Spring may not “officially” arrive for another month or so, but you’d never know it here in the foothills! The days are growing longer and warmer, and the ground is carpeted with little green sprouts eagerly drinking in the sunshine. The apricot and almond trees are on the verge of bursting into bloom, and we’re almost done pruning the pears and grapes — any day now their first leaves will show. Yellow mustard flowers dot the orchard; the chickens roam to and fro snacking on tender shoots and tasty grubs.
This is the best day of our lives!
The flowers and green growing things may be the most obvious signs of Spring, but look closely and there are others, stranger and more subtle…
Remember that New Year’s resolution about foraging and mushroom-hunting? Well, this weekend our mushroom-loving pals Thea, Gayle and Jay came over to see just what is hiding in the woods — we found and identified quite a variety of fungi, and, yes, at least one is edible!
Awaiting identification — despite being on the kitchen counter, these are not all OK to eat.
Thea, Gayle, the field guide, and a pile of mushrooms!
Some mushrooms are unabashedly showy, like these “turkey tails” growing on a pine stump…
…while others are sneakier, like this Helvella, the Fluted Black Elfin Saddle. (Aren’t those names just the best?!) At first glance from above, you might miss it entirely; it looks like a shriveled, crumpled little black thing, unremarkable and kind of icky. Get down to eye level, however, and it’s quite a beauty in its own weird way:
Speaking of weird, check out these club fungi — again, you might not see them at all at a casual glance!
The find of the day — in the edible department, anyway — was this gorgeous blewit, Clitocybe nuda. I had seen these surreal, lilac-colored mushrooms growing under the oaks before, but had no idea that they are a prized edible! (Of course, that doesn’t mean you should go eating wild mushrooms because they are purple; the blewit isn’t the only one.)
Here’s the blewit in its native habitat:
Like most all wild foods, mushrooms are seasonal; different varieties appear at different times of year, and most prefer the damp, rainy season from autumn to spring. In other words, now is the time to get outdoors, crawl around in the leaves, and appreciate these mysterious beauties! If you’re interested in hunting for edible mushrooms, find someone with knowledge and experience to go with you — don’t try it alone, even with a field guide in hand, as mushrooms are subtle things and their defining characteristics can be deceptive to the untrained eye. But, even if eating them gives you the willies, hunting for and identifying mushrooms can be a strangely addictive pastime. Contrary to what most of us have been taught at an early age, mushrooms are not all toxic, and they will not poison you if you pick them up (just don’t go licking your fingers!) Why not try making some spore prints? Just find a mature mushroom, snip or cut off the stem, and place the cap, gills down, on a sheet of paper. Mushroom spores vary in color from pale buff to inky brown; try both white and black paper to see which one the print shows up best on. Cover the caps with a bowl or glass to prevent drafts, and leave them for several ours to overnight. The white spore print in the image below is from an Oak-Loving Collybia, Collybia dryophila, found growing — you guessed it, under an oak tree.
If you are intrigued by the thought of mushroom-hunting, here’s a great introduction to how they live, what they really are, and some common species: What is this thing in my yard? Your local public library is also a great place to find mushroom field guides; the Placer County Library has quite a few, and borrowing them is a good way to find out if mushrooming is your kind of hobby, as well as finding a guide that works well for you. Mushrooms Demystified, by David Arora, is Thea’s recommendation — it features dichotomous keys for identification, plenty of photographs, and very thorough (and entertaining) descriptions.
While you are out scouring the woods for fungi, keep an eye out for poison oak — it’s sneaky this time of year, without its telltale “leaves of three,” but the bare stems can also release their nasty oils if disturbed. And if you do get hungry, there’s plenty of miner’s lettuce at this time of year to snack on! It’s much easier to identify than mushrooms; most children around here learn when they are quite small to recognize its tasty parasol-like leaves. The plants are also a good indicator for the kind of moist, loamy soils mushrooms love. Here’s a particularly verdant patch growing along with another wild edible, chickweed: