Twigs crackled and snapped, green burrs tugged clothing, and the tail of a black Labrador named Clarence tick-tocked as he followed his owner, Kevin Doyle, through the dappled woods of St. Joseph, Minn.
“There,” said Doyle, pointing to a spot of orange-yellow peeking through fallen leaves. “Can you see the chanterelles?”
Hunkering down, he gently examined the bright clusters, looking for fresh caps with rounded edges and the promise of a tasty sauté.
Doyle spends his days cultivating oyster and shitake mushrooms in humid sections of a historic barn. He also sells wholesale and sources edible fungi from across the country for grocers through his business Forest Mushrooms. But as the day winds down, the allure of wild mushrooms coaxes him into the neighboring woods.
“This is more of a sport for me,” he said.
Minnesota mushrooms tend to get the most love in the spring when morels become the annual obsession for foragers hungry for the first score after a long winter. But late summer and fall are when the woods yield the biggest array of Minnesota mushrooms ripening and ready for frying pans and appetites.
Doyle, 59, has been hunting his property and a neighbor’s rolling acres for 15 years. He knows when and where to look among the earthy, leaf-littered slopes, specific trees and rotting stumps for varieties such as black trumpets, maitake (also known as hen of the woods, not to be confused with chicken of the woods), hedgehog, lobster and porcini mushrooms. In mid-August he found himself scrambling home at dusk with a motherlode: close to 26 pounds of orange-and-red-striated chicken of the woods that sprouted like a ruffled multi-tiered shelf on an oak tree.
“I get kind of fanatical when the pickings are really good,” he said. “I can’t stop.”
It’s an addiction that strikes many, a seasonal urge to forage and revel in the finds.
Kathy Yerich, co-author of “Mushrooms of the Upper Midwest: A Simple Guide to Common Mushrooms” with Teresa Marrone, remembers seeing chicken of the woods growing on one of her grandma’s trees in Forest Lake.
“People used to drive by and ask if they could have it,” she said. When she finally tried it herself, she also won over her husband — who’s not always eager to eat new foods — by serving pasta and meaty bits of mushroom.
“It really does look like chicken meat,” she said.
Chicken of the woods sparked her interest and led her to join the Minnesota Mycological Society, which has close to 330 members with a core group of experts who host weekly forays into the forest throughout the summer and fall.
“It’s scary to go by yourself for the first time,” Yerich said.
A typical foray, usually on public lands or in state and regional parks, includes breaking into small groups for a morning hunt, she said. Everyone brings back their finds, and the more expert members can help examine gills and pores, caps and stems and other fungi details needed for the right identification. Then, there is an afternoon hunt for anyone hungry for more.
Some society members focus on visual finds, collecting photos of bizarre fungi such as aptly named “dead man’s fingers” and delicate coral mushrooms. Amanita muscaria mushrooms look fairy tale-like with orange or reddish caps and white speckles. As citizen scientists, society members log what grows in Minnesota and add to mycological databases.
For other members, it’s about edible finds, such as hen of the woods (also known as sheep’s head), which is starting to show up with cooler late-summer nights. Yerich especially enjoys its firm, meaty texture and its earthy, classic mushroom taste. Often growing at the base of trees, it’s a little like chicken of the woods in that it can be a sizable score, weighing 5 to 10 pounds.
Mycological Society members Sarah Foltz Jordan and her husband, Nick Jordan, also love spending a day searching the woods for tasty finds such as black trumpets, and sometimes take along their 5-year-old son. They offer a few mushroom workshops each year, usually including a guided foray and cooking demonstrations with mushrooms.
“I think there’s a growing interest in local food in general,” Foltz Jordan said. “Trying wild foods is a great way to go. It’s kind of like a lost knowledge.”
Even certified experts such as Doyle don’t know every one of the approximately 5,000 varieties of fungi that grow in Minnesota. There are plenty of non-descript “LBM’s” — little brown mushrooms — he simply passes by on the hunt for something more appetizing.
Coming across a deceptively innocent-looking solo mushroom, conversation turns ominous.
“That’s called a destroying angel,” he said. “A third of that will kill a person. It looks nice and white, but you’d need a liver transplant. That’s the only way to survive it.”
The bottom line: Don’t mess with mushrooms. Stick with what you know — or enjoy for that matter. One person’s favorite mushroom may be too chewy, stringy or tough for someone else.
“Just because something’s not toxic doesn’t mean it is edible,” Doyle said. And while it’s crucial to safely identify the tastiest mushrooms, it takes more experience to watch the weather for rain that can trigger growth, and to be able to harvest mushrooms at just the right stage when they’re still young and moist but not soggy, overripe and musty or dried out by wind.
Doyle carefully sliced stems of brilliantly colored chanterelles, examined them, and cast off those with too many tunnels up the stem, which signals bug infestation — a problem for many hunters this season.
The Jordans are often asked if harvesting wild mushrooms will hurt the plant, but it shouldn’t if you take a good knife for cleanly cutting the mushroom stem rather than pulling it from the soil or a tree.
“The bulk of the mushroom is underground,” said Foltz Jordan, and it should fruit annually. “Picking a mushroom is like picking an apple off a tree.”
Good mushroom etiquette also requires using a mesh bag or a ventilated basket for collecting them. It keeps air circulating and lets mushroom spores drop and scatter into the woods, planting more mushrooms and ensuring a fresh treasure hunt for future foragers.
“[Collecting mushrooms] opens up a whole new world of wild edibles,” Foltz Jordan said. “They’re tastes and textures you can’t get in the grocery store.”
Lisa Meyers McClintick, St. Cloud-based author of “Day Trips From the Twin Cities,” writes about travel and the outdoors. (lisamcclintick.com)