Almost two years ago, we had a few giant cottonwood trees taken down to open up a sunny clearing for our edible forest garden. Although the tree people cut up the thick trunks into logs, many of them were too long for our woodstove. Nick rolled these logs over to the edge of our yard and set them up in a row as a boundary marker.
I had inoculated some other logs with fungal plugs from Fungi Perfecti in an attempt to grow oyster and shiitake mushrooms, but they sprouted some unidentified wild mushrooms, so I gave up on them.
A few weeks ago, I noticed white growths on some of the uninoculated cottonwood logs, which on closer examination were clearly fungal blooms (mushrooms). But were they edible? You hear stories about the fatal consequences of confusing a poisonous mushroom with a similar-appearing edible one. I had never gone mushroom gathering with a knowledgeable person, nor studied mushroom guidebooks.
Being risk-averse, I didn’t want to chance it . But this region abounds with experienced wild food foragers, so I took some pictures and sent them around. At first, my advisers were hesitant. One had decided to stay away from mushrooms after hearing horror stories about mistaken identity. A few advisers suggested that my fungi might be oyster mushrooms, but they’d have to see the gills on the underside to be sure.
Meanwhile, I got out some mushroom guides from the library and learned that oyster mushrooms, Pleurotus ostreatus, are often found on cottonwood, are plentiful, and do not have any poisonous look-alikes in our region. My Internet research yielded lots of great pictures, some of which resembled my mushrooms, but some of which looked, well, different.
Seeing the latest photos of the gills, one of my advisers said he was 99.99 percent certain they were oyster mushrooms, but would need to see them in person to make a positive identification. Being just a teeny bit afraid, I decided I wanted that 100 percent certainty.
Then I remembered that there is a local mushroom farm that offered a tour during the NOFA conference last summer and often appeared at local farmers markets. Their website says they love growing mushrooms and helping other people grow them too. So I found the e-mail address of Willie Crosby of Fungi Ally and sent my photos to him. He got right back to me with another nearly certain yes. But again, he said he would have to see them in person to be 100 percent sure, and suggested I bring them to the the Saturday farmers market in Amherst.
So I put some of the large flat mushrooms in a paper bag and carried them over to the market. As soon as Devon, the farmer staffing the Fungi Ally table, saw my mushrooms, he declared, “Yup, they’re oysters!” He also told me that I should keep an eye on those cottonwood logs, because they will probably continue to bloom with mushrooms in the future, when conditions were right. Wow!
That night, we ate a delicious mushroom stir-fry with leeks from the garden (left). Nick used some of the mushrooms in his curried squash soup. And then I dried the rest in the dehydrator for later use (right). We are still learning how to enjoy these wonderful fruits. They are not as tender as the button mushrooms we have bought at the store, so we need to cut them more finely or cook longer to fully soften them.
What delights me most is that we didn’t have to do anything, neither sow nor reap, and nature provided this abundant harvest. With the help of a generous community of foragers and farmers, willing to share their knowledge, we’ll be enjoying the rich taste of mushrooms this winter.
All this is cause for gratitude, and we will add it to our list of blessings this Thanksgiving.
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