The Mushrooms of Autumn: Blewits

Much as I love Blewits, one of the greatest wild mushrooms of any season, I’ve never gotten around to doing more than throwing in a mention when talking about fall bulb planting. This omission is now remedied. Our resident wild mushroom expert explains all in

BLEWITS AND THE LEAF-FALL

by Bill Bakaitis

In the Northeast autumn leaves start to fall shortly after the equinox. This colorful event takes over a month and a half to complete, during which time the fungi of the forest floor will become increasingly difficult to see. If you are after fall mushrooms you will want to get out now, before they are completely hidden by this new leaf fall.

Early autumn on the mushroom trail

Early autumn on the mushroom trail

In a good year, like this one, autumn will begin with a tropical storm. The organic matter from the previous fall which has lain crisp and dry under the summer’s heat will revive becoming soft, moist and fragrant. In the days after the storm the air will hang hush and humid, languid with the last hot breath of summer.

In this heat and humidity the duff underfoot will come to life. The mycelium of saprophytic fungi will fill with fluid and their primordials will swell and a chaotic profusion of mushroom will appear like magic, often overnight, (and often with their own overlay of other fungi which are feeding on them). The problem for collectors at this time of year is often to restrict our search for a few ‘choice’ species. For many this means Blewits.

Lepista nuda: the Blewit

Lepista nuda: the Blewit

Blewits (Lepista nuda or Clitocybe nuda) are among the most tasty of fall mushrooms and are on nearly everyone’s “must collect” list. There is but one confusing look-alike (see below). If Blewits are new to you, click here for more on identifying them:

Blewits fruit in profusion, field-dress easily, and keep quite well. They are firm in texture, retaining this firmness under various cooking techniques, and have a delightfully light anise fragrance about them, a quality I like to exploit by incorporating just a drop of Pernod somewhere into the cooking process. Leslie may want to add a recipe of her own, but in the meantime you may also see Louise Freeman’s suggestions here.

Blewits are ideal comestibles. They clean easily, store well, and taste great

Blewits are ideal comestibles. They clean easily, store well, and taste great

Where, when and how to find Blewits:

Blewits make their living by decomposing leaf litter. They are more or less ubiquitous, appearing here and there under a wide variety of habitats, in both deciduous and evergreen duff as well as in weedy accumulation of herbaceous plants. I have found them from June through the following January in the Mid-Hudson area of New York State, but by far fall is the best time to look for them.

Although they are cosmopolitan, to find them in quantity one should look to places where leaf matter accumulates. In the forest, for example, there will be places where leaves naturally collect from the action of wind and gravity. Depressions or dips in the landscape, the bottom of a steep hillside, a hedge of bramble, or the branchy top of a downed tree are areas which can collect windblown leaves and can be very productive.

You will also want to look in areas of manmade litter accumulations: places, for example, where cemeteries, parks, road crews, gardeners or homeowners have piled leaves. So long as no toxic chemicals have been discarded with the debris, the Blewits collected from this leaf mold will be as safe as those coming from natural wind drifts.

Leslie and I found one such area last October. Several rain storms had recently passed through, drenching the area. We were making one of our several seasonal trips between Maine and New York in a car crammed with tropical plants destined for the greenhouse and basement of our winter home.

On a secondary road, and in need of stretching our legs, we spotted a quiet cul de sac and decided to investigate the grassy area and surrounding forest for whatever nature had to offer. I made a small technical collection of Amanita and Leccinum under some Oaks on the grassy slope then plunged over a very steep bank into a deciduous forest.

Only two steps off the grass I was knee deep in fresh leaf litter. Moving to the bottom of the hill we found compacted older litter next to a small stream and where the stream curved an area the size of a large barnyard was filled with bushels of Blewits. Those poking up above the leaves caught our attention first, but as we knelt down to pick them we could feel others under foot, under knee, and under hand. We picked a quick peck and then, with a great deal of laughter, faced the problem of where and how to put them in our already overstuffed car. As they say, it’s a tough job…

A peck of Blewits

A peck of Blewits

Grow your own Blewits:

Here is a tip worth remembering. The next time you find a fresh collection of Blewits take a plastic grocery bag and into it stuff several hands full of the leaf-mold (mushrooms included) in which the Blewits are growing. This will be your ‘seed’. In it you will see the white fluffy mycelium attached to the base of the Blewits. This is the part of the mushroom which is digesting the litter and is the essential material with which you can inoculate your own pile of leaves.

