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Foraging for wild mushrooms in Pennsylvania

By Staff | Oct 23, 2012

Botanist and mushroom expert, Bill Russell identifies a "False Turkey Tail" mushroom in the woods at the Montour Preserve.

WASHINGTONVILLE – Marvelous mushrooms do grow wild in Pennsylvania according to botanist and author Bill Russell. On Saturday October 13 he visited the Montour Preserve to take mushroom lovers onto a guided field walk to identify and explore the natural world of mushrooms.

Mushrooms are a fast grower prompted by rainy, moist conditions. They grow in a variety of shapes, colors and sizes and are often difficult to identify, especially the toxic ones from the tasty ones. Russell wrote the book, “A Field Guide to Wild Mushrooms of Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic” to help discern the good from the bad. His book is well illustrated with many photographs, images and useful descriptions showing the various types of mushrooms that exist here. There are also many tasty recipes at the end of the book that make hunting the mushrooms more fun.

“There are many mushrooms growing now,” Russell said as he started his presentation with Halloween Mushrooms, depicting those with mysterious looking shapes and “shaggy manes.” Some of these are edible but not very good tasting and those with “inky caps” dissolve into a black paste. These types of mushrooms were soaked in water that created a black ink which was used to sign the Declaration of Independence.

Fairy ring mushrooms come earlier in the season and the Super Market Button mushroom is growing now. “They actually grow in fairy rings,” he said, “and they can’t be shipped for commercial use.”

The names for the mushrooms are unusual too. The “Stinky Squid” (in season now) smells bad, and “The Trumpet of Death” is not poisonous, but rather good tasting and often found growing in the woods. “It dries to a powder and makes a good seasoning for chefs,” added Russell. The “Poor Man’s Truffle” is another edible in season.

On Saturday October 13, author Bill Russell gave a presentation and walk on marvelous wild mushrooms in Pennsylvania. He wrote the book, "Field Guide to Wild Mushrooms of Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic" which offers colorful images and useful descriptions for identification.

Then there are mushrooms that even glow in the dark. The “Jack-O-Lantern” mushroom has a green underside that glows in the dark and is very bright, but this one is not to be eaten. It grows in pumpkin colored clusters. “Some are absolutely delectable,” Russell said. “Look for more yellow colored ones like the Honey Mushroom. It also glows in the dark.” It has a cottony ring and grows along stumps of trees in clusters. Many are no larger than the size of a penny.

Russell spent a lot of time explaining the differences and similarities between the poisonous mushroom and those than can be eaten. A bright radiant white mushroom with a white cap, gills and a swelling at the bottom can be highly toxic and chances of dying very high. Karen Croyle from Clearfield County and member of the Central PA Mushroom Club announced, “Don’t risk eating white mushrooms with white gills.” She said she has been foraging for mushrooms since she was six years old and learned from her mother and grandmother. Even now she won’t try a white gilled mushroom.

According to experts, Morel mushrooms seem to be the best tasting. “In the spring people are eager for them,” added Russell. Some mushrooms need to be boiled down immensely while others grow to a very large size such as a giant puffball measuring over 12 inches in diameter with a creamy white center that can be used for a pizza crust. The Parasol mushroom can also be large, delicious with a maple walnut odor and flavor.

Many mushrooms, however, are highly poisonous, so much caution should be taken. The field guide will show the illustrations to help identify the thousands of varieties. For example, the Fly Mushroom is the one often seen in fairy tale books, although beautiful to look at, it is quite poisonous. “Flies land on them, drink the dew, and die off quickly,” said Russell.

There are also the rare ones. The Blue Mushroom produces a blue milk, and is very rare if seen today. Mushrooms can take shapes such as the Earth Star mushroom. “The Lobster mushroom has a yellow parasite that takes over, but it is so good to eat all over the world,” added Russell.

Wild mushrooms are often found in abundance and it is best to get them young and fresh if they are going to be eaten. Some can be sauted in butter, baked, or rolled in bread crumbs, stuffed, and roasted. “Always cook mushrooms thoroughly. They could be carcinogenic if eaten raw,” said Croyle. More information about collecting mushrooms and a recipe for honey mushroom vegetable soup can be found at BRmushrooms.com.

Susan Snoddy from Allenwood said she really enjoyed the program and the walk outside looking for the various mushrooms around the trees and under the leaves. Randy Watts from Turbotville said that he hopes to get a local club started this spring to meet at Montour Preserve. Those interested can contact him at 437-4048.

Russell further explained, “It is permissible to gather only edible fungi in reasonable amounts for one’s own personal or family consumption. It is not permissible to gather mushrooms for any other purpose. There is a lot to know about edible mushrooms.”