I’ll admit: My enthusiasm for mushroom hunting wanes ever so slightly in the winter months. Of course, the anticipation to locate, identify, and harvest select members of the fungal community never perishes, though its intensity remains somewhat tempered compared to the escalating excitement I experience during the late spring, summer, and autumn forays.
You see, winters in western Pennsylvania are cold. Last year, a record was set when the temperature dropped to -9°F (okay, I suppose it could be worse, though this is indeed cold for Pennsylvania!). Compound this variable with the seasonal ice, snow, and numerous sunless days, and it’s not hard to see why many foragers in the Northeastern United States hang up their mushroom baskets for the season. It’s not that we, as human mycophiles, cannot tolerate these wintery conditions (polar plunging is a favorite pastime of mine); rather, the fungi themselves – at least the ones considered prized edibles – generally require slightly different circumstances in order to produce fruiting bodies.
Fair enough. Nature knows best, and who could ever argue with that?
But wait! “Fewer” does not imply “none.” The hillsides, fields, woodlands, trees, fallen logs, and stumps may not necessarily be teeming with an over-abundance of salient mushroom fruiting bodies in the winter months, yet mushrooms can certainly still be found. In fact, quite a few can be harvested, not just for identification, but for the table as well.
Below, I describe 8 species that can be found here in western Pennsylvania (and generally the Northeastern United States) during the winter months. Of course, many more exist, and if you are interested in locating and identifying these, I’d love for you to join me on a winter plant and mushroom ID hike (see LearnYourLand for more information).
For now though, here are 8 reasons why you should dust that ol’ mushroom basket off and throw on an extra layer (or two).
Update: I recently filmed a winter mushroom hunting video, featuring several fungi not described in this post. Check it out in addition to reading the rest of the article!
Now onto the list:
Late fall oyster (Panellus serotinus)
The late fall oyster mushroom (Panellus serotinus) is a cold-weather fungus traditionally eaten in Japan, where it is known as Mukitake. It has a wide distribution in the United States, and is very common in Pennsylvania. It’s a tough mushroom, one that requires slow, long cooking for best texture and flavor. Still, to get wild nutrition and medicine into your body, the late fall oyster mushroom can easily satisfy that need.
Speaking of medicine, research has shown that Panellus serotinus possesses anti-tumor and immuno-modulating activities, like many medicinal mushrooms (1). This is primarily due to its concentration of beta-glucans, which can easily be extracted through prolonged hot water decoctions (teas, soups). The late fall oyster mushroom, as shown in animal studies, also displays protection against non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and dyslipidemia (2).
Not bad for a log-decomposer who doesn’t ask for much.
Look for this mushroom on dead hardwood logs and branches in the autumn and early winter months. Colors vary – I’ve seen blends of grey, orange, yellow, and green. Look-alikes include the mock oyster (Phyllotopsis nidulans), though its cap is mostly orange, and its smell is rather unpleasant. Panellus serotinus also resembles the classic oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus), though the latter rarely contains shades of yellow/orange, can be much bigger, and is a choice edible anyway.
To learn more, check out this video featuring identification and medicinal benefits:
Oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus)
Oh hey, oyster mushroom. We were just talking about you (see 2 paragraphs up).
This popular mushroom is fairly common, and while it didn’t quite make my immediate list of 5 easy-to-identify edible mushrooms, it would most likely be ranked #6 in ease of identification. Characteristics of the oyster mushroom generally include a smooth white (sometimes gray) cap, white gills, white to pale-lilac spore print, broad growth in clusters, and a substrate that usually includes hardwood logs (rarely conifers) and stumps.
Oysters are choice edible mushrooms. They can be buggy though, and if this is true for your harvest, soak them in a bit of saltwater first before cooking (not usually a problem in the winter months). While they are included on this winter mushroom identification list, oysters can be found year round on stumps, logs, or trees. Always remember your spot, as they tend to reappear in the same place year after year.
To learn more about oyster mushrooms, check out this video in which I discuss identification, medicinal benefits, and more.
Brick caps (Hypholoma sublateritium)
Brick caps are edible mushrooms that improve in taste as the year progresses. They can usually be found in the autumn months through winter, though they become less bitter generally after the first frost.
This is not necessarily a beginner’s mushroom. Brick caps resemble sulfur tufts (Hypholoma fasciculare), poisonous mushrooms that grow within the same season (I found sulfur tufts not too far from where this picture was taken).
Both species grow in clusters on decaying wood and produce purple-brown spore prints, though brick caps have reddish caps (paler at the margins) with grayish-purplish brown gills, and sulfur tufts usually have greenish yellow caps with greenish yellow gills (becoming darker with age).
