"Bayou Bill" Scifres
Dedicated to the conservation and enjoyment of Indiana's natural resources
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The Awakening of Fall Fungi
Copyright © 2002 by Bill Scifres

October, the perfect 10 in my book, probably is best known to most Hoosier outdoor folks for its varied hunting/fishing opportunities. That's all right with me.

But when Mr. Frost steps into the picture and Mother Nature tilts her cornucopias, the alarm sounds for fall fungi to awaken and that makes for a most interesting and fruitful time of the year.

Aside from the fact that such well-known edibles as the Shaggymane (Coprinus comatus), Hen-of-the-Woods (Grifola frondosa), and the Oyster Mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus, a.k.a. Hickory Jack) grace Hoosierland at this time of year, there are literally dozens--perhaps hundreds--of other fungal species to view (caution on the eating).

And the greatest aspect of this explosion of nature lies in the fact that you may see them all just about anyplace and at any time.

Take, for example, an experience I ran into last week. I had just returned to the old homestead on White River’s West Fork (west of Fishers) and had parked my car after failing to find the Shags which I know soon will be with us (if we continue to get some rain).

So there I am--sans mushrooms--walking across the lawn to the front door, when my eyes focus on, of all things, an Earth Star (Geastrum rufescens).

If this sounds a little “ho-humish" on first bounce, allow me to interject here that I have been looking for this strange fungus almost as long as I have pursued morels (and that has been a spell). I have seen many pictures of Earth Star family members and read about them in books, but I never had seen one with my own eyes.

So feel as you may about the excitement quotient of the Earth Star. But to me, seeing it was like one of those rare Fourths of July when I did not have a red or yellow firecracker explode in my hand, or pick up a “burned-out” sparkler that set me afire.

Two or three days earlier, I had found (near my mail box) what I believed to be a member of the Agaricus tribe, and perhaps a candidate for my old iron skillet. But when I pulled them up by their stems (hoping to see some nice pink, or light brown, gills), I found pure white gills on the under side of their caps and a bulbous base at the bottom of the stem.

“Death Angel,” they seemed to say. Perhaps I had found one of many Amanita species, some of which are said to be the deadliest of fungi. Still, after washing my hands thoroughly with hot, soapy water, I was glad I had encountered this beautiful product of nature and had recorded it with camera. And though it could have been of several other species of fungi, it was not something I wanted to eat. Enjoying its beauty was enough for me.

My idea of a successful mushroom hunt in the fall entails finding any of the three aforementioned species, but there are others that will tickle the palate if one views them with caution. Many of my mushroom-hunting friends swear by the Puffball (Calvatia gigantea), and I find the Meadow Mushroom (Agaricus campestris) superior to the Button Mushroom (Agaricus bisporus) found in the veggie bins of big groceries.

Gastronomically, I consider it risky to go beyond those, but there are many other edibles. And they all--even the poisonous--in my book rate a good look, if for no reason other than an appreciation of their beauty.

“So,” says a friend, “where should I go to find these mushroom you prize so highly as food . . . and how should I handle and cook them?”

The answer to that first question is simple: “Just look around . . . wherever you happen to be.”

Answers to the other questions are a bit more complicated, but here, generally, are some insights I have gleaned over the years.

By species, among my favorite three:

SHAGGYMANE--This is primarily a grassland species. For many years I thought a new lawn in its fifth year or a little older is prime habitat, but in recent years I have found shags (a.k.a. inky caps) in grasslands much older and younger. In short, it seems that shags are much like bass and other wild critters; they are where you find them.

Identifying shags is pretty easy, especially if some of mushrooms are aging. Shags start turning black at the outer edges of their caps soon after the caps break free of the stems. Before many hours have passed, the caps will be a mass of inky goo on top of the long stems (stems, incidentally are hollow, somewhat like a thick-walled soda straw).

In cold, running water, break caps free from stems which are discarded. Cut black areas away from quartered caps and keep the white pieces refrigerated in water to keep air away. This retards the development of black in the caps. Dip pieces in 50-50 mix of egg/milk, roll them in mixture of finely-rolled crackers and flour, and fry in butter until browned on both sides. This requires constant attention.

Shags do not freeze well, but they can be dried and stored in air-tight containers.

HEN-OF-THE-WOODS--This mushroom will be found most often at the base, or under, oak trees. It may be variously colored from gray to brown--even blackish--and it makes me think of the fall flower, cushion chrysanthemum. 

It is made up of a white or cream-colored mass (somewhat like the breast of a turkey) with many fronds protruding from it. The structure of this mushroom makes it a haven for insects, but the meat and the fronds are tasty when simply sautéed in olive oil or butter. I slice it one-eighth inch thick.

The Hen also may be frozen or dried for use later. In addition to being a great companion for a breakfast of bacon-n-eggs, it can be used in soups, stews, gravies, and sauces.

HICKORY JACK--When sizzling in my skillet, strips of this mushroom seem to resemble lizards, but my taste buds tell me to forget it. Jacks tend to grow best on dead trees (especially willows on water), logs or stumps in wooded settings. Here again, they are where you find them.

The true Hickory Jack, in the shape of a fan, grows directly (no stem) from wood, and may be variously colored from cream or gray to brown. White gills will run from the outer perimeter of the cap to the point where the mushoom meets the tree. They may occur singularly or in groups of shelves

I wash them thoroughly in cold, running water, wring them out like squeezing a sponge, cut them in strips and fry them as I would fry shags. 

I have dried Jacks with success, but have never tried to freeze them. However, I occasionally harvest Jacks that are frozen while hunting in the winter months and find them just as good and tasty as they are in the fall or early winter. I also tend to believe that a warm-up accompanied by rain in winter will produce fresh growths of Jacks. 

Fall Fungi Photo Gallery

Here are captions to some of my fall fungi photos. Click on the individual links to view them.

  • The Hen-of-the-Woods mushroom as it appears in the wild
  • The Hen-of-the-Woods mushroom is cut in half to illustrate what the main body looks like, and how the frons also are great food when well washed in cold tap water . . . 
  • The Earth Star, a distant cousin of the puffball, offers no eating qualities, but can be the highlight of a mushroom hunt in the fall.
  • Shaggymane--This fresh shag is just starting to break away from stem, but is starting to turn black 
  • Shaggymane--Close-up of over-the-hill shag cap illustrates how the caps turn ino a black inky gob 
  • Shaggymane--A shag cap split illustrates how the black goo moves in from outer perimeter . . .Cut away the discolored part and the white part still is edible . . . But the black moves fast . . . 


All columns are copyrighted by Bill Scifres and may not be reproduced in any form without prior permission from the author.  For reproduction permission and media usage fees, contact: Bill Scifres, 6420 East 116th Street, Fishers, IN 46038, E-mail: billscifres@aol.com

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