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Large as life – The Giant Puffball

There is no danger in mistaking this fungus with any other. Nothing comes close to its unique size and appearance. Everyone should feel lucky if they ever find any of these beauties in their prime. I only have the occasional luck here and there. They’re either too young, too old or vandalized! Late summer and autumn is the best time to go hunting for them.

PuffballsThe pictures of these magnificent Giant Puffballs (Calvatia gigantea) were kindly supplied by Brian Friend (excluding the header & bottom right image) taken in his garden in Stickney, Lincolnshire. My discoveries to date haven’t been particularly photogenic, so many thanks again Brian.

So here were not just one, but several Giant Puffballs in a long line – or so it seems. They are actually part of a large partial ring. The averge puffball size I would say would be approximately 20-23cm in diametre (around 4kg). They could also still be in the process of growing even larger. Mature specimens can reach up to 80cm across (approx. 20kg) or even larger in some exceptional cases.

Apart from hedgerows and woodland edges, it is gardens and pasture land that are the most common habitat for this fungus, often found in full or partial fairy rings (as in this case).

The outer skin is white or creamy white and is firm and leathery to the touch. The inner flesh contains a dense white spore mass, known as gleba. These young reproductive spores amount in excess to around 7-8 trillion – and sometimes more. That’s one determined fungus keen on reproduction! However, only a couple of the spores may find purchase and reproduce elsewhere. Maybe this is not a bad thing, otherwise we’d be knee deep in them every autumn.

With age, the skin rots away and peels, leaving the now mature olive-brown spores to be released. This is further helped when the whole fruiting body becomes detached from it’s relatively small mycelial attachment (small white root-like appendage) and is free to roll ‘not-so-gracefully’ over the surrounding grassland.

If you’re lucky enough to find these magnificent white balls in their prime, the young white flesh is excellent for eating, and there’s a wealth of recipes out there for it. Here’s just a choice few:

Happy Hunting…

Giant Puffball image identification

The Giant Puffball can reach up to 80cm across. Older examples peel open and release the mature brown spores within (bottom right).

 

Big Bonus – The Horse Mushroom

Right now there are quite a few Agaricus (mushroom) species. I have already seen many species in varying urban habitats. I was especially lucky when I stumbled across these beauties literally round the corner from my house on a large grassy verge.

Horse Mushrooms in grassThe most welcome Horse Mushroom (Agaricus arvensis) is a great tasty mushroom that grows in most types of grassland, mainly permanent pasture land, but to reiterate, in this case it was a small grassy front lawn/verge.

They’re often found growing in large rings and this was no exception, even though it was only a partial ring. Still plenty to go around though.

The word ‘Horse’ used in the English name doesn’t reflect on where they can be found, such as fields with horses in (which is a common misconception) but is in reference to their large size. The largest in this group was 15cm across, the size of a small plate. 20cm is the maximum size on average and even at these dimensions, they are still relatively fresh and ready for the pan. If you find what appears to be a Horse Mushroom, but has a 30cm diametre cap, then you’ve probably found a Macro Mushroom (Agaricus urinascens), very similar indeed to our Horse Mushroom but slightly more scalier on the cap. That’s another story for another time.

People often avoid the Horse Mushroom because of the yellow (pale ochre) colouring that appears on the cap as it ages. Some are unsure that they could be dealing with the rather unwelcome ‘Yellow Stainer’, an extremely common look alike that could cause nasty gastro upsets (read all the about the Yellow Stainer in this post). In fact, some Agariucus xanthodermus were quite happily growing on a grassy verge nearby that very day!

But have no fear, the Horse Mushroom has some key characteristics that set it apart from the rest. Initially I always do the ‘Yellow Stainer’ test in which I rub the side of the cap and get the base of the stem out of the ground and snap it in half. If there’s some ‘strong’ chrome yellow colouring I simply avoid it. The Horse Mushroom has no extreme colouring like this and no colouring at all in the base of the stem flesh.

