Spring and its morel mushrooms get all the glory, but hardcore mushroom hunters in Nebraska know that autumn rains deliver a mushroom bounty in the woods that is more diverse, robust and rewarding.
Fall mushroom hunting offers a refreshing, cool walk in the woods amid fall foliage colors, a chance to better understand forest ecology and an opportunity to see a variety of woodland wildlife, as well as an avenue to collect some delicious, healthy food for the dinner table.
Look for fall mushrooms on or around fallen trees and dead or decaying wood, most notably after rain. Wild edible fungi in the fall tend to be found fewer in number and farther apart than the popular morels you’ll find in the spring. Make certain you positively identify a mushroom before consuming it because the wrong fungi may cause extreme sickness and even death. Check with reliable, credible sources for correct identification. And when you’re out hunting, get to know just a few mushrooms and get to know them well. I recommend starting with the following varieties:
The giant puffball mushroom is by far among the most recognizable of all fall fungi. It is white, large, round and smooth in appearance and can reach diameters larger than a basketball. The fruiting body of a puffball grows directly from its root system in the ground. It feeds off of decaying organic matter within the soil.
If you find one with a stalk or stem, it’s not a puffball and may very well be an unsuitable look-alike, characterized by a rancid odor.
Members of the puffball family grow from July through November in most North American softwood and hardwood forests. Their outer coloration is typically white to olive brown, and should always be white inside for use at the dinner table. As puffballs age, their centers turn yellowish-brown and eventually dry, producing spores.
The giant (puffball) grows primarily in open timber but can appear in pastured ground and even in some urban areas. During prime conditions, it can look like a lost volleyball out of place on a woodland court.
To prepare a giant puffball for consumption, cut or peel the outer shell. Do not wash or soak the meat unless insects have laid first claim. The sweet smell and savory flavor of the puffball makes an excellent addition to a saute of onions, bell peppers and other garden vegetables. The most popular method of preparation, however, is frying. Slice it thin like a fish fillet. Coat with a fish or chicken batter before frying.
The oyster mushroom’s name refers to its shape, not taste. It can be found on the decaying wood of cottonwood, ash, poplar and aspen trees. This fungi species pushes through the tree bark after a decent rain. The oyster mushroom is whitish or yellow-tinged in color and is usually attached to trees in shelf-like clusters. Sometimes called the box elder mushroom or elephant ear, it can also grow from a stubby, thick, off-center white stalk.
The oyster mushroom is widely dispersed throughout North America. Moist river and creek bottoms with an array of hardwood and softwood trees are prime places to search for it. As with any mushroom, it is important to carefully cut it at its lowest part with a sharp, larger pocketknife or pair of scissors. Always check aging oysters for white grubs; then wash, slice or tear into smaller strips. Roll the damp pieces in a dry mixture of batter and fry.
Chicken of the woods
Chicken of the woods is easy to identify, thus is one of the best fall mushrooms for beginners to gather.
They are easily recognized by their impressive size and large clusters of overlapping brackets, vibrant yellow-orange to orange cap colors and bright yellow tips. This mushroom is a polypore, meaning the fungi disperses spores through small pores (holes) on the underside of its caps. The colors of chicken of the woods will fade and the fungi becomes tougher as it grows older.
The chicken fungus grows generally in clusters on living and dead trees, stumps, logs and buried roots overlapped in a shelf-like way, and often in great quantity. Try to harvest chicken of the woods when it is smaller, vividly colored and tender. Clean these mushrooms by wiping them down with a damp cloth.
The chicken of the woods is a culinary treat with sort of a lemony, meaty taste. You can use chicken of the woods in place of chicken or tofu in virtually any recipe. It’s important to note that this is one of those mushrooms that sometimes causes gastric distress in certain people, so cook it thoroughly.