Beyond edibility, brick caps are quite medicinal. A compound known as clavaric acid has been isolated from this species (3). Clavaric acid has been shown to act as an effective FPTase inhibitor, which in non-medical speak translates to “a compound that may impede cancer proliferation.” Research suggests that these inhibitors, of which clavaric acid is one, may be effective particularly against colorectal, pancreatic, and lung cancers (4).
If you’d like to learn more about brick caps, check out this recent video I created while hiking in the woods one day. Another winter species (not described in this article) is also discussed in the video, so you may want to hit the play button to find out what it is…
Velvet foot (Flammulina velutipes)
There is no doubt that this species enjoys cold weather temperatures, as velvet foot can usually be found from October through early spring. A cultivated version is popular in East Asian cooking, though its appearance differs somewhat from the velvet foot found in the wild. Regardless, both are edible.
Velvet foot (also known as enoki, enokitake, golden needle) can be recognized by its slimy orangish-brown cap, white gills, velvety-brown stalk, and growth in clusters on deciduous logs (usually elm). It produces a white spore print, which helps to distinguish this species from a toxic look-alike, the deadly Galerina (Galerina marginata). The deadly Galerina produces a rusty brown spore print and dons a ring on its non-velvety stem. The seasons for both Flammulina velutipes and Galerina marginata overlap somewhat, though with an understanding of these key differences, discernment should be easy.
A choice edible, velvet foot is also medicinal. Studies have shown that certain biologically active compounds derived from this mushroom (fiber and polysaccharides) help to reduce blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol (5). Velvet foot also possesses immunomodulatory compounds, which have been shown in studies to inhibit lung cancer cell migration and proliferation (6).
Chaga (Inonotus obliquus)
Because I have yet to create the “Top 5 Sclerotia To Harvest In Winter” article, chaga will have to be included here. It’s true, the chaga fungus pictured above is not necessarily a “mushroom” in the truest sense of the word, but rather a sclerotium – a compacted, hardened mass of mycelia.
Additionally, and like the oyster mushroom, chaga is not strictly a winter mushroom. Rather, it can be found year round, though it has been my experience that it is easier to find during the winter months for two reasons: 1) vegetation is minimal (leaves, tall grasses, shrubs, forbs), and 2) the dark colors of this fungus contrast nicely against the winter snow. Both of these reasons make spotting chaga, especially from a distance, much easier in winter.
Be aware that if you plan to harvest chaga in colder temperatures (below freezing), the fungus may be frozen to the tree. If using a metal tool (for example, an ax), be careful not to strike the tree, and only harvest the actual chaga fungus itself. While I have included it on this list of winter mushrooms, I actually find it a bit easier to harvest during the warmer temperatures, as I can use my bare hands to aid in removal from the tree. Therefore any unnecessary damage to the host tree is kept at a minimum.
Chaga, a medicinal fungus used for centuries in traditional Siberian medicine, typically inhabits the circumpolar boreal forests of the world. While it grows almost exclusively on birch trees, it has also been spotted on elm, ash, beech, and ironwood trees.
For detailed information on how to locate and identify this incredible fungus, please check out a recent piece I created on this very subject, entitled Is This Chaga? A Key For Identifying This Remarkable Fungus (that’s a clickable link, by the way).
And for a recipe using the chaga fungus as a base for an upgraded hot chocolate, please check out this additional clickable link: Bulletproof Hot Chaga Chocolate Recipe
Turkey tail (Trametes versicolor)
One particular fungus really begins to shine this time of year when hardly a mushroom wishes to poke its fruiting body from the earth. I am referring to the aptly named turkey tail fungus.
Turkey tail is not difficult to locate, as it’s one of the most ubiquitous fungi found in our woodlands. Look around at the logs, stumps, and fallen branches in your neck of the woods – and you may eventually discover turkey tail.
Other species within the Trametes genus resemble turkey tail, though the latter can be distinguished by its multicolored concentric zones and whitish pores on the underside. Look-alike fungi usually lack the brilliant colors of turkey tail, or they may be hairier (Trametes hirsuta). Additionally, look-alikes may lack pore surfaces (genus Stereum), or their pores may be colored.
Turkey tail is not necessarily edible (too tough), though it sure is medicinal. One particular study found that turkey tail can improve immune system status in immuno-compromised breast cancer patients following conventional cancer treatment (7). These findings are extremely important, as the study was not conducted on animals, nor in petri dishes, but rather on living human subjects.
