Updated: Nov 24
As a professional botanist, I don’t know my mushrooms well, but I am working to learn more. This fall, I’m sharing some easily identified, beginner-level species so you can learn too! Today’s pick seems to be everywhere on the Island this fall: meet Honey Mushrooms (Armillaria sp.).
I’m going to start with what may be fighting words for those of you who are more experienced fungi foragers: these are my favourite mushrooms to date. Yes, better than Hedgehogs. They beat Chantrelles hands down. I’ll even trade you King Boletes (Porcini) for these babies. More on their taste in a moment, but first some identification and ecology.
I find Honey mushrooms easiest to identify when they are small (Photo 1). They’re usually found in clusters on dead or dying trees, have round caps, and are covered in little hair-like projections. Those projections remain visible in the centre of the cap as the fungus grows (Photo 2). On older mushrooms, this gives the cap a darker-looking centre that transitions to lighter edges (Photo 3).
Under the cap, gills are light and the stem is tough and dark; most species have a distinctive ring near the top of the stem (Photo 4). This mushroom has a white spore print, and if you have mature specimens in clusters you can often see white spores from the upper mushrooms dusting the caps of lower ones. There are some other species that look a little like Honeys, but a bit of practice will soon make it easy to tell the difference. That said, it’s always good to confirm your ID with someone more experienced when you are a beginner like me.
We often think of fungi as living symbiotically with trees, in a mutually beneficial relationship. Some do, but others – like Honey mushrooms – are parasitic. Honeys break down cellulose (the main component of plant cell walls), and they can kill living trees. The mushroom we see is just the fruiting body of the fungus, like an apple on a tree. The fungus itself – thread-like mycelium – spreads underground from tree to tree in dark strands that look like shoelaces, giving it the name Shoestring Root Rot among horticulturists. That said, this is a native species that has evolved with our forests, and I don’t get too concerned about seeing it.
Now, the edibility. As always, I cooked a small amount first as both a taste-test and to be sure they agreed with me (Photo 5). They were fantastic! I describe Honeys as the bacon of mushrooms: flavourful and rich with a nice meaty texture. I used them in a couple of recipes (a casserole and a soup, which you can find in the Wild Food Recipes section of this blog) but found simply fried in butter showcased them best. These mushrooms do need to be cooked well, and I did mine in a covered pan on low heat for 15 minutes, uncovering and increasing heat at the end to brown them up a bit. I definitely recommend these fungi.
Honey mushrooms are common across PEI, and we have several different species that can be found in hardwood, mixedwood, and conifer forests. It’s getting late in the season and last week’s cold weather has likely put an end to Honey mushrooms for this year. But this is a great beginner-level fungus to keep your eye out for as you explore Island forests and trails next fall. An interesting and delicious part of PEI untamed!