Nature News: Harvesting oyster mushrooms in the wild

By Susan Pike

Oyster mushrooms growing up a live poplar Sue Pike photo

I am thinking that with the predicted relatively mild (for this time of year), wet weather this week we could still see some mushrooms popping up in the woods. I hope so. I’ve found a tree that seems to be hosting some oyster mushrooms. I’ll be visiting it again this week in the hopes of one last harvest.

I am very hesitant to forage for mushrooms in the wild. I won’t eat anything I have found growing from a stump, a dying tree or the forest floor unless it has absolutely no poisonous look-alikes and I have quadruple-checked its identity. Keeping that in mind, while out in the woods a few weeks ago, I happened upon a tree bearing what I knew must be oyster mushrooms. I checked them with iNature as well as some Googling, then cut some from the tree (but left some for others, people or animals) and walked out with my handful of mushrooms and plans for dinner.

Dinner! Sue Pike photo

Know the substrate!

Being a teacher comes in handy sometimes. It is amazing how many current and previous students I often meet while out on the trail. This time, a previous student, now in college, was out hiking with his roommates. He is a marine bio major, one roommate was an environmental engineer, the other was a forestry major. This was great. The forestry major could help with the ID! One of the things to look for when identifying fungi is the substrate from which they are growing. Mushrooms are usually substrate-specific. Chanterelles grow from the soil, usually under oak and beech trees, but sometimes under conifers. Turkey tails usually grow on deciduous trees. The currently trendy, medicinal reishi mushrooms are only found on conifers, primarily hemlocks.

Oyster mushrooms are most likely to grow on deciduous trees so I wanted to make sure that was the kind of tree “my” oyster mushrooms had been harvested from. Luckily, the young forestry major was able to identify the tree as a poplar, which checked off one more box in the positive identification of these mushrooms.

Double check your ID with field guides-the more different ones the better.

I have at least 10 different mushroom field guides. So, when I got home I checked them all, looking for other characteristics of oyster mushrooms: they can smell of anise (mine did), the stems have no ring (mine didn’t), and it was the right time of year. Finally, I sent photos to some mycologist friends just to be absolutely sure and they concurred with my identification. So, I cooked some up for my dinner to make sure that they sat well with me. They did, and the next night fed my family. Is it worth it going through all this to eat a mushroom that I can buy at a local farmers market or grocery?  I don’t know about everyone, but the satisfaction of eating something found in the wild can’t be beat.

Most trees can be identified by bark alone…I’m not great at that….but am fairly certain this was a poplar

Is mushroom picking sustainable?

However, I worry about the sustainability of foraging. It is a luxury that I can go out and forage, it’s a hobby. I don’t need to do it.  And I worry, if I take mushrooms from the forest, what about the deer, rabbits, squirrels and mice, not to mention, the numerous insects that also feast upon fungi? They can’t pick up some wild mushrooms at the grocery. So, I don’t always pick mushrooms, and when I do, I leave some for everyone else.  

What about the mushrooms themselves? Overharvesting should always be avoided. If you are picking mushrooms whose gills are open, there is a good chance they have already released their spores. They’ve done their job, so that is a good time to harvest.  The point of a mushroom is reproduction. The mushrooms we eat are the fruiting bodies (reproductive parts) of fungi. They contain the spores which they disperse for reproduction.

What exactly are you eating? A fruiting body?

When you eat a mushroom, you are eating something organized in a bizarrely different way from our plant and animal neighbors. When nature gives the cue that it is a good time to reproduce, mushrooms are formed from hyphae, thin threads that make up the “body” of most fungi. The hyphae are always there, they extend throughout whatever substrate the mushroom emerges from – a rotting log, the forest floor, the soil, sometimes forming vast networks (called mycelia). These are the white threads you find if you dig through some leaf litter or turn over a rotting log. That mushroom you are eating for dinner (the fruiting body) is composed of these long tubular hyphae, molded into fantastic shapes, their only goal – to release spores and reproduce. That’s what my oyster mushrooms were doing, releasing spores to the wind.

I’m looking forward to a few more mild, rainy, mushroom-friendly days. Oyster mushroom season lasts through November in the Northeast. However, most of the time I will enjoy just looking and only occasionally bring some home for dinner.

Susan Pike, a researcher and an environmental sciences and biology teacher at Dover High School, welcomes your ideas for future column topics. She may be reached at spike3116@gmail.com. Read more of her Nature News columns on paper (the Portsmouth Herald, Foster’s Daily, the York Weekly etc) or online at Seacoastonline.com, here at pikes-hikes.com, and follow her on Instagram @pikeshikes.

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