by Becky Cushing
Frog legs, rabbit, octopus, sea lamprey: Tastes just like chicken. But a mushroom? That might take some convincing.
Purple toadstools dot moist ground. Tiny aliens emerge from rotting wood. A stalk shoots from leaf litter on the forest floor. Like Alice’s Wonderland, the damp woods in and around Burlington are splattered with wild mushrooms. While identification of the 70,000+ worldly fungi species (many more unnamed) might seem like a daunting task, learning one or two of the “showy” local varieties can be a good way to get started.
Two weeks ago I was exploring Centennial Woods, a natural area managed by the University of Vermont, when I caught a flash of bright orange through the tall white pine and maple tree trunks. Like a reflective safety vest, it stood out against the earthtone browns and greens of the surrounding woods. Squinting harder I could make out suspended shelves attached to one side of the rotting trunk. Getting closer I clearly saw half a dozen two-toned fanned layers, a giant-sized carnation corsage.
Crouching down I realized this mass was more than a foot wide and each 3-6 inch orange shelf layer was outlined along the waving free edge by a pale yellow, like fresh cow’s milk. Subtle web-like strands of white mycelia penetrated cracks in the dead trunk where, hidden from view, they obtained nutrients through decomposition. If this tree had been alive, it most certainly would have minded this organism’s parasitic affinity for heartwood. As it were, the dead trunk suited the mushroom’s role as a saprophyte, or decomposer.
I recognized this rubbery fungus. I had seen it before. Some call it “sulphur shelf” or “chicken mushroom.” Wikipedia even suggests “quesadilla of the woods” — a bit of a stretch if you ask me. It was Laetiporus sulphureus or “chicken of the woods.”
I’m not a mushroom expert. In fact, I first learned about “chicken of the woods” at an informal dinner party: I thought I was eating chicken. And yes, with loads of butter, it tasted much like the popular poultry. Luckily the skilled chef had several decades of mushroom foraging under his belt but it leads me to an important point: Never ever eat a mushroom without an extremely confident identification (which is usually preceded by many years of foraging experience). For others, past mistakes have caused disintegrated livers or failed kidneys. With 70,000 to 1 odds? It’s just not a good idea.