MUSHROOM COLLECTING IN WINTER by Bill Bakaitis

First published in Mushroom, The Journal of Wild Mushrooming Fall 2006

I can just hear it now, “Collecting mushrooms in winter. You gotta be crazy. Why would anyone go mushroom collecting in winter?”  Well, some do, and here’s why.

The first reason, simply put, is to go out and counter the passive wintertime activities of feeding the fire and watching TV.  How many bowl games can one watch without them all huddling together in the back of our mind as a blur of two-minute drills, shotgun offences, blitzes, sacks, instant re-re-replays, time outs and beer commercials?  Ditto for golf, bowling, basketball, and the ‘reality – survivor’ genre.

Not that the wintertime weekend wide world of sports is unrewarding. For some of us this form of entertainment comes close to ontological addiction and frames our self identity, a fact not lost upon our corporate marketing moguls and the likes of Rupert Murdock who seeks to make sports “the tip of the spear” in his quest for worldwide information control. The staging of these spectator sports has become increasingly glitzy, dramatic and sophisticated, yet surprisingly insubstantial compared to the authenticity of a real hunt.  For many, being confined to spectator status leads our bodies to cry out for genuine activity. We need relief from the press of the couch, our lungs ache for a breath of fresh air, and our minds cheer for a break from the incessant pollution of man made symbols.

So, we go out, and the act of stepping into the natural world changes and recharges us. It sharpens and alters our perceptions.  Time slows down, the pace of our step, draw of our breath, and shift of our eyes even out. We linger on what is here and now - the patterns of the natural world - and in response the mind becomes more and more quiet until it is just this one person, one moment, one stillness - a single focused vision, unmediated by cultural clutter. There is a constant purity here that tests both perception and memory. It is not surprising to me that I have a much clearer memory of nearly every fish I have caught, every morel collected than I have of the participants of even last years superbowl.   Not to be too heavy on the satori side of this moment, but there was a reason that all of those prophets we claim to follow went into the wilderness to seek wisdom.

Reason number two is eminently practical:  We may not want to emulate Jesus, but do want to collect mushrooms to eat and are aware that there are edibles that continue to fruit in the winter.  Here in upstate New York, I have collected them in every single month of the year.  To be sure they do not fruit in the winter with the same frequency as in the peak summer months, and I don’t find them on every trip, but truth be told, neither do I find them on every trip in the summer either.

In my experience it generally takes temperatures of around 40 degrees Fahrenheit to initiate productive fruitings, although once out, the cold can preserve some fungi for weeks (or longer) in a frozen state.  If you have not previously looked for winter time edibles in your area, you might want to check them out this [Leon.. or next, depending upon pub date] year.

 The climate of the continental United States is warming. You might want to check the revised draft of USDA climate zones to find how much your collecting area has changed.  (Online at  http://www. ahs.org/psfs/USDA_Map_3.03.pdf or in hard copy from The American Gardener May/June 2003 p 32-33)  Many areas of the continental US have warmed a half a zone or so over the past two decades. Satellite studies reveal that the growing season in mid latitude areas is now about three weeks longer than that of  the mid-‘80’s (http://www.gsfc.nasa.gov/topstory/20010904greenhouse.html)  with about two thirds of the change apparent as an extension of fall conditions.  Studies of climate change show the warming is most pronounced both in the higher latitudes and in the winter (http://cybele.bu.edu/greenergh/press.html ), with the longest increases in the growing season of our lower 48 states occurring on the West Coast which has averaged 4.1 to 5.4 additional frost free days per decade over the last half of the 1900’s. (Easterling, D.R. Recent changes in frost days and the frost-free season in the United States, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 83, 1327-1332.)

The specific edibles you can expect to find will vary dependant upon your location, of course, but for illustrative purposes here, in order of frequency, are some commonly found in the Mid-Hudson area of New York. [42 degrees north latitude, elevations from sea level to @3,500 feet, USDA zone 6, winter low of 0 to -10F] (previously in zone 5, -10 to -20F)   

Oysters (Pleurotus ostreatus and associated species) can be collected year round. In the colder months I find them usually, but not always, on dead wood of Poplar, Elm, Willow, Ailanthus and Maple. And unlike the summertime collections that are usually infested with beetles, larvae, or grubs those collected in the colder months are almost always bug free.  Furthermore since they are in cold storage, they retain their integrity for weeks, and I am able to return to a tree several times over in the course of a month. This complex is the big-game of winter collecting for me, large, meaty and satisfying -- although usually lacking the more delicate fish or anise-like flavors of those collected in the warmer months.  Because they are so persistent, you will want to beware of those which have survived several cycles of frost and thawing, or a lengthy period of warmer weather.  Use the same common-sense rules you would use for summertime collections.

