Foraging for Oyster Mushrooms
Mushroom hunting! It's one of my new favorite obsessions! I often discuss the collection of free food on this blog, but mushrooms are one of my all time favorite foraged foods. Not only are they super yummy and good for you, they are SO expensive at the store, so I always feel great about finding them.
While there are hundreds of delectable and medicinal mushrooms out there for the taking, I am going to be discussing the famous oysters in this post. To be specific I am going to be talking about Pleurotus pulmonarius, or the summer oyster, because this is the species you are most likely to find right now.
While it is in the same genus, P. pulmonarius is not what most would call the "true oyster": Pleurotus ostreatus. Although there is some discussion about whether these truly are different species or not, it is fairly widely accepted that they are. The main difference is that P. pulmonarius prefers much warmer weather than P. ostreatus, meaning that is if generally only found in the summer time, while the true oyster can be found in spring and fall and even winter is some places. I've heard accounts of people finding true oysters as early as March and as late as November in Wisconsin! That's one cold hardy mushroom! The true oysters are also generally darker in color with a cap color ranging from tan to brown. P. pulmonarius, on the other hand, has what Zak refers to as a "ghostly white". This is a great trait when hunting for these little guys as they almost seem to glow.
Confused yet? Well I hate to break it to you, but there is actually one more species of oyster that grows wild. It's the P. populinus, which tends to grow only on aspens and cottonwoods. Luckily for us, though, oysters do not have any poisonous look alikes. There are a few species that could potentially be confused with them, but they merely taste bad and won't harm you. Oyster mushrooms are totally safe to eat, but they should be heated to at least 140 degrees Fahrenheit before consumption to destroy the heat sensitive toxin ostreolysin.
How to Identify P. pulmonarius
As I mentioned above, summer oysters are snow white on both the cap and the almost always nonexistent stem. While younger mushrooms can have a short stem, older specimens tend to have less of one the older and larger they get. The caps of young ones tend to curl in but they unfurl and get wavy as they grow larger. While not huge, the caps of this species can range from 1.5" to 6" (thats 4-15 cm for our international friends).
These are very young oysters, only an inch or two across. They still have large stems and furled caps.
These oysters are much older and were about 3-4 inches across. As you can see, they have unfurled completely and are starting to get wavy caps. They also have only small, stubby stems that are hidden underneath the caps.
Oysters do tend to grow in clusters, though, so if you see one always look for more; they love to grow in hard to reach places, such as the undersides of elevated logs. This species of oyster grows only on dead and dying hardwoods, although the true oyster is spotted on conifers occasionally.
Oysters have large white gills that are packed close together. This is a great defining characteristic of the oyster but can also harbor insects as they get older. If you see a lot of bugs on your mushrooms, don't pick them. They are too far gone and are not ideal for eating so it is best just to leave them to continue their natural cycles. Many insects, such as fungus gnats, horned fungus beetles, and snow fleas not only consume, but take shelter in these mushrooms, spreading spores and helping the fungus spread throughout the forest. Oyster mushrooms are also eaten by larger animals, including white tailed deer, eastern box turtles, and eastern gray squirrels. Everything in nature is eat or get eaten, so while there are many species that love to eat oysters, a few aren't so lucky. Oyster mushrooms are amazing because they are one of the few fungi species that is actually carnivorous. Yes, you heard that right, they will actually prey upon bacteria and nematodes, paralyzing them with extracellular toxins before consuming them from the inside out! Yikes!
Oyster mushrooms play a vital role in our ecosystems and that is why you should always practice sustainable harvesting methods. For mushrooms, this means taking only 30% of the fruiting bodies, cutting them off with a knife so as not to disturb the mycelium, and carrying them in a mesh bag so you can spread spores through the forest as you walk home. You'll be like the Johnny Appleseed of mushrooms (more like Johnny Mushroomspore) and have these tasty treats for years to come!
Why Should I Eat Oysters?
Not only do oyster mushrooms provide a valuable service to the forest by feeding and housing its critters and decomposing wood, they have great benefits for humans too. Not only are they really very tasty, especially when sautéed in butter, these nematode eating fungi are super healthy for you! Since they are so excellent at eating consuming tiny organisms, they are actually quite antibacterial and have been shown to kill both E. coli and staphylococcus. There has also been work done to see if these mushrooms could be helpful to farmers in reducing pests in the soil. This kind of method could one day be a great alternative to dangerous pesticides. Plus, all of that predation means that oysters are higher in protein and nitrogen than other fungi species. They can have up to 30% protein by dry weight! Not only are oyster mushrooms chock full of vital nutrients, they may have strong medicinal properties as well. There is research being done to understand how oyster mushrooms could help patients suffering from high cholesterol and even cancer! In one study oysters outperformed both enoki and shiitake mushrooms in killing cancer cells when extracted in alcohol.
I want to eat these mushrooms but I can't find any!
Don't worry! Oysters are becoming more and more common in local grocery stores and farmers markets, especially food co-ops and specialty asian stores. Plus, they are one of the easiest mushrooms to grow as they will grow on almost any fiber, including wood, sawdust, newspaper, and straw. It's easy! For only $20 Fungi Perfecti will send you a big ol' brick of sawdust spawn and all you have to do is water it! I swear I'm not sponsored by them, I just love this company- it's where I buy all my mushroom spawn, including my precious reishi!
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Resources Used in This Post
Disclaimer: This blog is just my own opinion, nothing more. While I try my hardest, everything may not be completely accurate or complete. Sorry, I'm only human, so do not hold me accountable for anything you do to harm yourself or the world around you. I do make money from this blog (seriously not very much at all guys). If you click on any of the links in my blog I may make money from it, at no extra cost to you. I'm not sponsored by any of these people I just honestly love these products and want to give you the resources to find them. I am not a medical practitioner; consult a health professional before using any herbal remedies. I am not claiming to diagnose, treat, prevent, or cure any ailment.