In mid-August I found a big puffball up on Pennsylvania Mountain and it ushered in a new addiction in the realm of wild edible plants—mushrooms!
My eyes suddenly opened to a whole new world of fungus, I began to discover mushrooms everywhere, only to find out later from an article in the Denver Post (“MAD about mushrooms: A foray for fungi”) that owing to the heat and constant rains we had in July and August, this has been one of the best mushroom seasons in Colorado history.
Too bad I had to go away during the height of it. I traveled to Los Angeles for a wedding and then to Burning Man in the Nevada desert (where there are no plants), coming home just in time for my birthday, for which I received five wonderful mushroom identification books as gifts—but the earth was dry as a bone and the mushrooms gone. Talk about bad timing.
There are many reasons to wish for rain, but I have been doing so in the hopes of bringing back the mushrooms at least once more before I put away my knife, scissors, and foraging bags in exchange for snow boots, shovel, and a whole new mentality. As this past month progressed, however, I began to give up hope that the mushrooms would reappear, seeing as it already October now and with one wonderful exception about a week and a half ago, it has not rained for an entire month. So much for mushrooms.
And then yesterday I went out on a rare non-foraging hike around the neighborhood, where, instead of foraging, I immersed myself in a good book and walked around reading, for the most part blind to my surroundings. Towards the end of Gold Trail, two cars passed by—somewhat of an anomaly, as the road gets little traffic. But it distracted me from my book and when I was done watching the cars, my eyes found plentiful rosettes of small, wiry fall dandelions amidst the grass that grows part-way into the side of the road, and then—a big, white mushroom. A mushroom, of all things, growing halfway into the road right through the hard-packed sand and dirt!
The mushroom was tall with a creamy white stem and cap closed down around it like a nearly-shut umbrella. Instead of smooth, the umbrella-cap itself was slightly shaggy with a patterned texture surface, the highest-up-part of which was scaly with brown—dirt, I thought. Nearby were the dead and drying stalks of its cousins, all missing caps and with stems terminating in dark, inky black.
I recognized the mushroom as a “shaggy mane,” a gilled mushroom from one of my books, so I picked it to confirm my tentative identification at home. The neighbor’s dog followed me and my book and my mushroom all the way home, so when I got there I traded the mushroom and the literature for identification guides and Gregg and headed back out to walk the dog home.
About Shaggy Mane
Shaggy mane is a common name for Coprinus comatus, an ink cap mushroom also known as “lawyer’s wig” or simply “shag” for its appearance. It is edible—some of the books said “choice” —but you have to eat it right away because it starts decomposing into spore-laden black goo (Mushrooms of Colorado, by Vera Stucky Evenson, 1997) that should not be eaten . Also, you can tell when a shaggy mane is overripe because it opens up like a parasol and starts getting inky from the outside of the cap to the center. A younger mushroom good for eating has a still-mostly-closed parasol, has not started turning black and gooey, and can have a pinkish color on the inside. In All That the Rain Promises and More (1991), David Arora likens the shaggy manes’ appearance to soldiers marching “in groups or troops” along a path or road.
“It’s definitely a shaggy mane. Do you agree? Are we going to eat it?” Gregg asked as I read through the three guides in my hand.
Shaggy manes have a hollow stem, check. Shaggy manes begin to turn black when you cut them, check. And so forth—until I determined that we should eat the mushroom straight away. (Always cross-reference several guides when you attempt to identify a mushroom. This author will not be held responsible.)
Don’t Drink with the Cousin
I scanned for cautionary advice and found out in Mushrooms of Colorado that a related species, Coprinus atramentarius, a.k.a. “the Alcohol Inky Cap,” should never be eaten with alcohol lest you become sick from the combination, and can be distinguished from C. comatus by its smoother, nonshaggy, brown-gray caps. From this I took the precautionary measure not to drink alcohol with C. comatus, either, even though Evenson’s advice pertained to its cousin, C. atramentaius.
Cooked It Up and Ate It
When we arrived home again, I cut off the black part, set aside a portion of the cap and stem for the toxicologist should we end up in dire mushroomy straights (incorrect mushroom identification can make you sick or worse), sliced up the rest of it, and fried it in olive oil on very low heat. I ate mine with Balsamic vinegar while Gregg ate his plain. The fungi fried up to a pleasing golden color and texture was soft and good. The flavor was strong enough that I could taste it through the vinegar.
“Mushroomy,” Gregg said, his mouth full. Exactly.
I also learned from several of the books that shaggy manes are so hardy they can push their way through pavement, despite the fact that they are still soft, luscious mushrooms. This helps me understand how I found “the shag” and its mutilated cousins growing out of the roadpack. Arora (1991) says these guys like cool or cold weather, which is also fitting with our current clime here above 11,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies.
Gut in Good Spirits
Almost 18 hours have now passed since Gregg and I consumed our first shaggy mane mushroom, and all’s well in the stomach region. We have the inkifying remains of shaggy mane samples in the refrigerator, and since the inky part is how the mushroom disperses its spores for reproduction, I plan to deposit its remains around the house as soon as the sun comes up. (Gregg did some big puffball spore relocation yesterday too, so we are hoping for a wild mushroom garden next year.)
But seriously, what a treat to find a mushroom in these mushroomless times, and when I wasn’t looking, either—when I least expected it!