Blewit with attached mycelium

Blewit with attached mycelium

Keep this innoculant moist, but not sealed in the bag. When you get home place it under an edge of your pile of leaves. I like to scrape an area of soil and place the inoculant here, between the dirt and the leaves. It is important not to place the introduced material in the middle of a pile of fresh leaves as the pile can heat up, cook and kill your innoculent.

An alternative, and only slightly less effective technique is to simply throw your old Blewits onto a leaf pile. In my experience, about one in three or four piles inoculated in this manner seem to ‘take’.

You may want to water the leaf pile next summer if drought conditions occur, but once established your Blewit patch can produce throughout the season.

One note of caution deserves mentioning. Other ‘weed species’ are also likely to come up with your Blewits, so discriminate collection is essential. If you do not already have one, get a good field guide and know how to use it. Or, as mentioned in previous posts, join a local Mycological Association and get to know your local flora.

Learn to recognize Cortinarius alboviolaceus, a Blewit look-alike

Cortinarius alboviolaceus, a Blewit look-alike

Lepista nuda (left) and Cortinarius alboviolaceus (right) are often confused

By far the most confusing mushroom beginners will encounter when collecting Lepista nuda will be the Cortinarius alboviolaceus complex. (For more on this mushroom click here.

Although once considered ‘edible’ all Cortinarii are now thought to contain toxins and should be avoided. Cortinarius  is a very large genus, with perhaps as many as a thousand species thought to occur in North America. There is no complete monograph and it is estimated that only half of the species have been described. I have seen a dozen or so names used for mushrooms in the alboviolaceus complex. No matter what the name used, this is a mushroom that should not be eaten.

Blewits and C. alboviolaceus resemble each other in that they both have a bulbous fleshy stem and violet colors throughout. They look alike. Beyond this however there are several distinctive differences that a trained eye can detect.

The cap of Lepista for example, will typically look soft and moist; while that of alboviolaceus will have more of a dry, fibrous, silvery sheen.

The habitats may be overlap, but Corts are mycorrhizal, forming a symbiotic relationship with ectomycorrhizal trees. They may come up through leaves, but do not feed on them as Lepista does.

One quite noticeable difference is that a young alboviolaceus will have a distinctive spider-web like cortina (curtain) under the cap and covering the gills. Lepista will have a clean stem from the beginning.

C. alboviolaceus: note the spider web cortina on the young specimens and the brown spore powder on the stem of the mature mushroom

C. alboviolaceus: note the spider web cortina on the young specimens and the brown spore powder on the stem of the mature mushroom

Like all Corts, alboviolaceus will produce a rusty-brown spore print. Lepista nuda will produce a pinkish-buff to lavender spore print. In mature Corts, the spores can often be seen collected on the collapsed cortina as a rusty-brown powder.

And finally, many collectors report that while members of the alboviolaceus complex develop a musty odor quite early in their maturational process, the developing Blewit retains a light fragrance well into old age. And this pleasing fragrance is, after all, one of the prime characteristics of this choice mushroom. Try some this fall and start your own Victory Garden for next year.

This is your chance for next year's Victory Garden. Don't blow it!

This is your chance for next year, don't blow it!

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9 Comments »

  • Ian Dubelaar Said,

    Thank you for an informative and delightfully written piece. I have been enjoying Blewits for a number of years now and inoculated a few local “duff piles” this past Fall, including one at my parents’ place and another at an organic farm. While I always eagerly look forward to the Autumn season, I will be doing so with added anticipation this year. Wish me luck!

    Ian

  • Bill Said,

    Hey Ian,

    Good luck with your innoculation project, and please do let us know how things turn out!

