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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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
- 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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