If you look around and find a very young example, the gills will be veiled by the what is to become the ‘ring’ on the stem (see picture below). A distinctive jaggedy ‘cogwheel’ pattern runs around the outer circumference of the membrane. This is always a good sign.

The young gills are white at first and turn pink, then eventually chocolate brown as time goes by. I found these at a good time and I didn’t hesitate at all in collecting some for my tea, leaving a few to do their thing.

They eventually ended up in a lovely mushroom soup (if I don’t mind saying so myself). I hope you too have some good luck in finding these beautiful and tasty mushrooms. Enjoy.

Horse mushroom pictures

The Horse Mushroom can grow up to 20cm in diametre. Notice the ‘cogwheel’ pattern on the veil, covering the gills of the younger mushroom (bottom left).

QUICK ID TABLE: HORSE MUSHROOM Agaricus arvensis

CAP / FLESH

5 – 20 cm across. Initially domed cap expanding out. Creamy white, yellowing with age. Flesh firm and thick. Slight smell of aniseed (more so when young). Veil on underside initially covers gills. Has a ‘cogwheel’ pattern.

STEM

8-10cm x 2-3cm. Same colour as cap. Often becomes hollow.

GILLS / SPORE PRINT

Free from stem apex. White at first, then pink, then chocolate brown with age.
Spore Print: Dark purple brown (see how to take a spore print here).

HABITAT / SEASON

Grassy pastures, lawns and sometimes grassy verges. Often in rings. Late summer – autumn. Common.

EDIBILITY

Edible and excellent. Good mushroomy flavour.

The Genus AGARICUS (Wood Mushrooms/Mushrooms): Characteristics to look out for:

• Many discolour yellowish, reddish or pinkish when cut or bruised.
• Those that discolour bright/chrome yellow should be avoided for consumption.
• Gills in young specimens are often pink (white in a few) – maturing darker brown.
• Make note of any smells, such as aniseed or a typical strong ‘supermarket’ mushroom smell.

Deliciosus! – The Saffron Milkcap

The mushroom season is well under way in the UK. Since September there have been many species popping up here and there, but there’s still more to come. October and November often produce the goods in abundance…

Saffron Milkcap MushroomOne of my latest and tastiest finds has been the Saffron Milkcap (Lactarius deliciosus) – one the most sought after Milkcaps, especially in Europe which grows exclusively with pines from summer to autumn. They aren’t overly common but relatively frequent, and to add to the fun, they are quite regular in showing up in the same place every year – but this is only in my experience, perhaps it’s not always so. I’d just thought I’d mention it (leave comments if you agree or not).

This lovely edible mushroom, like most tasty finds (it seems) does have naughty lookalikes, but fear not as they are non-poisonous threats coming in the form of the aptly named False Saffron Milkcap (Lactarius deterrimus) thought only to grow with spruce and Lactarius semisanguifluus which also occur with pine. The differences are annoyingly subtle which I will explain further. Firstly, let’s take a look at the main character itself…

The Saffron Milkcap’s cap can grow up to 12cm in diametre and is slightly funnel shaped with a margin that is noticeably curved inwards when younger. The fleshy, carrot orange cap often shows stronger concentric bands around the surface (in this case very subtle) which can be tinged here and there with olive-green patches. Caps on the lookalike mushrooms tend to develop a wider covering of green, sometimes covering the cap completely.

The milk colour is a key ID feature with this Milkcap, when compared to the others. It has bright carrot orange coloured milk (coming from the gills once damaged or handled). The lookalikes share a similar colour but are noticeably more reddish, turning deeper red/purpleish over 10 – 30 minutes minutes once exposed to the air.

Moving on to the stem you’ll see the gills are only mildy decurrent and the pale whitish/orange to salmon/orange stem often has a collection of darker, circular pits, as shown in the pictures here. The False Saffron Milkcap can have these marks but are less frequent and Lactarius semisanguiluus doesn’t have any – it’s stem can clearly be seen to turn green over time and upon handling.

