Fall and winter mushrooming in Arizona

The epic 2013 monsoon season has come to a close, and the cold and snow are settling on our favorite hunting grounds in the high country. And so the Arizona mushroom community goes into hibernation for another year.

We’ll finish off our stashes of dried mushrooms in the coming months, and gather briefly for the Arizona Mushroom Club dinner in December. A lucky few of us may get out on a foray or two during the fall season in the Northeast or Northwest, or in the winter season in California, but for the most part the fungal fever has passed.

20131013-012707.jpgOr has it? Bill Warner mentions that he has been collecting young Podaxis pistillaris for the table after autumn rains, and ranks them above a good many of the more well-known fungi we collect up in the mountains during the summer monsoon season.

This shaggy-mane lookalike is common in our deserts after rains, and may appear all through the winter. It favors disturbed sandy soil and is often seen along roadsides and on construction sites. You’ll want to harvest it in the first few days after a rain, when it is still white and firm, before it turns black inside and sporulates like a puffball. The woody or fibrous parts of the stem are typically discarded.

This is a mushroom that grows worldwide in desert areas. In addition to the Southwestern United States, it may be found in Australia, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and even on the dry leeward side of some of the Hawaiian Islands. The sporocarp is commonly collected by rural folk after heavy rainfalls in the desert parts of India, Pakistan and the Arabian Peninsula. It is consumed at home, sent as a gift to city friends and relatives, or sold in large numbers along roadsides and in the markets, as illustrated by these photos kindly provided by Dr. Muhammad Ismail Bhatti, Curator of Mycology at the Pakistan Museum of Natural History:

There has also been some preliminary work in commercial cultivation of this mushroom in Pakistan.

Bill has plans to write a more detailed article on this species. We will be eager to post it here in time for you to give it a try this winter, if you are lucky enough to find some.

Bill also recently found some Agaricus bitorquis on a horse farm here in the Valley. This close relative of the grocery-store button mushroom grows mostly underground, and is often recognized merely by the cracking and uplifting of the overlying soil.  They can even crack and elevate pavement on roads.  Its other distinguishing characteristic is the double ring on the stipe; hence the epithet bitorquis.

Agaricus bitorquis, showing typical underground growthAgaricus bitorquis, showing the double ring

Terri Clements and Donna Fulton of Cottonwood– two of our most intrepid local off-season foragers– have also found this delicious mushroom in their high desert surroundings, both in the spring and in the fall. They posted the photos above on Mushroom Observer.  Nice find!  Unfortunately, this is one of those species that also attracts great interest from the bugs and worms, so you must find them very early after a rainfall if you are to have any hope of making a meal out of them.

oyster2

Another interesting report from Terri and Donna was submitted to the Mushroom Observer web site just a couple of weeks ago, showing a beautiful batch of oyster mushrooms, Pleurotus ostreatus. As a choice edible and a fairly cold-tolerant species, they are perhaps the most desirable target for your off-season foraging.  These were found growing from a cottonwood stump along the Verde River bottoms, in the vicinity of the town of Cottonwood. Donna and Terri ate them with loin of lamb and report that they were perfectly delicious. Sounds great!

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The Verde River and other low-lying riparian areas in the Arizona deserts are worth exploring for mushrooms after rains in the fall, winter, and spring. Not only do they collect more surface water than the higher areas of the desert floor, increasing your chance of running across terrestrial desert natives like the P. pistillaris and A. bitorquis mentioned above, but their high water table also sustains the roots of cottonwoods and other large trees.  While living, they maintain a symbiosis with mycorrhizal species like morels that are otherwise found only in the high elevation forests, and in death, they nourish wood-rotting saprobes like these gorgeous oyster mushrooms. These riparian corridors amount to a much smaller area than the vast conifer forests of the mountains, but they can produce many different types of mushrooms in rainy weather, some quite exotic and unpredictable. And of course they will get much less traffic by mushroom hunters than the popular summer sites on the Mogollon Rim and in the White Mountains.  If you try this, look for sections of the river with large stands of cottonwood trees.  In addition to the Verde, other desert rivers with suitable riparian zones include the Santa Cruz, Salt, Hassayampa, and San Pedro rivers, in the 2000-5000 foot elevation range.

But the higher areas of the state’s mountain ranges should not be disregarded altogether in the off-season. A moderately warm, rainy spell in the fall may allow some cold-tolerant species to grow there. Along with oysters, these include such favorite edibles as lion’s mane (Hericium erinacus) and hedgehogs (Hydnum spp.) Shaggy manes (Coprinus comatus) and honey mushrooms (Armillaria mellea) may even appear if the weather is wet and warm enough. You’ll have to work harder than in August, but with any luck you may find something like this H. rufescens collected on the Mogollon Rim by Terri Clements, at over 7000 feet elevation after the big storm in early October. There was snow on the ground nearby, but that did not prevent this choice edible from making an appearance.

Hydnum rufescens - 2 Hydnum rufescens - 1

One other type of fungus worthy of mention in this article is the hardy puffball, which can appear anywhere when there is the right combination of temperature, moisture and organic matter in the soil for saprotrophic growth. The following photos show some nice large specimens (probably Calvatia craniiformis, or perhaps young C. gigantea ) that appeared at my cousin John Kennedy’s place in Dewey after an early autumn rain, on a high-desert hillside covered in chaparral and far from our usual forested hunting grounds.  John keeps livestock at his place, and their manure may encourage the growth of this delicious edible.

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Have you found any interesting mushrooms in the off-season? We’d love to post your report along with some pictures here. Just send them in!

And don’t forget to pray to the Snow God(s) of your persuasion for heavy winter snowfall and a productive morel season next spring.