[Leon, would you like some photos of oysters in snow??]

The Velvet-footed Collybia,  (Flammulina velutipes), is commonly found on diseased and dying elm, exploiting the sugar rich cambium layer surrounding the beetle galleries infected with Dutch Elm Disease. (Ophiostoma[ formerly Ceratocystis] ulmi or O. novo-ulmi).   Flammulina fruitings often cause the bark to loosen and flake off on large sheets. Don’t be shy about peering under the loosened bark to locate the mushrooms.   Trees so infected will often produce multiple small flushes following every thaw in the winter.  Collect them only on sound standing wood to avoid mixing in collections of  Galerina (see below). They are mild flavored, mucilaginous, and somewhat delicate.  Try them in soups or a butter sauce. This is the wild form of the cultivated and widely available Enokitake.

Panellus serotinus, the downy greenish “oyster”, actually depends upon frost to initiate sporocarp production.  I usually find them on beech and oak, and often nibbled to their base by either deer or rodents. These are tougher than the white (pleurotus) oysters, are somewhat astringent, not particularly “choice” in the opinion of most collectors, but edible none the less.  They will stand up well to the long cooking and robust sauces of wintertime stews.

On occasion I have found Blewets (Lepista nuda) surviving even after shallow frost had penetrated the ground.    These finds are clearly serendipitous, and may be revealed in the snow melt of an early blizzard.

Caution: Throughout the Northeast there is a deadly poisonous mushroom that may fruit in the winter: Galerina autumnalis, a small, annulated, brownish, brown spored mushroom that fruits on fallen (usually horizontal) punky wood.  Whereas the edible Flammulina is usually the first mushroom to exploit the substrate of a dying tree, the deadly Galerina is among the last.   This small LBM contains the same toxins found in the large white Amanita virosa complex - those “destroying angels” of summer.  Remember too that partially decayed mushrooms of many species can be found, preserved by the frost. You wouldn’t want to eat these.

Leon, Do you want a photo of Galerina in frost?

A third reason to go out in the winter is to prepare for the coming season.  Nothing beats a walk in the wintertime woods to learn the lay of the land.  With trees stripped of their leaves and the underbrush standing naked, the bones of mother earth lie exposed, revealing every curve, angle and undulation of her being.  Compared to the summer jaunts, with our eyes glued to the ground, the walks of winter lead us to keep our chin up.  The vistas are longer, and the horizon more expansive. In this simplified landscape, orientation in place and space becomes clarified. Confusing thickets, hollows and forests become more readable, more familiar, and therefore more easily navigated in the full dress of summer.

On several occasions I have gotten myself “turned around” in the summertime woods, so intent was I on collecting.  At times I  almost convinced myself that my compass was dead wrong, pulled off course by some hidden source of magnetism, perhaps bog iron ore or scrap metal deposit.  Returning to these places in the winter has allowed my mental map to snap back into place with such clarity that I had to ask myself how I could have been so confused. Walks in these same woods on subsequent seasons were as comfortable as those in my back yard.

Previously overlooked collection sites also reveal themselves.  Due to the cooler temperatures evaporation diminishes or stops almost completely. Those places where moisture collects - where the collections of next summer might lie - now shimmer with the reflected light of skim ice on transient, seasonal pools or crunch underfoot from the collapse of hoarfrost in the leaf litter.   Dead and dying Elms or Old Apple trees suggest an itinerary for next May’s morel hunt. Large Oaks, perhaps line trees from long forgotten colonial farms, hidden deep in the recess of an overgrown forest cry out for next Septembers Grifola hunt.  The presence of heretofore unnoticed mycorrhizal stands can come into sharp focus.  On one walk last winter, not far from my house, I investigated a mixed stand of birch, pine and spruce that I had previously ignored as being too young to be productive and was astounded to find baskets of decomposing, half-frozen boletes underfoot.  You can bet I’ll return next fall.

