This is one honey of a mushroom

Nature bumming’ with Kirk Gentalen—

Pithy stalk

In my humble, fungal experience the two most frequently asked questions on mushroom explorations are, “Will it kill me?” and “Can I eat it?” And while the edibility and toxicity potential of a mushroom adds an air of excitement to any harvesting experience, those potentials just skim the surface of characteristics that make mushrooms cool and interesting. There are plenty of things to think about when dealing with mushrooms. How does it release its spores? Does the mushroom glow in the dark? Does the fungus help, hurt or just turn trees into dirt? Does it have a veil? Does it look like a “mushroom?” Is it found locally, regionally, circumpolarly, or even globally? Can it clone itself or is it at the mercy of sexual reproduction? Classic fungal questions. They can go on forever. 

With so much to think about and so many mushrooms out there, things can be a little overwhelming to the newbie mushroom watcher/fungus tracker. But what if I told you there was an easy-to-identify (pretty much) mushroom that is, was, and continues to represent most everything a mushroom watcher looks for in a ‘shroom? And to make things even better—they call this honey of a mushroom the Honey Mushroom! I know—you can’t make this stuff up!

To oversimplify, September is for Boletes and Amanitas. Then, in early October members of the Cortinariaceae (Corts) take over the spruce and fir forests with their purples, greys and oranges. And just when the dust feels like its settling on the fall mushroom bloom, there is an intense, thick burst at the base of trees, rising from subterranean roots, and erupting through tree bark up to 25 feet or more off the ground. Welcome to the world of Honey Mushrooms (Armilllaria mellea)! Let the dance begin. 

Typically fruiting in large clusters, Honey Mushrooms are known for their decurrent gills (they “run” down the stalks slightly and we love that) and (often) honey colored caps that are covered with dark, scaly tufts. Their stalk/stipes are tough, with a “pithy” interior and a bold white “veiled” ring. Their caps are edible, as are their “pithy” stalks once the tough outer layer is removed. (Pithy stalks cooked in olive oil are dreamy). And yet, Honey Mushrooms collected off spruce trunks and roots are more likely to make one become sick when compared to eating honeys collected off hardwoods. Yes, they are an edible mushroom that may make you sick! To make things even cooler, Honey Mushrooms and the fungus itself within the log or trunk glow in the dark, creating an eeirry green glow known as “foxfire.” These mushrooms are “on” both day and night!  

At times the Honey Mushrooms fungus is saprotrophic—decomposing the heartwood of plants, turning the non-living part of trunks and roots into soil.  And yet, when the decomposer lifestyle isn’t “cutting it,” Honey Mushrooms will send out “hyphae”—thread-like filaments that make up a fungus—through the soil in search of food. The thick, insulted groups of Honey Mushroom hyphae are called “rhizomorphs,” and they attack and begin to digest trees and shrubs with which they come into contact. This can cause and spread the destructive “white rot” throughout a patch of woods! They go from decomposer to parasite in order to feed their insatiable appetite. Adaptable and aggressive, the Honey Mushroom is a true survivalist.

As the fungus grows, it clones itself and continues its “individual” life by enlarging in size and extending its reach. In optimal conditions this results in grandiose specimens–as evidenced by the Honey Mushroom fungus in Malheur National Forest in eastern Oregon. One Honey Mushroom mycelium—mat of fungal hyphae—in the forest has been measured at 3.5 square miles, and estimated to be at least 2,400 years old—the largest living “being” known to humans on the planet. Honey Mushrooms are not only circumpolar in the northern hemisphere, but are recognized as one of the most widely distributed mushrooms in the world as they can be found at the appropriate latitudes in the southern hemisphere as well. This is why Gary Lincoff says, “With some justification, Earth could be called the Honey Mushroom Planet.” Well put, Gary.

And just when it seems like this fungus can’t get any more perfect, it turns out the “Honey Mushroom” is actually at least ten different, but closely related and seemingly identical species! For most intents and purposes they are the same species and impossible to separate in the field. As our understanding and knowledge of fungus increases through DNA and other tests there are many “past facts” that will be corrected and will have to be relearned. There is so much “unknown” or “wrongly understood” within our knowledge of fungus it can be interesting to correctly identify a mushroom knowing in the back of your mind there’s a fair chance that the resource you are using will turn out to be wrong. For some reason I like this, the mystery of fungus. “Weird” Al Yankovic was right when he wrote, “Everything you know is wrong!”

Honey Mushrooms have it all, or at least most of it all! And they are growing in a patch of woods near you! We’ll see you out there!

PHOTOS: Kirk Gentalen

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