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Honey Mushrooms Are a Destructive Delicacy


Honey Mushrooms Are a Destructive Delicacy

Marie Viljoen November 13, 2023

Honey mushrooms, abundant and edible and fruiting in fall, are the forager’s motherlode. They tend to grow in very generous clumps. Despite their moniker, they are not sweet, but taste nutty and, well, mushroomy. Their slippery-on-the-tongue texture is appealing, especially if you pair it with the quick crunch of foundational toast or the longer slurp of a slithery noodle, or blend it into a smooth-as-silk pâté for your next picnic. In Eastern Europe honeys are a prized edible. Not so much in North America. As to their nature, that is none too sweet, either: Honey mushrooms are killers, and dramatic slayers of trees.

More about this fascinating fungus, and a honey mushroom recipe, below:

Photography by Marie Viljoen.

Above: Honey mushrooms in New York’s Catskill Mountains.

The Armillaria genus to which honey mushrooms belong currently comprises about 10 species globally, all very similar. They are mostly pathogens, attacking woody roots and causing a white rot. Armillaria root rot is a major disease of woody plants in forests, orchards, vineyards, and gardens. In the eastern half of North America, most honey mushrooms are the classic Armillaria mellea (mellea means honey, and it refers to the color of their caps, which also happen to be as variably shaded as different types of honey).

One species, Armillaria gallica, has been found to be mycorrhizal (having a reciprocal relationship) with an orchid, Gastrodia elata (its tuber is used in Sichuan cuisine); the fungus is essential to its life cycle. Possibly, as mycological inquiry advances, more positive attributes may be ascribed to the deadly delicacies.

Above: Honey mushrooms in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.

Honeys, as they are known affectionately to their hunters, emerge after rain as gregarious crowds, fruiting in dense clusters or conversational groups at the base of dead or unwell trees. Sometimes they appear on the dead trees’ trunks, often on the roots (which may be buried invisibly), and also on living trees, which they will usually kill slowly (healthy trees may mount a defense by sequestering the infection). The actual mushrooms are the smaller part of a vast, mostly unseen, network of white, fan-shaped mycelia and dark, root-like rhizomorphs that can stretch for acres in the substrate, seeking nutrients.

Above: A fall flush of honey mushrooms.

In Oregon’s well-named Malheur National Forest, a tree-killing collection of clonal honey mushroom colonies is wreaking havoc. Here’s a good word: genet. Not the cat. Genets are genetically unique individual organisms; the biggest genet (of five identified) in this forest is called Genet D. It is infamous for being the largest known root disease center in the world. Its biomass, in 2008, was estimated to be 35,000 tons. That makes this honey particular mushroom species, Armillaria ostoyae, the world’s largest known living organism. (Probably. There are two other contenders: aspens in Utah and a seagrass in Australia.)

Above: Tiny honey mushrooms on a forest path, growing from buried tree roots.

Walking on Deer Isle in Maine in October, a few days after soaking rain, I saw some honey-destruction in action. I could not take a step on the gnarled path without inadvertently stomping on pincushions of baby honey mushrooms sprouting from the roots of spruce and fir. Looking down, I longed for super-vision, to see the formidable system that must have produced them, stretching beneath the spongy duff to seek fresh prey.

Above: Dead trees on Deer Isle, Maine, in an area where honey mushrooms are abundant.

Looking up, we were surrounded by defoliated, rotting, and fallen trees, like victims of an arboreal war. The mushrooms were growing on their roots, in fissures on their bark, and sometimes right where a tree’s trunk had snapped so freshly that the raw splinters still looked dangerous. Honey mushrooms in action. I collected a basketful. Small revenge.

Above: The tiny honey mushrooms in the moss on this diseased tree are the clue to the cause of its demise.
Above: After rain, honey mushrooms fruit, almost always in fall.
Above: Caught in the act.
Above: Oh, honey. What have you done?

There is another honey: the so-called ringless honey mushroom. It used to be Armillaria tabescens. But ringless honeys have been shifted from the Armillaria genus to Desarmillaria. And they are not pathogens at all, but saprobes, feeding on dead wood, not living hosts, like their parasitic cousins. Otherwise, they appear very similar and are just as tasty. Unlike Armillaria fungi, ringless honeys have no tell-tale ring around their stem, which is all that remains of a partial veil that connects true honey mushroom caps to their stems.

Above: Honey mushrooms have rings around their stems, as they mature.

There are many factors, or protocols, that are important in identifying mushrooms. The absolute, along with those other factors, is a spore print.

Honey mushrooms and ringless honeys all have a white spore print. (See our blewit story for how to make a spore print.)