    Also, be cautiously aware of what you pick from the duff piles as lots of other fungi can easily get into the mix. If you haven’t already seen it, Paul Stametes’ “Mycelium Running” is a very user friendly text on how to start your own mushroom patches. A great resource!

    And Gary Lincoff’s “Audubon Guide to North American Mushrooms” is the text I use in all of the mushroom ID classes I give. It is particularly good for those of us who live in the Northeast, and is also very ‘user friendly’.

    Luck be with you, and have fun guy!

    Bill

  • Patrick Said,

    You should have better luck if you inoculate your piles with blewits from at least two different locations. This should ensure that the mating types are different. Most fungi need two different strains of mycelia to fuse before producing fruiting bodies.

  • Bill Said,

    Hi Patrick,

    Thanks for your comment.

    Right you are about + and – sexuality in fungi. But consider this: If the mycelium which is producing fruiting bodies (mushrooms) is used as an inoculant it has already been subject to plasmogamy (hyphal sexual union from compatible hyphae). Spores, that is, from at least two but probably hundreds of compatible fungi strains have joined in the complex mycelial mat which gives rise to the creation of fruiting bodies [where the final karyogamy (shuffling and fusion of genetic material) takes place.

    You got me thinking now…. Don’t the consequent sexually produced spores carry both parent strains? Not each spore, of course, but shouldn’t half be + and half -? What do you think?

    You are completely correct about asexual spores such as conidia.

    I think your advice though is well taken. Diversity in almost any system, certainly a biological one, is healthy.

    Gosh it seems like being back in mycology class… Whew!

    Time to take a break and go out and collect some Blewits.

    Bill

  • Heidi Opalka Said,

    I am excited about finding out that I can grow blewits, I was successfull in growing winecap stropharia. On my neighbors lawn are medow mushrooms growing, can I transplant them by moving a piece of lawn?

  • Bill Said,

    Hello Heidi,

    Congrats on growing Stropharia. I imagine your fall crop is up at the moment: Ours is.

    Regarding the Meadow Mushroom (Agaricus campestris and related forms): Over the years Leslie and I have routinely cast older caps and trimmings of Agaricus around the lawns in Maine and New York. Sometimes they appear in following years, sometimes not.

    I have never tried to transplant pieces of the lawn. Unlike Blewits, the mycelium of Agaricus is not very obvious, and I suspect it is spread more thinly across the substrate.

    Agaricus is saprophytic, that is, it feeds on plant debris. In lawns that means chiefly dead grass matter. In pastures, this is apparently augmented by cow pies and horse plops.

    I once purchased a pack of Agaricus spawn on Barley seed. I was in Ireland at the time and found the pack among the seeds in a local grocery store. Back in the USA I followed the quite complex formula for growing the mushrooms; preparing the soil, adding the amendments (manure and lime), casing the patch with clean soil. The results were less than spectacular, perhaps a half dozen mushrooms.

    I guess my advice would be to either use the ‘butt end’ method advocated by Paul Stametes in his book Mycelium Running, or simply casting the caps, trimmings and washings over your lawn. Also be aware that if you bag your lawn clippings there may not be enough dead matter in the soil to support a fruiting. Similarly, if you use fresh manure or a pile of bagged clippings, the heat of decomposition can kill your inoculant.

    Of course, the simplest method would be to trade your neighbor her mushrooms for your jar of jam.

    Good luck, and please let us know how your transplanting goes.

    Bill

  • Heidi Opalka Said,

    Hi Bill,
    thanks for your reply.

    I have transplanted some pieces of grass, I spread a lot of old mushrooms(Agaricus) on my lawn, that was last fall, all I harvested was 2 mushrooms!! On my neighbors lawn there grew huge amounts of mushrooms this year, so I took your advise and traded jam!
    Heidi

  • Ian Dubelaar Said,

    Sadly, nothing ever appeared in the duff piles I inoculated two Falls ago. Perhaps if I had done as you suggested and placed the mycelium directly on the earth before covering it with leaves and clippings they might have fared better. I am on the lookout for more wild Blewits and will attempt his again.

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