Fall is for leaf-peeping, cider sipping, wine tasting, romantic getaways, whimsical road trips, serendipity, and renewal.
It’s also for mushroom peeping!
In northern Michigan, spring is the more famous fungi season, thanks to morels. But fall is the grand finale when the forest floor pulls out all the stops and the most spectacular fungi fireworks occur. A casual observer can’t help but notice the eye-popping array of shrooms of all shapes, sizes, and colors — on a hike, or just in the backyard. Violet, neon-yellow, salmon, ghost-white. The size of your forearm, the size of a teacup, the size of a fly. Shaped like bull’s horns, or a toadstool, or waterfalls. Sometimes it’s a solitary shroom standing sentinel in a silent pine forest. Sometimes it’s a colony of dozens taking over a rotting log, seeming to multiply before your eyes. Sometimes you’ll return to a spot you were at two days ago, and there’s an impressive shroom which wasn’t there before. Their ways are mysterious.
Sometimes, in the woods, you can smell them. Sometimes, on a hike, you can’t take ten steps without stopping to look at one. I joke that I put on weight in the spring and fall because I’m walking slower on my hikes. Neck and back issues are also a hazard if your focus is on the ground. Not to mention eye strain. The sacrifices I make for mushrooms…
Whether you can identify them or not, fungi are a feast for the eyes — which is the safest kind of wild fungi feast! Don’t get me wrong, I do forage and cook wild mushrooms. But…you shouldn’t unless you really know what you’re doing and are 100% sure that what you’re eating is safe. 95% sure is not sure enough. (I have a story about that, which I’ll tell when we get to chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms.)
For your perusing pleasure, here’s a guide to some notable fall fungi you might spy in Leelanau County and the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Of course, naming the whole cast of characters in one blog post would be impossible, so I’ve chosen to highlight five that are particularly dear to my heart.
1. Cinnabar chanterelles
Golden chanterelles, the larger relative of cinnabar chanterelles, are commonly thought of as a fall mushroom. That’s a myth! At least in northern Michigan, they’re really a summer mushroom that you start to see in July, and they fade in the fall. But the smaller cinnabar species follows on the goldens' heels, overlapping with them a bit, and persists into the fall. We’re getting to the tail end of their season, but the other day I was hiking and saw a few.
They’re so pretty! Cinnabars take their name from a red ore that’s the source of the pigment vermillion. They range from light pink to bright pink-orange. Like golden chanterelles, they’re one of the tastiest mushrooms. Chanterelles with bacon and onions is a classic pairing. I once made a stuffed acorn squash containing those ingredients and added some wild thyme from our backyard. It was a hit.
Chanterelles do have some poisonous “evil twin” lookalikes, so you need to be a pro if you’re going to harvest and eat these. One tip is that you’ll never see chanterelles growing on a tree. They only grow out of the ground.
These are perhaps the most strikingly beautiful fungi in the whole forest. When I post photos of them on Facebook, someone always asks “What IS that?” They can resemble icicles, coral, or…yes, a lion’s mane. The famed lion’s mane mushroom, used in folk medicine, is one of three species in the hericium genus in North America. The other two are bear’s head tooth and coral tooth (pictured). I’ve found all three of them in Leelanau County.
Hericium are saprophytic, meaning they grow on dead trees. So as you’re hiking, just keep your eyes on all the fallen trees on the forest floor. With a sharp eye, they’re hard to miss, although they’re not all that abundant. Certainly not as common as, say, oyster or honey mushrooms. The first one I saw this year was on July 20th, which seemed quite early. They’re more often associated with late summer and fall.
A couple of weeks ago, I went on a mission to spot some big beautiful hericium, as the only ones I’d seen this year had been smaller or past their prime. I was becoming discouraged at the start of my hike, because the forest wasn’t teeming with shrooms. Didn’t seem like a shroomy kinda day. But then I rounded a bend in the trail, and BOOM: a log completely taken over by coral tooth fungi in mint condition! I’d never seen more than one hericium on a tree before, so this was almost a psychedelic experience.
