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.

Armillaria mellea, The Honey Mushroom, yellow form

Armillaria mellea, The Honey Mushroom, yellow form

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.

A brown form of the Honey Mushroom, perhaps A. ostoyae

A brown form of the Honey Mushroom, perhaps A. ostoyae

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.

 A. tabescens, the Ringless Honey Mushroom

A. tabescens, the Ringless Honey 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.

Bioluminescence in Clitocybe illudens, the Jack O' Lantern,  another wood-rotting fungusBioluminescence in Clitocybe illudens, the Jack O’ Lantern,  another wood-rotting fungus

Edibility/toxic complexity Honeys are edible, but frequently cause gastrointestinal problems which can be quite severe. Two specific factors are implicated: 1, insufficient heat in cooking and 2, the use of mushrooms that are either too old and/or have been subject to frost.

The toxins present in fresh young Honeys will break down only with thorough cooking. They should never be eaten raw or ‘lightly treated’ with heat as in stir frying. Parboiling (and discarding the water) prior to further cooking is often suggested, as is simmering the mushroom for at least 15 minutes, as in a well reduced tomato sauce. Honeys can also be ‘cooked’ by pickling them in an acid – usually vinegar – bath. Pickled Honeys are popular in parts of Europe. (For a successful cooking strategy, see the note at the end.LL )

Reports submitted to The North American Mycological Association’s poison registry also indicate that alcohol consumed along with Honeys can increase the severity of the gastrointestinal symptoms, and I once identified Honeys as being the mushroom eaten by a dog who subsequently died (though it was not clear if it had also eaten other species as well).

Mushrooms that have been hit by frost and/or are over-mature will begin to decay and the rotting mushroom presents an excellent environment for bacterial growth which can lead to illness. It is recommended therefore not to collect Honeys after frost.

But “frost” is a very complex phenomena depending not only upon the raw temperature as measured by a thermometer, but also upon factors such as humidity, wind, air drainage, and availability of cover. Honeys fruiting on a tree covered hillside, or under a blanket of newly fallen leaves may escape frost for more than a month after those fruiting in frost pockets in the grassy areas at the foot of a hill. Collecting safe Honeys for the table, then, presents special problems at those times and in those areas where the “first frost” is a probabilistic process. Caution is advised.

Complex gastronomic issues

The palatability of Honeys is quite varied: some seem fine, most are mediocre, but some collections seem downright nasty with adjectives such as bitter, nauseous and/or disagreeable used to describe them. This variability presumably is a reflection of the biological diversity within the A. mellea complex interacting with the wide variety of trees hosting the Honeys. It has been advised to avoid those growing on softwoods such as Pine, Hemlock, and Spruce and to never eat those growing on Eucalyptus or Locust. But since the mushrooms often appear far from their host it is often all but impossible to determine which trees in a mixed forest are supporting the mushrooms.

The main reason that Leslie doesn’t use this mushroom is that when they are in season so are Porcini, Blewits, Hens and Oysters. Why struggle, she says, with the merely mediocre when truly choice fungi are available.

The complexity of Entoloma/Armillaria abortivum

In another interesting relationship, the Honey Mushroom interacts with a mushroom from an entirely different genus to produce a lumpy white dumpling-like growth that has been called “the aborted form of Entoloma abortivum“. Your field guide is sure to have a description of it under that name which will describe how the Honey mushroom causes the normal form of this particular Entoloma to abort, causing the lumpy growth. Recently several researchers have concluded that it is the other way around, it is the Entoloma which causes the Armillaria to abort. You can read about this research here.

Entoloma abortivum, normal and aborted form

Entoloma abortivum, normal and aborted form

In either case the Aborted Entoloma/Armillaria is edible. It is also very abundant in the fall. If you like Honeys, you will probably also like abortivum. It has a strong, somewhat metallic taste and presents best when well cooked in a robustly flavored dish. I recall a rabbit cooked with mustard and Bordeaux in which the abortivum shared the sauce with real dumplings. All simmered together for an hour or so. Not bad! I thought. But that was years ago, long before Leslie and I met and I had the advantage of her exceptional cooking skills.
abortivum is often very abundant

abortivum is often very abundant

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.

 A heavy blanket of leaves on the forest floor can protect mushrooms from frost, but may make it hard to find them

A heavy blanket of leaves on the forest floor can protect mushrooms from frost, but may make it hard to find them

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.

Honeys hiding in the leaves

Honeys hiding in the leaves

Young Honeys, uncovered

Young Honeys, uncovered

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!