With experience these finer differences will become more apparent but even now I sometimes don’t trust my own judgement. Luckily a colleague confirmed the finding. Always a good idea to get a second opinion. And if you’re unsure of the difference between Pine and Spruce (as I was) then this is a good link to help in identification.

And while we’re on the subject of good links, take a look at this great Saffron Milkcap recipe. Enjoy.

Lactarius deliciosus - edible milkcap

The Saffron Milkcap. Notice the darker pitting on the stem (top right) and the bright ‘carrot orange’ milk from the gills (bottom right).

QUICK ID TABLE: SAFFRON MILKCAP Lactarius deliciosus

CAP / FLESH

3 – 15cm diametre. Varying carrot/orange colour / sometimes greenish in places. Darker markings showing concentric bands. Convex with central depression. Initially inrolled at margin. Firm, brittle consistency.

STEM

Slightly decurrent. Narrow spacing. Pale pink/apricot to saffron. Eventually carrot coloured. Olive-green markings when bruised.

GILLS / SPORE PRINT

3 – 7cm x 1.5 – 2cm. Whiteish/pale orange – salmon coloured. Often with darker circular depressions. Green in places over time.
Spore Print: Pale ochre (see how to take a spore print here).

HABITAT / SEASON

In grass with pine trees. Summer/autumn. Frequent.

EDIBILITY

Edible. Very Good. Popular in Europe.

The Genus LACTARIUS (Milkcaps): Characteristics to look out for:

• Gills and flesh exude milk when broken or damaged.
• Look out for different coloured milks and any changes after a while when exposed to the air.
• Granular/fragile flesh similar to Russulas (Brittlegills), breaking easily.

ExCEPtional! – The Penny Bun, Cep or Porcini mushroom

The Bolete genus (and those closely related) are some of the largest and most exciting mushrooms to be found out there. From a culinary point of view there are several that are more than worth the their place in the kitchen, but there is one in particular that stands out as ‘best of the rest’.

Boletus edulisSo let’s get it’s name sorted out. Most people will definitely recognise common/local names, a couple of which are not English in origin. Our common tongue has described this as the ‘Penny Bun’ for obvious reasons (although probably not to todays generation), many also know it as the Cep (French) but then most cooks and chefs will often know it from it’s Italian translation as the ‘Porcini mushroom’. But at the end of the day, science has kept things in order, strictly labeling it as Boletus edulis – the latin name ‘edulis’ simply meaning ‘edible’. Very apt, as usual.

Excluding Truffles, the Cep (as I’ll call it from now on) is one of the most highly prized edible finds, especially in mainland Europe. Some foragers only have this one mushroom on their list, such is their passion for it.

It is a very distinctive looking mushroom with it’s stout, chunky stem and small ‘out of proportion’ cap (common to younger examples – shown opposite). They can sometimes pop up in abundance or smaller groups, but are often solitary near/under broad-leaved and coniferous trees.

The picking season can be as early as June or July, but often show up from August to September. With this year’s season being mostly dry, only November has been reliable in dishing out the goods – for me this year anyway!

Young specimens are usually favoured over older specimens (often maggot-ridden) and will be cooked or pickled whole, or even dried for later consumption. They freeze extremely well too.

The pores in older ‘middle-aged’ specimens change from white to a dull yellow-green colour (as the spores are olive green/brown). The tubes are usually removed and the cap is thinly sliced along with the stem (peeled first) to add to the pan. Overall, it’s good to know there are many ways to store, cook and eat this mushroom. I’m no top chef , but there’s lots of ideas out there. A great selection of recipes with the cep mushroom can be found on the BBC website here.

