The Alberta Mycological Society recently conducted a wild fungus foray along riverside trails in Edmonton. The Edmonton Journal’s food writer, Liane Faulder, joined the foragers and reports Rob Simpson of AMS telling them that there are more than 7,500 varieties of wild mushrooms in Alberta, of which, “perhaps only 20” of them are edible.
Over many years I have found and enjoyed eating a dozen species of Alberta’s edible wild fungi, and have also found and managed to avoid eating two of our few seriously poisonous species, narrowly, once, in the case of the False Morel of spring, Gyromitra esculenta. The rest of the 7,500 are overwhelmingly not poisonous, just not very good for eating for various reasons: unpleasant or no flavour, no substance to them, etc.
Recent reader contacts have reminded me that Alberta’s major wild mushroom season is the fall, generally from late summer to freeze-up. Seven of my 12 “edibles” are fall mushrooms, as is one of my two seriously poisonous species.
Old friend Gilles Patenaude, of Victoria, dropped by recently, wending his way home from Ottawa, where he attended the 35th anniversary of Mycologues Amateur de L’Outaouais (Amateur Mycologists of Ottawa), of which he was the founding president. The dinner was prepared by top chefs using five varieties of wild mushrooms, four of which are fall species.
Then there is an anguished email from another old friend, Robert Short: “Two weeks ago I harvested Hericium at the road allowance. I will not live to harvest it at that spot again … the whole area is a wasteland.” (My comment: Caused by an oil company bulldozing flat far more public land than it really needs, just to horizontally drill two small diameter fracking pipes under my private land.)
Hericium ramosum, commonly called Bear’s Head, or Comb Tooth, arguably one of Alberta’s more beautiful and delicious fungi, is generally found in the fall, growing on deadfall aspen logs.
This one I slice and simmer in its own juices until the moisture evaporates, then sauté in a mixture of olive oil and butter and season lightly with garlic salt. Another fall favourite, the Oyster Mushroom, Pleurotus ostreatus, also grows from expired aspen, but sometimes six metres up dead trunks that just haven’t fallen yet.
Oysters have been scarce this fall, as have my personal fall favourite species, Alberta’s official mushroom, the Aspen Bolete, or Aspen Rough Stem, Leccinum insigne. Avid fungaphiles blame this hot, dry late summer and early fall. But in similar conditions several years ago I got lost wandering the moss in The Crossley Demonstration Forest on Hwy 752 south west of Rocky Mountain House, as I harvested more Aspen Boletes than I had bags to carry them. Our long cold and wet spring produced few morels, but in springs gone by I have also had good morel harvests in The Crossley, especially in its recent cut-over areas.
As I travelled to and by favourite old hot spots, I found few Shaggy Manes, Coprinus comatus, a delicious fall species that often pops up by the bushel in most falls along roads and trails.
My old friend, the late Vern Caddy, and I used to pick them in the fall along the Kin Canyon trails in Red Deer, and then cook similarly to a method for Oyster mushrooms: dip them in beaten egg, roll them in cracker crumbs and brown them in butter and olive oil.
The two red-capped, non-edible fall species one must be careful not to confuse with the also-red-capped Aspen Bolete are also scarce so far: the usually super-abundant Sickener, Russula emetica, and the scarcer, poisonous, Fly Amanita, Amanita muscaria, identifiable by the white spots, or flecks on its red cap.
Two edible and delicious fall species just do not appear at all in many years, for no apparent reason: the Honey Mushroom, Armillaria mellea, and the Blewit (Blue Hat), Lepista nuda.
Mushroom pot-hunters rise up and get out in the spring to scour the forest floors, mainly for morels. But most falls are prime hunting time for a much wider variety of Alberta’s edible mushrooms.
It is not surprising that so few wild mushroom foragers know of the many Alberta species available to them in most falls, because far too many field guides do not mention when the various species appear.
That omission is doubly a shame, because time of appearance can be a strong clue toward positively identifying a species, the prerequisite to eating any wild fungus.
One field guide that does faithfully specify when each species it covers is likely to appear also happens to be my favorite, for my area, of the more than a dozen wild mushroom books in my “working” library: Mushrooms of the Boreal Forest, by Eugene F. Bossenmaier, published by University Extension Press, University of Saskatchewan.
The “morel” of this column is that hunting for them is just spring training for Alberta’s major mushroom hunting season: in the fall.
Bob Scammell is an award-winning columnist who lives in Red Deer. He can be reached at email@example.com.