and identification of it is almost foolproof even for inexperienced mushroomers.

Sparassis americana var. arizonica

Sparassis americana var. arizonica, Mt. Lemmon, AZ, July 2014

Reading the article today, I was pleased to see that the Sparassis we find in Arizona was singled out for special mention. While we often call it S. crispa, that is a misnomer. The Sparassis found in most of the Western US has been designated S. radicata since 1917, and you will sometimes hear knowledgeable Arizona collectors call our local variety by this name. There is also a similar species in the Eastern US that has usually been considered a variety of S. crispa proper, the European type species of the genus. (We do not deal here with more distant second cousins such as S. spathulata.)

As the McIlvainea article reports, the cauliflower mushrooms that we collect in Arizona have recently been shown to be distinct from the Western S. radicata by DNA analysis. Moreover, both of them are different from the Eastern North American species. This, in turn, is now known to be separate from the European type species S. crispa. And finally, S. crispa itself is now considered distinct from the hanabiratake of East Asia, i.e. S. latifolia.

Sparassis noodlesWhat’s more, it’s not just DNA sequences that distinguish our local subspecies from the rest. Arizona’s cauliflower mushrooms show a more pinkish tinge than the others, as a rule, and a more serrated appearance to the fringed edges of the flat leaves of the fruiting body– much like the difference between the fiocchi rigati and farfalle pastas of Italy. There are also differences under the microscope. See the article for full details.

Arizona’s subtype is most closely related to the version collected in the Eastern U.S. than to the species found in the Far West, Asia, or Europe. At last month’s Telluride Mushroom Festival, I learned that this is also the case with a number of other species complexes found in our area. This is probably because eastern fungi have great difficulty crossing the Great Plains to the Northern Rockies and the West Coast, but can more easily follow the forests that extend from the eastern U.S. to the Gulf Coast to northern Mexico to southern Arizona.

Sparassis cladogram from Peterson & Hughes

(Peterson R & Hughes K)

The McIlvainea article summarizes a recent paper by the same authors in the scientific journal Mycologic Progressproposing the taxa Sparassis americana for the common Eastern version and S. americana var. arizonica for our local favorite. You can now find this terminology on scientifically-oriented sites such as Mushroom Observer, MycoBank, and Index Fungorum. For myself, I think I’ll just go on calling them by the generic “Sparassis“, because I am far less interested in their DNA sequences than in the delightful effect the proteins encoded by those sequences have on my taste buds after being sautéed in clarified butter with wine, shallots and garlic. But if you are a stickler for correct taxonomy, here is the bottom line from the McIlvainea article authors:

The identification of cauliflower mushrooms is deceptively easy. Sparassis crispa seems limited to Europe, including western Russia, being replaced in eastern North America by S. americana, and in western North America by S. americana f. arizonica in southeastern Arizona and S. radicata in the Pacific Northwest. The dominant species in Asia is S. latifolia. When you find a cauliflower mushroom, reckon where you are: each geographic population seems to have a separate, acceptable name. Use it.

About Christopher May

Chris is a radiologist in private practice in Scottsdale. He is married to Barbara May, with two grown children, Megan and Nick.
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2 Responses to Cauliflower Tales: Arizona’s unique Sparassis

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