There are a couple of edible ‘look-a-likes’ often confused with the Cep, such as the The Dark Cep (Boletus aereus) and maybe the Bay Bolete (Boletus badius). But beware the Bitter Bolete (Tylopilus felleus) with a dark network on its stem. Although not posionous, it’s a recipe for disaster when served up at dinner time. As the name suggests it has a very bitter, unpleasant taste.

So a useful feature to note in identifying the Cep is looking for the raised ‘white’ network/pattern on the stem (reticulation) as shown in the picture below. None of those mentioned above share this feature.

Good hunting…

The Cep

What a difference! A large middle aged/mature specimen next to a younger example. Notice the ‘white’ raised network on the stem and how the pores age ‘yellow/green’ compared to the paler white colour of younger ones.

Boletus edulis Mushroom UK

A young, perfectly from Cep mushroom discovered in Leicestershire UK – open grassland near woodland.

QUICK ID TABLE: CEP Boletus edulis

CAP / FLESH

8-25cm across. Brown. White line at margin of cap. Smooth and dry becoming greasy. Viscid in wet weather. Flesh is white (flushed dingy yellow or vinaceous in the cap).

STEM

3-23cm x 3-8cm. Often swollen at base. Pale with white network covering the stem.

PORES / TUBES / SPORE PRINT

Pores are small and round, initially white; ageing yellow, then greenish-yellow. Tubes are white, becoming grey-yellow.
Spore Print: Olivaceous walnut-brown (see how to take a spore print here).

HABITAT / SEASON

In coniferous, broadleaved or mixed woods. Summer – late autumn.

EDIBILITY

Edible. Excellent.

The Genus BOLETUS (the Boletes): Characteristics to look out for:

• Have pores (open ends of tubes) on the underside instead of gills. Easily separated from the cap.
• Most have dry caps (viscid when wet – but not glutinous like Suillus genus).
• Most have reticulation on the stem; a fine network covering parts or all of the stem. Make note of the colour.
• When cut or bruised take note of any changes in colour to the flesh or pores.

Dry Saddle for the nymph! Dryads Saddle

Well – it’s been the driest spring we’ve had since records began! That probably explains why I haven’t had much luck in finding some good edible spring mushrooms up for offer! But I did stumble across some large edible beauties today – unfortunately I found them too late. They were past their prime and had dried out quite a bit due to old age and the dry weather. Curses!

Large Polypore mushroomEven in this condition, they were still good examples of Dryads Saddle (Cerioporus squamosus / Polyporus squamosus) – a polypore mushroom which can grow quite large indeed as you can see from the photos. All polypores (bracket fungus growing on trees) have ‘pores’ instead of gills where the spores disperse from.

This species is a parasite (and/or Saprotroph which feeds off decaying matter) on deciduous trees such as elm, beech and sycamore causing severe ‘white rot’. They burst into life in late spring/early summer and can be found on stumps as well as living trees growing in clusters or singularly. Although edible, only young specimens are worth taking and don’t really taste that great anyway. Which is a shame because of their ample size even when younger.

Apart from it’s large dimensions (cap up to 60cm accross and stem up to 7cm) other identifiable characteristics are the brown scales which are spread in a semicircular pattern accross the ochre-yellow cap, the flesh of which is relatively thin. As shown in these pictures, once past it’s prime, the mushroom soon deteriorates, becoming very dry (especially helped along by this hot weather!) and infested with insects. Urgh! But nevertheless they are a great site to behold when in a large group.

There are many old folklore stories behind mushrooms describing how they acquired their common names (sometimes several stories from several countries), and this one does not disappoint in originality. The ‘Saddle’ element derives from the shape of the cap which can sometimes resemble a horses saddle. The word Dryad means ‘Tree nymph’ in Greek mythology. I find myself imagining what the Dryads horse looks like!

Cerioporus squamosus

Drying up! Once past their prime, These polypores soon dry up and waste away. How the mighty have fallen!

In contrast to these older specimens, take a look at this very young specimen I found only a few weeks later. This little beauty is only 2 inches long. I left it to grow and I’m guessing it won’t grow that large anyway due to the fact there were older, dying fruit bodies near by – around 4-6 inches in size.

