Foraging for wild mushrooms can be fun but also dangerous. Some mushrooms are fatally toxic and notoriously hard to distinguish from edible ones. Fortunately there are some safe exceptions. One of the happiest things to find in the woods is a bunch of oyster mushrooms. They are easy to recognize, do not closely resemble any toxic fungi, and are a delight to the taste buds. They tend to appear during cool, moist weather so September is a good time to watch for them. We found these during a recent family stroll around University of Guelph Arboretum. They typically appear in moist, mild weather, so September is a good time to find them.
Oyster mushrooms belong to the genus Pleurotus. The ones we found and photographed are probably P. ostreatus, the common oyster mushroom widely available in supermarkets. However, all species of the genus are edible. If you have often purchased them, you will easily recognize them. They grow on dead snags or fallen trees, preferring deciduous species such as beech or poplar.
They usually emerge from the side of the wood, forming overlapping shelves. They have a firm but soft texture, rather than hard like bracket fungi. A distinctive trait and key to identification is their decurrent gills, which means the gills run onto the stem, rather than stopping at the stem as in typical mushrooms. There is no ring or sac around the stem. The top of the cap has no warts or scales. The flesh is white, creamy or light brown.
Oyster mushrooms can be used the same way as button mushrooms. However, their delicate texture and flavour deserves special recognition in my opinion. Sauté them in a little butter, nothing else. I could eat a whole plate of them. Oyster mushrooms produce statins, which stimulate the liver to get rid of LDL cholesterol, so this delicacy is good for cardiovascular health.
On the same walk we found giant puffballs, Calvatia gigantea. They are not uncommon, but these were the first I had ever encountered. Giant puffballs are easy to recognize: big, round, white blobs growing on the ground. They are usually less than 70 cm (28 in) in diameter but sometimes approach twice that size. PUffballs can often be found in urban areas. They like rich soil in grassy areas and open woodlands.
Before eating one, cut it open. If you see the typical structure of a gilled mushroom forming inside, it is not a puffball, best avoided. If solid white, it is still immature and edible. Once it starts to brown inside, the spores are maturing and can cause digestive problems. Outside discolouration means it has begun to rot and is dangerous to eat.
Puffball enthusiasts say they taste like tofu. Some people say they taste like dirt. Understandably they are not the most popular of edible mushrooms. I have never tried one and cannot vouch for their flavour. To prepare it, cut away the outside cuticle. Avoid washing or soaking it, which will make it soggy. The pieces of puffball can be sautéed, grilled or baked.
Never eat wild mushrooms unless you are certain of identification. Confusion can be fatal. They are best learned alongside an experienced mushroom forager. Fortunately for those of us with limited experience, oyster mushrooms and giant puffballs are easy to distinguish.