Above: A chunky honey mushroom.
Above: Edible enoki mushrooms also fruit in clusters in fall.

There are both toxic and edible lookalikes to honey mushrooms, some of which fruit at the same time. For your interest, research, and bamboozlement:

  • Galerinas are called deadly for a reason. They can be fatal. Dark brown spore prints.
  • Jack o’ lanterns (Omphalotus illudens) are toxic but won’t kill you. Their spore print is white to pale yellow.
  • Sulfur tufts include toxic Hypholoma fasciculare; edible H. capnoides; edible brick caps (Hypholoma sublateritium). All Hypholoma spore-print purplish-brown.
  • Edible enoki, or velvet foot (Flammulina velutipes), has a brown spore print.
  • Edible as well as potentially toxic Pholiota species? Brown spore prints.
Above: A cornucopia of fall mushrooms, with honeys in the foreground.

Many sources suggest that some people have an unhappy gastric reaction to honey mushrooms. Let’s assume that it is true, even though I have not experienced this. Cook them thoroughly and eat a few (assuming you have spore printed them and that their print is white), if you have never tried them before. Wait 24 hours. No issues? Next step, dinner.

They’re delicious. Truly.

Above: Honey mushroom and chicken liver pâté. Perfect for picnics.

Honey Mushroom and Chicken Liver Pâté

The rich, nutty flavor and texture of browned honey mushrooms adds layers of flavor to this easy, rustic pâté.

  • 8 oz honey mushroom caps, washed
  • 4 oz (8 tablespoons) butter
  • 3 strips bacon, finely sliced
  • 6 oz chicken livers
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt taste
  • 1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon lemon juice
  • Pepper
  • 1 teaspoon dried mugwort flowers or leaves, crumbled (or substitute sage)
  • 1/3 cup cream
  • 2 oz butter for sealing

Melt 1 oz of butter in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms, cover, and cook for about 5 minutes. Remove the lid, and add the bacon pieces. Stir well. Allow the exuded juices from the mushrooms to evaporate and the mushrooms to brown as the bacon fat renders, another 5 minutes. The mushrooms must be thoroughly cooked. Scoop out the mushrooms and bacon from the pan and transfer to a bowl.

Add another 1 oz of butter to the pan. Add the livers. Season them generously with salt. When one side has browned, flip them. Season their other side, and add the mugwort. When the second side has browned, pour in the vinegar, stirring well. It will boil furiously. Add the cream. Stir. Scoop out the livers and add them to the mushroom bowl. When the sauce left in the pan is syrupy, pour it over the contents of the bowl.

Transfer everything to a food processor. Melt the remaining butter in a small saucepan. Pulse the mushroom mixture until smooth. Pour the melted butter in and pulse again until mixed. Now taste for seasoning and add a little more salt or pepper, if you like. Transfer the mixture into glass jars or small ramekins and allow to cool. When it is cool pour over the reserved melted butter.

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Frequently asked questions

What are honey mushrooms?

Honey mushrooms (Armillaria mellea) are a type of edible mushroom that are found in forests and woodlands during the late summer and fall. They are known for their unique honey-like aroma and taste.

How can I identify honey mushrooms?

Honey mushrooms have distinct characteristics, including a yellow to golden-brown cap with a fibrous texture, dark ring on the stem, and white gills underneath the cap. They often grow in clusters around the base of trees.

Are honey mushrooms safe to eat?

Yes, honey mushrooms are generally safe to eat when properly cooked. However, it's important to note that some individuals may experience digestive discomfort or allergic reactions to mushrooms, so caution is advised.

How can I forage honey mushrooms?

To forage honey mushrooms, look for them in wooded areas or near hardwood trees, especially oaks, beeches, or birches. They typically grow on decaying tree stumps or roots. Harvest only mushrooms that you can confidently identify as honey mushrooms.

Can I cultivate honey mushrooms at home?

Yes, it is possible to cultivate honey mushrooms in a controlled environment. However, it requires specialized knowledge and equipment. It is recommended for experienced mushroom cultivators.

What are some ways to prepare honey mushrooms?

Honey mushrooms can be used in various dishes, such as sautéed in butter or oil, added to pasta or risotto, used in soups or stews, or even pickled. Their unique flavor adds depth to many recipes.

Are there any poisonous look-alike mushrooms to honey mushrooms?

Yes, there are several poisonous mushrooms that can resemble honey mushrooms. It is crucial to be able to accurately identify honey mushrooms to avoid consuming toxic varieties. If in doubt, consult an experienced forager or mycologist.

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