Honey mushrooms, Armillaria mellea, are one of those highly underutilized wild edibles. In fact, many foragers don’t even know about them, sticking with the more well known and sought after species, such as chicken of the woods, oyster, and chanterelle mushrooms. Up until a couple of days ago I had heard of them, I’m sure I had probably even seen them, but I had never harvested any until I went out mushroom hunting with my new friend, Andrew, who works here at Hawk Circle with Zak. He’s a pretty hard core mycology fan and shared a lot of new information with us. Between the three of us, we ended up finding and harvesting 7 different edible or medicinal varieties of mushrooms in three hours, including mostly honey mushrooms, lions mane, chicken of the woods, chaga (harvested for hand drill fires), reishi, hedgehog, and puffball mushrooms. This bounty, combined with some massive veggies from the garden covered our entire kitchen table, and almost all of it went into a massive stir fry later that night.
As well as being a mushroom guru, Andrew is also a flintknapper and traditional bow maker. Check out his website to learn more about the products and courses he offers!
I had never tried honey mushrooms before, some say they taste a little bland or bitter, but they tasted just as great as any other edible mushroom I’ve tried. Honey mushrooms are mainly found in the Eastern half of the United States in the autumn, although they grow at different times in the rest of North and South America, Europe, Africa, Australia, and Asia. They are best harvested when small and the caps have not completely opened and flattened. Some report that large mushrooms of this species become bitter when they are too large, but they often grow in such large quantities that finding small specimens is not difficult, although they can grow on their own as a single mushroom. Either way, it is best to harvest as soon as they come out.
Honey mushrooms grow on living and dead hardwoods, especially oak, although they can sometimes be found on conifers as well. Although some may seem to be growing terrestrially, they are growing on a buried root or branch as they only grow on wood and other vegetation. They have a tendency to grow in urban lawns and parks and are the bane of arborists and some gardeners, as they can kill living trees quite quickly and even some crops, especially cabbages.
Armillaria mellea can range in color from a golden honey, hence the name, to brown, almost black, and even reddish. They are most often tannish with a darker spot at the center of the top of the cap. Their caps can be smooth or scaled. They are distinguishable from other mushrooms as their gills often extend somewhat down the stem. There is often a ring around the stem, although this may be partially or completely absent depending on their age and species, namely the ringless honey mushroom. Young specimens often have a thin veil covering some or all of the gills down to the ring. Although they are all called honey mushrooms, there are actually about a dozen species of Armillaria that fall into this category. They are mostly indistinguishable, though, to all but the most avid mycologist with access to lab equipment. There is no reason to attempt to separate the species, other than for the sport of it, as they are all edible and taste about the same. It is still important to positively identify your haul as Armillaria, though, as they do have some vague, but potentially dangerous, look alikes that could be confused if you were harvesting without discretion.
Honey mushrooms have a white spore print. Their closest look alike here in New York, the Galerina mushroom, has a sticky yellow-brown cap and an orange to brown spore print. Galerina also has a much more distinguished white ring around the stem, gills that stop abruptly at the stem, and a much thinner stem that is more brown. It is very important to pay attention to the difference between these two because they do often grow on the same log and some species of Galerina are deadly poisonous (Galerina autumnalist are known as deadly Galerina).
The other look alike that some guides list is the big laughing gym mushroom. Like it’s name suggests, this fungus, if ingested, causes hallucinations and often the feeling of overwhelming hilarity. While there have been no reported poisonings from this species, Gymnopilus spectabilis, ingesting it could still cause harm if ingested. Like Galerina, big laughing gym has a brown to orange spore print, which differentiates it from honey mushrooms. They also have a more yellowish orange cap and stem, although a veil may be present around the gills. Like honey mushrooms, they tend to grow at the base of hardwood trees and can be seen emerging from the grass above the roots which they are growing on. Big laughing gym is extremely bitter, making it difficult to confuse with any edible mushroom, although just one bite could cause several hours of hallucinations.
These three species are very easy to tell apart, though, so there’s no need for fear, all you wild mushroom skeptics out there. Maybe just have a mycology friend help you identify them your first time or even post a photo on a Facebook mushroom ID page, and pay attention to each mushroom you harvest and while cleaning them at home.
The really amazing thing about Armillaria mellea is that a chemical produced by the fungi’s mycelia may cause logs in moist forests to glow a faint blue-green at night. This phenomenon is called fox-fire, which inspired the name of the beloved book Foxfire book series!
Honey mushrooms also reproduce by cloning themselves, so each mushroom in a patch will be genetically identical. This, combined with their ability to colonize a wide variety of living and dead plants, has led them to be one of the most prolific organisms on the planet, occurring widely on every continent except Antarctica and South America. In fact, the largest organism in the world is not a blue whale or even a grove of cloning aspens, but a honey mushroom mycelium that spans thousands of acres underground.
Now that you know what to look for, don’t be surprised if, in the right season you see honeys everywhere! In certain areas, they are one of the most abundant mushrooms to be found and often fill your harvest basket in just a short while. Happy hunting!
**Since individuals react differently to wild mushrooms, it is important to just eat a little bit the first time you eat any mushroom and wait to see if you have a reaction, although the chances are very low. Remember to always practice responsible harvesting techniques, always cutting the mushrooms off with a knife to prevent disturbing the mycelium, carrying harvested fungi in a mesh bag to spread spores, and to leave a portion of what you find to continue to fulfill its ecological purpose.**
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