A more recent human trial (again – not in animals, nor in petri dishes) found that a polysaccharide extracted from turkey tail mycelia displayed prebiotic effects in the human microbiome (stimulating the growth and maintenance of beneficial intestinal bacteria). In the same study, participants who were instead fed Amoxicillin (an antibiotic) demonstrated detrimental shifts towards more pathogenic bacteria in their microbiome, with effects lasting up to 42 days after their final antibiotic dose (8).
Turkey tail is a pleasure to hunt in the late autumn and winter months – its cap providing stunning visuals amongst the senescing vegetation – though like oyster mushrooms and chaga, this fungus can be found year-round.
To learn more about the turkey tail fungus, check out this video:
Birch polypore (Piptoporus betulinus)
This is one of the most common fungi found in birch forests, and like a few other mushrooms described in this post, it can be found year-round. Now, some sources report that it is best to harvest this fungus in the summer months into early fall, and I suspect this is because the growing season for the birch polypore generally includes these seasons. Hence, young specimens (which are preferred for collection) are prolific during this time. I have included the birch polypore with this list of winter mushrooms because, at least here in Pennsylvania, young fruiting bodies can indeed be found at least into January (the above photo was taken in late-December, 2013).
The birch polypore is fairly easy to recognize. It typically has a tan cap with inrolled margins, a whitish pore surface, and a somewhat tough (though not rock-hard) texture. Growth is almost exclusive on living or dead paper and yellow birch trees.
A multipurpose fungus, its utility extends far beyond food and medicine into the survival realms of fire making and blood coagulation. Medicinally, birch polypore has been shown to be an important species with anticancer, antimicrobial, antiviral, and antibacterial properties.
To receive the concentrated power within the birch polypore, you can use freshly picked young specimens, thinly sliced and boiled, as food. Teas and tinctures can be made as well. This fungus contains betulinic acid (9) – the same compound in chaga, derived from the birch tree, that confers several health benefits (anti-tumor, anti-cancer).
It has been my experience that the birch polypore is much more common than chaga (more frequent sightings, more fruiting bodies). It seems that medicinal diversity is essential for great health, and cycling between chaga and birch polypore (instead of relying solely on chaga) can benefit not only the health of the boreal forests, but our personal health as well.
To learn more about the birch polypore, check out this video:
Wood ear (Auricularia auricula)
While hunting mushrooms in the early summer days, you may discover this species. While hunting mushrooms in autumn and early winter, you may also discover this species. The wood ear, also known as the jelly ear, is an edible mushroom found throughout the year, usually growing in clusters on logs, branches, and stumps of both coniferous and deciduous trees. Characteristics of this mushroom include its cup-shaped, ear-like appearance, its reddish-brown color, rubbery to gelatinous texture, and a surface that usually includes minutely fine hairs.
The wood ear is indeed edible and, like many mushrooms, it also possesses numerous medicinal properties. Studies have shown that the wood ear contains anti-viral, antioxidant, anti-tumor, and immuno-supportive compounds (10, 11, 12, 13). Additionally, a water soluble polysaccharide from this mushroom has been shown to reduce triglyceride, LDL-cholesterol, and total cholesterol levels in animal studies (14).
Note: The Northeastern North American version of wood ear may be Auricularia angiospermarum.
Blewit (Clitocybe nuda, Lepista nuda)
Okay, I couldn’t stop at 8. Can you blame me though? Consider this one a bonus, and instead of explaining this beautiful mushroom through text alone, I thought I’d introduce you to the blewit mushroom through video. If you’re interested in learning its key identifying characteristics, hit the play button!
How about that?
In case you’re just joining the party, we’re finishing up a discussion on 9 mushroom species we can harvest during the winter months (at least in the Northeastern United States) for food and medicine.
Now, this list isn’t exclusive. Surely, there are many more for which I haven’t provided detailed analyses, including:
- Bitter oyster (Panellus stipticus), a bioluminescent mushroom (meaning, it glows in the dark)
- Amber jelly roll (Exidia recisa), a winter fungus typically found on willow twigs
- Artist’s conk (Ganoderma applanatum), a perennial polypore
- Red-belted polypore (Fomitopsis pinicola), a perennial polypore
- Tinder fungus (Fomes fomentarius), a perennial polypore
…and so on.
During your next winter excursion, see what kinds of cold-loving fungi can be found. The number may be greater than you think.
Yes, I know … I opened up this article by expressing a slight ebbing to the excitement I feel for winter mushroom hunting. Personally though, it is a rewarding activity, for even in the midst of “the great biological nap” (aka winter), a harvest – heck, even a sighting! – of just two or three fruiting mushroom bodies can seem like I’ve hit the jackpot.
Yes, this is how I feel even after finding a single mushroom during a winter walk. Am I alone on this one? Let me know, I’d love to hear from you!
Thanks for reading, and as always … happy foraging!
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