Dryads Saddle - Young

A young Dryads Saddle.

See the extra ID notes below in helping identify this fine mushroom, notably how the stem is blackish towards the base. Hope you find some too soon, this is the season…

ID Notes - Dryads Saddle (Polyporus squamosus)

The Genus POLYPORUS & Related: Characteristics to look out for:

• Nearly all are bracket fungi, but a few are with typical cap and stem but with pores instead of gills underside.
• Usually tough or hard and woody. Some are softer and edible.
• Many are perennial or annual
.

Flaming colour – The Charcoal Burner

This is a fine and sturdy mushroom of the woods and one of my favourites, both aesthetically and palatably. Although very common indeed from summer through to autumn, I haven’t seen as many as I would have liked so far. But it’s still early autumn and I do get impatient!

The usual haunting ground for the Charcoal Burner (Russula cyanoxantha) is in broad leaved woods, mainly with beech. It is part of the very large family of Russulas (there are 200+ in Britain alone) with the majority of well known ones having yellow, blue and green variations in colour.

The Charcoal BurnerThe Charcoal Burner gets it’s common name from the range of colours visible on it’s sturdy, fleshy cap – like the colours of a charcoal flame. Sometimes it can be one colour but often it can be variable. There’s often a mixture of blue and yellow, and in this case, with strong hues of violet and a pinch of blue/grey (you can also get browns and greens going on. This mushroom likes to show off!). The latin name cyanoxantha defines the blue and yellow colours.

This Russula is from a group known as the Brittlegills, and as the name suggests, their gills are very brittle and tend to crumble and break when you touch them. But identification-wise, mushrooms always like to move the goal posts! Because in this case the white gills are not brittle, but in fact quite flexible. What can I say? It’s a rebel Russula and likes to break the rules!

Although quite large, with the cap growing up to 12cm and it’s stem a up to 8cm and 3cm thick, it’s still easy to pass by. Depending on what angle you are coming from you can easily waltz by it. The cap colour is very good camouflage against the woodland floor. So keep a sharp eye out. I always tend to find these beauties growing nearby the Common Yellow Russula (or the Common Yellow Brittlegill (Russula ochroleuca)) They are of a similar size and have an ochre yellow cap, and not as tasty as our Charcoal Burner.

One thing I have to say about Brittlegills, or more so – about slugs, is that the latter do really enjoy a nibble, and I mean a nibble. I think the slugs prefer the yellow and green species because it’s not often I find one in pristine condition. They are, at some stage or another, left mutilated by those hungry slime bugs! Still, it’s as much their find as it is mine! They do have a head start by living there though – and that’s just not fair!

Charcoal Burner

Purple/blue/yellow cap – thick white stem and white gills which are sometimes forked.

Charcoal Burner. Russula Identification.

The Genus RUSSULA (Brittlegills): Characteristics to look out for:

• Simple stems with no ring or volva.
• Many have bright colours in shades of red, yellow, greenish and purple (or mixtures of). A few are pallid.
• Whole fruting body is ‘brittle’ (granular and fragile) and will easily crumble, break on handling.
• All have straight (precise geometric look) gills. These crumble (on all but one species) when touched/handled; hence brittlegill.
• Note how much the cap cuticle/skin ‘peels’ from the margin upwards (.ie. 1/4, 1/2, 3/4 or none etc).
• Note smells and tastes of hot, bitter or mild from nibbling & spitting (be sure you’re dealing with Russulas!).

A Royal Treat – The Prince Mushroom

Many mushrooms littering the floor in woodlands this autumn can be easily camouflaged, and hence, easily passed by. But in this case it’s very hard to miss this marvellous and very tasty woodland (mostly with conifers) mushroom.

The Prince (Agaricus augustus) earned it’s name (both common and latin) from the Roman emperor. This was his favourite mushroom, and I can’t blame him really.

