Mushrooms of Autumn: The complex Honey
Another in the wild mushroom series from Bill Bakaitis, who is really warmin’ up to this. It’s a little different from the others in that it’s a primer on a mushroom I’m not crazy about, but plenty of other people like them (especially people from Eastern Europe), and a honey mushroom lover sings their praises at the very end of the post.
Mushrooms of Autumn: The complex Honey
story and photos by Bill Bakaitis
Mowing our lawn in New York a few days ago I was impressed by the number of Honey mushrooms that had sprung up. They seemed to be everywhere. Although Leslie and I do not eat them, many do, and from the Poison Control calls that come in at this time of year, we know that they cause problems for a number of people. It therefore seems appropriate to mention them in this treatment of Autumn Mushrooms. Here then part of the complexity of Honeys.
Species complexity, a Honey of a Problem
In the past the Honey Mushroom was considered a single species: Armillaria (or Armillariella) mellea. The subtle variations in color and stature were considered environmental variations. Carefully controlled breeding experiments however demonstrated that behind the macroscopic similarity there are nearly a dozen separate ‘biological species’. A field key to these segregated species may be found here and an entertaining summary of the history of some of the changes to the concept may be found here.
For most of us, however, the Honey retains its previous integrity as a single species. The mycelia of these fungi may be able to recognize differences among themselves, but such is not the case for the casual collector. And so we call it the Armillaria mellea “complex”, using the mycological term complex to full fudgy advantage.
A sister species, Armillaria tabescens, the “Ringless Honey” lacks a ring on the stem but is otherwise similar. In my experience it usually appears in late summer, a month or so before mellea which is more typically a fall mushroom.
Ecological complexity; Shoestring Root Rot
Honey mushrooms are complex pathogens of trees. As parasites, they attack the coarse roots and base of living trees, creating a spongy white “butt rot” that will kill and topple the tree. As saprophytes, they then send off long underground rhizomorphs – tough shoestring like ‘roots’ – drawing their strength from the downed tree while searching out new trees to attack. This is how they can appear in the middle of a lawn fifty yards or a hundred yards from the tree they are feeding upon.
The area an individual Honey can infect is often enormous, giving rise to one of the claims for the world’s largest living organism, a true “Humongous Fungus”!
More on the ecology of this wood-rotting pathogen can be found here.
Foxfire, the complexity of Bioluminescence
Honeys are among nature’s best recyclers, aggressive saprobes excreting enzymes that decay both cellulose and lignin. This process frees the carbon molecules trapped in the wood and recombines them with oxygen, in the process releasing carbon dioxide, the essential gas necessary for new plant life. Such respiration also produces heat and in the case of Honeys a ‘cold light’ called foxfire. At dusk on a mild evening in fall you can see this greenish glow if you pull apart the bark and punky wood of a tree felled by the Honeys. It will have the same magical appearance of the ocean’s surf when it explodes into diamonds during the dark of the moon in August.
More on bioluminescence here.
Where and when to find Honey Mushrooms
Since Honeys are wood-rotting fungi, woods are the best places to look for them. Follow the safe eating advice given above and collect young mushrooms in the early fall only from hardwoods, Oak preferred, before a frost has touched the mushrooms.
In the Northeastern autumn oaks will hold their leaves longer than any other, and the forest floor under a thick canopy of branches and leaves is likely to be frost free for several weeks after your windshield has needed scraping. Once leaves have covered the forest floor you will likely have your best luck if you first find an Oak recently felled by Butt Rot and search nearby.
At times the white aborted Entoloma/Armillaria will be more noticeable than the brown or yellow Honeys and will therefore alert you to the presence of the Armillaria which will be nearby allowing you to make a good collection. If so, remember to discard the older ones and to cook them well.
A note from Leslie: Actually from our friend Carol, donor of the beautiful dahlia. She’s a big honey mushroom fan, so I asked her to tell why – and as you read you’ll get the real reason: they taste a lot better dried (and are probably a lot safer that way, too).
Why I like honey mushrooms,
by C. Lundquist:
They are easy for a novice to identify.
They are usually abundant when found.
They dry very well when strung on a string (no fancy dehydrators needed) in the furnace room, providing mushroom enjoyment into the winter.
They work very well in risotto and are decidedly cheaper than the dried varieties you find in the markets (c.f. saw black trumpets in Whole Foods last week at $123/lb.)
They tend not to be quickly infested and ruined by little snails and worms, like porcini, for example.
I really like their mushroom taste!