The fourth factor that draws us into the winter woods is the same factor that operates in the summer. It is simply to collect, to draw bits and pieces of our world together for a closer look in an effort to better understand the pieces and how they may all fit together.  We collect interesting fungi just as we did in the summer, not for food but as captured evidence of a larger, almost existential purpose.

Like Kilroy’s graffiti, our basket of spoils is the report that we have been there, out on the hunt, and like the good soldiers and inspectors who passed before, we have both arrested the moment and apprehended our suspects.  We give them a number, a tentative identification, take photographs and notes, and later by the dispassionate light and lens of the dissecting scope, field guide or monograph, subject them to intense analytical scrutiny, coming closer and closer to a definitive identification. When we name it, we will own it, and by that singular act extend the known of our world one step further into the unknown, synthesizing our reality from the deconstruction of another’s.

One way to classify fungi is by the types of cells predominant in their fruiting bodies. The sporocarps of most of our summertime collections are soft, fleshy, and transient. They emerge from the ground almost magically, often overnight following a good rain. They have a single type of cell that can exist almost fully developed and then inflate with water pressure, mushrooming into their fully developed stage. This single cell (monomitic) structure yields a structure that is mostly water. These mushrooms are quick to grow but also quick to rot. 

Other fungi may have two or three types of cells.  In addition to the thin walled inflatable cells, there may be two other types - skeletal and binding hyphae - that give the fungus a woody, tough consistency.  It is these dimitic and trimitic fungi that will persist and dominate the winter collections.  Since most of them produce spores from basidia buried within an obvious pored hymenium, they are called Polypores, a name that has persisted even as taxonomists have shuffled the deck and imposed an overlay of newer names based upon microscopic and chemical characteristics.

 Most Polypores will be easy to find and to collect. They will be attached to trees, on either standing or fallen wood, and will be tough and woody. A small saw, hand ax, or rugged knife are helpful in removing them, and once collected they can be stashed in small plastic bags and tucked into your backpack.  They are quite robust, will not rot or otherwise spoil and will maintain their integrity with minimal care.  It is a good group to get to know.

Most field guides will have a section on Polypores, and often you will be able to make a fairly accurate determination simply by looking at the pictures.  For verification, and more importantly, to identify those not illustrated in your field guide, you will need to refer to other sources, keys and/or monographs.  

The modern bible for this group of fungi is the two volume set North American Polypores by Gilbertson and Ryvarden, c 1986. It will almost surely be too difficult for those cutting their eye teeth on this group.  The same is probably also true for it’s predecessor,  The Polyporaceae of the United States, Alaska and Canada, by Overholts (and Lowe) first published in 1957.

In 1969, Frank Helwig created a concise set of keys based entirely on macroscopic (field) characteristics that I have found quite useful.  Some of the names have since changed, but the mushrooms are the same, and once a determination has been made, a quick Google search will give any taxonomic changes. Entitled, Polyporaceae of New England, it is available as a reprint from the Boston Mycological Club for $5.  ( Make the check payable to "Boston Mycological Club" and send it to: "Boston Mycological Club, 6 Oak Ridge Drive #4, Maynard, MA  01754"  Be sure to include your mailing address with your order.)

In libraries, you might be able to find copies of  Smith, Smith, and Weber, How to Know the Non-Gilled Mushrooms or Fergus, Illustrated Genera of Wood Decay Fungi.   S,S,&W is rather technical, somewhat like a College text, but quite useful.  The Fergus book, on the other hand, written primarily for the forestry profession, is very user friendly. It utilizes a macroscopic approach and has multiple key systems.  Both of these books are available from on-line sources, but are quite expensive.

There is also a dandy little paperback, long out of print, that may be found in used book venues: A Guide to Nature in Winter, by Donald and Lillian Stokes. It has a complete chapter dedicated to Mushooms in Winter, as well as other chapters on tracks, trees, birds, bark, galls, grass, critters and crystals.   

Next [or this depending on pub date] winter consider taking a walk in your summer-time collecting areas. You may come away with a whole new perspective on mushrooming!


Bill Bakaitis

2/18/04