Prince Mushroom - youngInitially I had confused this mushroom with a typical brown wood mushroom which is understandable. They’re very similar in looks but it’s the sheer size that gives it away. The Prince mushroom mainly can have a cap diametre of up to 20cm. The brown wood mushroom only grows to about 9cm. The largest of the specimens I’d found were in excess of 12cm or more – the maximum size was around the 15cm mark.

They’re quite pretty to look at too. The cap is covered with small chestnut-brown fibrous scales and the top remains as a more solid nutty brown colour. Again, this can add confusion in identification, as it’s been known to be mistaken for a Parasol mushroom, but it doesn’t grow as tall and the gills are white coloured.

The picture above shows a small group of particularly young Prince’s. From very young, they are quite ovoid or elliptical (or should I just say egg-shaped!) but as they grow they expand to form a large convex cap.

Other tips to identifying this grand mushroom is it’s smell. It dishes out a pleasant odour of almonds – pleasant that is if you like the smell of almonds! The ring on the stem is white an is (or can be) large and pendulous (depending on the age at which you find it). Unfortunately my find had been bashed and maimed at the side of the coniferous woodland path, so vital body parts had been damaged and bashed away!

I was going to eat my find, but suddenly had second thoughts as they grew near the edge of the path. A path which I know frequents incontinent dogs and their careless owners. No chips on my shoulder eh!?

The Prince - Edible Woodland Mushroom

A young unopened cap and the ‘knocked off!’ caps of the large fully grown mushroom

The Prince Mushroom

Another young unopened prince mushroom

The Genus AGARICUS (Wood Mushrooms/Mushrooms): Characteristics to look out for:

• Many discolour yellowish, reddish or pinkish when cut or bruised.
• Those that discolour bright/chrome yellow should be avoided for consumption.
• Gills in young specimens are often pink (white in a few) – maturing darker brown.
• Make note of any smells, such as aniseed or a typical strong ‘supermarket’ mushroom smell.

Cracking up! – Iodene Bolete

Sometimes the best wild mushroom finds are the ones when you’re not actually looking for them. These mushrooms were only a few hundred yards from my home on a grass verge beneath an Oak tree.

Growing Iodine BoleteMy chance discovery was an Iodene Bolete (Hemileccinum impolitum – formerly. Boletus impolitus) which mainly shows up in the Summer. It isn’t really that common either. Its appearance can be infrequent or rare.

It favours broad leaf trees, especially Oak, which in this case it preferred. There were several of them in a small group, standing out like sore thumbs. I had passed them earlier in the month, while out on my bike, as their caps were poking through the growing grass. I had only glanced over at them initially. To be honest they looked just like discarded old potatoes thrown on the verge, so I ignored them. How stupid did I feel realising later my mistake!? And who throws potatoes onto a grass verge anyway?

There is no staining on this mushroom when cut or bruised, which helped me identify it. Several books I looked at had shown the cap with no cracking on top exposing the yellow flesh within. But, to be fair, it was mentioned within the text.

The bugs absolutely loved these shrooms – they were all over them. So after I had flicked and shook them all off I took one for myself. Knowing this was an edible Bolete I thought I might give it a taste test (not expecting a taste sensation though!). But unfortunately after slicing in half, the base of the stem was already home to many small white maggots living it up in the mushy mess they had created. Oh well!

The council grass mower soon trundled across the verge, so I couldn’t grab myself another! Unfortunately.

Ioden Bolete

Iodine Bolete with olive-brown cracking cap

The Genus BOLETUS (the Boletes): Characteristics to look out for:

• Have pores (open ends of tubes) on the underside instead of gills. Easily separated from the cap.
• Most have dry caps (viscid when wet – but not glutinous like Suillus genus).
• Most have reticulation on the stem; a fine network covering parts or all of the stem. Make note of the colour.
• When cut or bruised take note of any changes in colour to the flesh or pores.