Not only are all three hericium species gorgeous, they’re also all edible…and delicious! And I think they’re some of the safer mushrooms to forage, because nothing else looks like them, and they don’t have any evil twins that I’m aware of. I sauté them with butter and garlic and put them in a pasta dish. (Granted, that’s what I do with everything!)
3. Honey mushrooms
These guys are fascinating. Fun fact: the largest known organism in the world is a honey mushroom! In 2005, scientists poking around Malheur National Forest in Oregon discovered a fungus — a single organism — encompassing 3.5 square miles and estimated to be 2,400 years old. The mushrooms we see are the fruiting bodies of the fungus, just the tip of the iceberg. Underground, there’s a network of filaments that connect the “fruits.” They kill trees and can destroy orchards. Right now they're going bonkers.
They’re distinguishable in part by little hairs on the caps. I’ve heard the best time to harvest them is before the caps open up and flatten out into disks. You only want to eat the caps. Unsurprisingly given their name, they have a slightly sweet taste. I wouldn’t know, though. I’ve never cooked with them. My friend has, and he says that although they’re generally mild, they take on a very intense mushroomy flavor when you freeze them. He’s currently making a stock from them.
4. Chicken of the woods
Not to be confused with hen of the woods, which is a completely different but equally delicious shroom. Appears in summer and fall. This is another one that’s relatively safe to harvest, because nothing else really looks like it. That bright orange color is distinctive.
It’s said to possess the taste and texture of chicken. But I dunno. I recently enjoyed a magnificent dinner at Wren, the cutting-edge farm-to-table restaurant in Suttons Bay. Wren employs the services of three different mushroom foragers. My entree was fresh fettuccine with a medley of locally foraged hedgehog mushrooms, parasol mushrooms, and chicken of the woods. This was my first time eating chicken of the woods, and to me it tasted like…what it was. A tasty mushroom. Maybe a little more flesh-like than most mushrooms, but in a blind taste test with chicken, I think everyone would know which was which.
I promised you a chicken of the woods story.
So, I’d always wanted to find one, and I’d been irritated that I hadn’t yet, given how often I hike. “Where are people finding these???” I wondered. One day, during a lovely Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy hike (I’d tell you which one, but foragers don’t give away their spots!), I finally spotted a chicken of the woods. Glorious, unmistakeable. Part of it had already been harvested by a forager, but there was plenty left.
So I took it home, and then I did some internet research about the safety of eating them. They’re mostly safe to eat...unless they’re growing on conifers. And I couldn’t remember whether the fallen tree I’d taken it from was a conifer or a hardwood! I sighed and threw it in the garbage. Not worth it. As I said earlier, being 95% sure of the safety of a wild mushroom isn’t enough. Gotta be 100%.
5. Fly agaric
Arguably the single most iconic mushroom, pictured in countless illustrations and important to a variety of cultures, due to their hallucinogenic properties. Historically they’ve been used in shamanic rituals, or at weddings, or possibly even in Viking warfare to induce an altered state of mind. They can be poisonous. Some cultures use them in cuisine by carefully preparing them to rid them of their toxins. (To be clear, I DO NOT suggest messing around with them!) I highly recommend the Wikipedia article on Amanita muscaria. It’s quite a doozy. The variety we have in northern Michigan is Amanita muscaria var. guessowii, the yellow or yellow-orange kind. Their common name comes from their historic use as a fly trap. Folks would sprinkle powdered Amanita muscaria in milk to catch and poison flies.
They seem to be especially prolific this year. When I was in the UP in late September, they were everywhere, and they're flourishing in Leelanau too. I don’t recall seeing so many before. It’s fascinating how some years are “good years” for certain things.
If it’s raining and you’re not in the mood for a hike, you can always admire fly agaric shrooms by…playing Mario Bros! [Queue the “dootdootdoot—dootdoot—doot” soundtrack.]