by Roger Klinger
This has been an unusual spring, drier than normal but lush, inspiring and beautiful. It may have been one of the paltriest seasons ever for Morel mushroom hunting, but other mushrooms have been abundant. Western North Carolina is one of the most bio-diverse regions on the planet, and we are incredibly blessed to have such a huge variety of mushrooms, wildflowers and edible plants, all growing in our mountain backyard!
One great surprise this year was finding Wine Cap or King Stropharia (Stropharia rugosoannulata) mushrooms popping up on wood chips in our gardens after rain. These mushrooms are in the Agaric family and are considered a choice edible. They are amazingly easy to cultivate; this year we used over 40 yards of wood chips on our gardens and paths, and now we have free mushrooms popping up where I have never seen them before. They have made several delicious meals, but I am letting most of them mature and spread the spores around for future harvests. (You can order the mycelium spawn and create mushroom gardens by mixing and scattering it into wood chips.) They appear in both sun and shade areas, are highly dependent on rainfall and begin to appear like magic after heavy rains. I love them grilled with garlic and butter or sautéed and mixed with rice.
Another early summer mushroom that populates hemlock forests is the prized Reishi. They belong to the genus Ganoderma, and they have been super abundant this year. They have been used medicinally in China and throughout Asia for over 2,000 years, making reishi one of the oldest mushrooms known to human history. These stunning polypore mushrooms are easy to identify by their conspicuous red-varnished kidney-shaped caps. Reishi mushrooms lack gills; soft and fleshy when very young, they become corky and woody with age. Their preferred habitat is hemlock forest, but they also grow on maple trees and are also cultivated throughout the world on logs inoculated with their mycelium.
The generic name Ganoderma is derived from the Greek word “ganos” – which means brightness or sheen – and “derma,” meaning skin. The Chinese name for Reishi is “Lingzhi,” which means spirit, miraculous, sacred and divine; in Asian cultures, Reishi is referred to as the “mushroom of immortality,” a sacred food reserved for emperors.
Reishi mushroom tinctures, extract and teas are used throughout the world as a powerful medicinal agent. They are being investigated in the West for chemical compounds within them which may stop the growth of cancer cells. Reishi also contain strong antioxidants to strengthen the immune system, and their extracts seem to have sterols that not only lower blood pressure and have anti-allergy/antihistamine effects but also slow the process of blood clotting.
This spring, thanks to Asheville’s “No Taste Like Home” wild foods organization for which I now work, I discovered for the first time that fresh, baby Reishi tips are edible and delicious when sautéed. I was familiar with their legendary medicinal uses, but it was a marvelous new discovery to sample these treats fresh from the forests we live in!
Beginning in July, another unique and delicious wild mushroom appears, the wondrous and unusual Lobster Mushroom (Hypomyces lactoflorum). If Dr. Seuss were to create a mushroom, it would likely be the Lobster, as these whimsical forest gems are so variable and so unique in their shapes and colors. Lobsters are not mushrooms, but actually parasitic ascomycete fungi growing on certain species of mushrooms, turning them a reddish-orange color like the outer shell of a cooked lobster.
Lobsters often parasitize members of the Lactarius or Milk Cap family as well as the Russula genera mushrooms. Like Reishi, they love hemlock forests.
Lobster mushrooms are widely eaten and highly esteemed by chefs around the world as culinary delicacies; they have a firm, meaty texture and exquisite flavor that some folks liken to seafood. Lobster mushrooms are often covered in a white powder that looks like mold, but is actually a harmless spore. Their aroma is strong, rich and earthy. I think they are one of the most delicious mushrooms I have ever eaten in my life. I have sautéed them with garlic and ramp leaves, pairing them with scallops, shrimp or chicken.
Summertime is upon us and my hope is that you cherish the long days of sunshine and the abundant bounties the good earth provides, celebrating the gifts of life in our gardens and in our beloved forests, fields and mountains.
Contact Roger at firstname.lastname@example.org.