Mushrooms of California

The mushrooms of California are a world unto themselves and an easy subject to lose one’s self in, especially during the fall and winter, when soaking rains give rise to many a shroom. But if you plan to eat anything you stumble upon in the forest, you better know what you’re doing. Mushrooms are notoriously difficult to identify and the consequences can be severe. When ingested, some fungi will take you on a magical trip; some will even kill you. Others are not just edible, but delicious, nourishing, and prized delicacies of the forest.

A beautiful pair of matsutake mushroom buttons, found and foraged before the caps opened.

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Matsutake Magic

Come along for a walk in the forest as I recall my lucky first discovery of the fabled matsutake mushroom — the king of edible fungi.

Warning!

Never eat a mushroom you cannot identify with 100% certainty. When in doubt, throw it out. Your life is worth more than a few bites of fungi.

Bellybutton Hedgehog Mushroom

Hydnum umbilicatum (sensu CA)

A days forage of beautiful bellybutton hedgehog mushrooms.

As chanterelles start to wane and winter suddenly gives way to the first breaths of spring, the hedgehogs begin poppin’! This rad mushroom gets its name from the teeth-like spikes it has on the underside of its cap instead of gills. This feature also makes them rather easy to identify. Not only are they edible, but considered by many to be a trophy mushroom.

That being said, you’ll often run into folks talking these mushrooms down a bit, especially when comparing them to chanterelles. But hedgehogs are not necessarily better or worse — just different. Chanterelles have a delicate, fruity flavor whereas hedgehogs bring more of the traditional earthiness and umami you’d expect from a mushroom (though they’re still quite mild). The texture is almost identical to a chanterelle. A 50/50 mix of these two mushrooms dry sautéed then cooked with some butter and garlic is divine… if you can find them fruiting at the same time, that is!

Black Trumpet Mushroom

Craterellus calicornucopioides

Young black trumpet mushrooms growing beneath a tanoak tree.

There are so many reason to love black trumpets. To start, they’re utterly delicious. This spring  mushroom will get you part of the way to what a truffle offers. They also dry quickly, store well, and rehydrate beautifully. They’re easy to identify (nothing else really looks like a black trumpet) and there are no toxic lookalikes to worry about.

They’re a blast to forage because while they are difficult to spot amongst the duff, once you see one, you’re likely to find many as they fruit abundantly, sometimes in large clusters and troops. It’s not out of the question to find more than a hundred under one tree and to come home with dozens of pounds if a good spot really goes off.

On California’s North Coast, black trumpets like to grow on steep, tanoak-covered hillsides. Look for mossy areas and exposed soil laden with minerals. Bring a walking stick and tread carefully, though. It’s easy to slip on this terrain, especially when it’s covered in a layer of wet oak leaves.

California King Bolete (aka Porcini)

Boletus edulis var. grandedulis

California King Bolete aka Porcini.
California King Bolete aka Porcini.
California King Bolete aka Porcini.

Here on the North Coast we are blessed with a beautiful flush of California king boletes a week or two after the first soaking rains, usually in November. This is the famous porcini mushroom you see in Italian dishes. It’s a blast to forage because it’s humungous and striking — larger specimens are called “barstools” and local Italian immigrants refer to them as “gambones,” which translates to “big leg.”

Here in Mendocino, King Boletes grow under bishop and shore pine, usually relatively close to the coast. They especially like to grow near trails, roads, meadows, and disturbed areas. It’s not really a mushroom you’ll find growing deep in a dense forest. Clean porcini, like the one picture above, are delicious fresh, but the flavor of these mushrooms only gets better when you dry and preserve them.

Candy Cap Mushroom

Lactarius rubidus

A bowl of fresh candy cap mushrooms

Of all the edible mushrooms in California, candy caps may be the most magical. They’re not much to get on about when you first stumble upon their unremarkable little fruit bodies, which tend to dot the forest floor in abundant troops. But take one home, dry it over the wood stove, and its charm will be unleashed in the form of a scent that somehow smells more like maple syrup than even maple syrup itself. A single mushroom can scent a small home. Dried and powdered, this is a gourmet ingredient that pastry chefs use to flavor everything from cheesecake to ice cream. A mushroom that smells (and tastes) like maple syrup… one more wild trip from the gnarly world of fungi. 

Cat’s Tongue Mushroom

Pseudohydnum gelatinosum

The cat’s tongue mushroom gets its name from the shape of the cap as well as its texture. They’re also called jelly hogs. You’ll find them growing on branches and dead logs. While you don’t want to eat them raw, they’re edible and often candied

California Golden Chanterelle

 

Cantharellus californicus

Chanterelle mushrooms are delicious and therefore heavily foraged. You can even find them in most specialty grocery stores and upscale markets in Northern California. They’re beautiful fungi that smell of apricots and have a firm, meaty texture and slightly sweet flavor. Overall, a very mellow mushroom. Prepare them simply to capture their delicate flavor — perhaps sautéed and folded into scrambled eggs with ham or in a simple sauce with white wine, shallots, and butter spooned atop a local grass-fed steak or a thick piece of wild California king salmon.

Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast by Noah Siegel and Christian Schwarz

Recommended Reading

Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast

Up here on California's North Coast, mushroom foragers refer to this spectacular book as "the Bible." If you're exploring fungi in this neck of the woods — edible or otherwise — all the answers you seek are within this weighty tome. Local, comprehensive, and full of beautiful photos, this is one of my most cherished books. It's a little too big to bring out into the field, but then again, you can always put the digital version on your phone.

Fly Agaric

Amanita Muscaria

The famous Fly Agaric mushroom — aka Amanita muscaria.

With a brilliant red cap covered in a polka-dot smattering of veil warts, Fly Agaric is perhaps the most recognized and mythologized fungi of all. It’s also controversial. To this day, a lot of folks are confused about this mushroom and wonder: Is Fly Agaric toxic or edible? Strangely enough, the answer is both.

Straight up, Amanita muscaria is extremely toxic and mind-altering. It’ll mess you up in a lotta bad ways. You may recognize it as the famous Super Mario Bros. mushroom, which made your player grow larger when consumed in the game. That’s no accident. Fly Agaric was chosen by game developers because one of its known hallucinogenic effects is size distortion. Pretty cool, right?

All that being said, Amanita muscaria is edible, even rumored to be delicious, when processed and prepared via a complex double-boiling technique that involves first peeling the cap. But don’t even think of trying this at home. Unless you count yourself amongst the most experienced of foragers, it’s not worth it. There are plenty of more delicious mushrooms to focus on instead.

Fly Agaric, in my opinion, is a looker; a striking, vibrant mushroom that sucks your eyes into the beauty of the natural world and fills your mind with wonder. It’s also useful here on the Mendocino Coast, where they indicate habitat for one of the most prized edible mushrooms we have: the California King Bolete.

Lobster Mushroom

Hypomyces lactifluorum

This is one gnarly fungi. Lobster mushrooms are not mushrooms at all, but parasitic fungi that grow on mushrooms — usually short-stalked russula. The reddish-orange crust you see is what we refer to as the lobster mushroom, but the familiar shape is the host mushroom it has engulfed. The craziest thing is these are not just edible, but highly sought after, thanks to a mild flavor reminiscent of seafood. I’ve never tried one myself. I’m a little creeped out by the fungi-on-fungi nature of the whole thing, but they sure are striking.

Matsutake

Tricholoma magnivelare

Matsutake mushroom buttons.
A fine haul of matsutakes, the king of edible mushrooms.

The elusive Matsutake is an incredible mushroom — a true gift for any forager who is lucky or skilled enough to stumble upon this prized fungi. They’ve earned a reputation as the king of edible mushrooms, fetching as much as $1,000 per pound in Japan, where they fruit beneath red pines in the fall. With a unique flavor that sends a burst of umami funk dancing down your tongue in a way no other ingredient (let alone mushroom) can, they more than merit that royal distinction.

Oyster Mushroom

Pleurotus ostreatus

Oyster mushrooms

This distinct mushroom, which tends to grow on dead hardwood like tanoak, is considered edible and excellent for the table, though I have to confess I’ve never eaten them myself. You can see in the photo above that their name comes from the shape of the fruit bodies, which resemble oysters. This is one of the first shrooms to flush, making them a great option for foraging while you wait for the chanterelles to pop. 

The Panther

Amanita pantherina

What a rad name… the panther! It makes sense when you look at the coloration of these beauties. The specimens pictured here are a little roached out from the rain, hence the discoloration on the stipes, which would otherwise be whiter. This mushroom is severely toxic — a fungi that’s more for marveling at than eating. They seem to fruit every year in my yard, making a dramatic show of moving the soil as they emerge from beneath the earth.

Pig’s Ear (aka Violet Chanterelle)

Gomphus clavatus

These weird-looking shrooms are purple, veiny, and resemble the ear of a pig (hence the name). They’re edible and highly prized by some gatherers. A friend gave me the one you see here, which he found while we were picking together. I took it home and sautéed it with a couple chanterelles, then folded everything into a skillet full of gooey scrambled eggs. It was delicious, but long enough ago that I don’t remember any distinct tasting notes from the Pig’s Ear mushroom, especially with chanties mixed in. But I do recall it to be a satisfying breakfast, especially after a cold morning in the woods.

Turkey Tail Mushroom

Trametes versicolor

A Turkey Tail mushroom growing in Humboldt Redwoods State Park.

It’s not hard to see where turkey tail mushrooms get their name from. This is a widespread and common fungi, though not all specimens are as brilliantly colored as the one pictured here. You’ll often find them growing on trees and dead logs. It’s not edible, but is sometimes dried and ground up to be consumed in teas for its medicinal benefits.

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