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  • I’ve been picking & eating Honey’s for over 40yrs. I have NEVER had any problems eating them. I clean them by hand first. Then I have 2 big coolers filled with lightly salted cold water. They go in the first cooler & get washed. Then into the second cooler & get washed again. Then I have my turkey fryer with the big fish boil strainer in it. It’s filled half way with water. Once that comes to a boil I fill the pot with the mushrooms. Once that comes to a boil I’ll time it for 3 minutes. It will want to boil over, just keep skimming off the foam. After 3 minutes, lift out the strainer & dump them into a cooler of fresh cold water to shock them. Now they are ready for the ziplock bags. Any questions feel free to email me-

    Hi there, Gutpyle,

    Your handle sounds like that of a hunter; your address like that of a fisherman,and your preparation method like one used to process large quantities, so I’m guessing you’re an all-round outdoorsman (outdoorsperson?) and that wild mushrooms form an unusually large part of your diet.

    I’ll alert my friend Carol to your comment and am sure there are many others who will be glad for your clear instructions. Myself, I stand by Bill’s assessment: When there are honeys around there are – usually – a lot of other wild mushrooms I’d much rather eat, and as they too are often abundant our freezer and store closet are if anything too full of them.

  • Griffin Said,

    This is for Carol, if you get the chance to relay it – I assume you prep your Honeys before hanging them…do you mind sharing your method.

    Unfortunately in my neck of the woods, the edibles don’t pop up like they do in Maine, so I take what I can get (I’m a huge Puffball fan).

    Thanks for the blog – I love mushrooms and am currently studying them for my doctoral thesis.

    Hi Griffin,
    Thanks for your question – and observation. Where IS your neck of the woods? From the scarcity you mention I take it the thesis isn’t about edibles, but I for one would love to know what it is about.

    I’ll pass your question along to Carol but meanwhile don’t be discouraged by the comment from “gutpile.” Even before we hear from Carol I can guarantee you she doesn’t go to that much trouble if she does anything at all.

    Update from Carol: “the answer to the prep question is, not much: trim off most of the stem and dust off any detritus. Can’t imagine boiling em – what’s left?”
    About what I thought. Drying can (sometimes) remove volatile toxins, and it often improves flavor. So-so boletes in particular often taste better when reconstituted than they did when fresh.

  • Doug Carver Said,

    I am surprised at the discussion about Honeys being firm and drying well and so on. I have been harvesting them by the bucket and there are more still. There are great in omlettes, pizza, the usual garlic, olive oil, spice, white wine, dish(es). But I am trying to figure how to put them up so I can enjoy them all winter. Sooo much better than store bought buttons. Anyway, how on earth do you boil them and keep them in one piece? When I cook them or clean them just a little too much, they start falling apart. am I just ont using the young enough ones/
    Trying to figure out some kind of mushroom “meat”loaf, maybe with some ground turkey but using mushrooms as the core ingredient. Any suggestions?

    Welcome, Doug

    Have to say I’m as mystified as you are. I’ve never heard of honey mushrooms falling apart from boiling. The instruction to boil them, then discard the cooking water (to make them tastier and more digestible) is just about universal and although it’s been years since I did it – decades, at this point – I don’t remember any problems. You certainly seem to know what you’re picking and “by the bucket” sure sounds like honeys, but falling apart if cleaned just a little too much sounds un-honeylike. The stems of any but the youngest are usually too tough to eat and in my limited and distant experience the caps were if anything on the sturdy side.

    I’ll call your question to the attention of my honey-loving friend Carol. She is an old hand with them and may be able to help… She did say, in response to an earlier comment, “can’t imagine boiling them, what’s left?” but I’m pretty sure she meant what’s left of the flavor, not what’s left of the mushroom. She might also have words of wisdom about the mushroom loaf. Here’s hoping!

    Update Carol had no memory of honeys ever falling apart and was silent, I’m sorry to say, on the subject of mushroom loaf. But your question kept nagging at my mind, so today I collected a few honeys – there are a lot of them around here, too – and tried boiling them for 3 minutes. Most were on the small side, including a couple of buttons, but I made a point of including one very soggy gone-by specimen, just to see if age made a difference.

    They were as I remembered, no sign of any damage at all. At the end of three minutes they were still as rubbery as shiitakes, caps and stems both, and even the soggy one just got soggier. The “honey complex” is large and various but I’m pretty sure they’d all act the same way. I’m glad whatever you’re eating is tasty and evidently non-toxic but it sure doesn’t sound like Armarilla mellea.

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