7 October 2021
This month I have a late plant, a weird fungus and a large mushroom for you to forage for. Find out where to look for Hen of the Woods, the parasol and the water pepper plant, below.
September…what a write off. The warm, dry days ruined the mushroom season in my area! October, however, has started out much wetter so we may be in for a better month for finding our fungal friends. You should use this article as a guide but always consult a good field guide to confirm your identifications. Wherever you explore this month, only ever pick and eat something from the wild if YOU are 100% sure that YOU know what it is.
Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa)
This wonderful species is large and pretty with an interesting shape, commonly growing at the base of oak trees. For 15 years I actually saw them every single year in a spot near my old house. This year, Hen of the Woods is doing very well, producing up to 5kg from the base of a single oak tree.
So let’s learn to identify this species. The Hen of the Woods would only be confused with Chicken of the Woods by name, the latter being a more brightly coloured species (Sulphur Polypore) found growing higher up on oak trees. Sulphur Polypore is still edible but must be cooked thoroughly. The drabber, browner Hen of the Woods could be mistaken for Giant Polypore (Meripilus giganteus). This species is much bigger and is more common on beech or sycamore (it is still edible but very bitter). Hen of the Woods has lots of fronds whereas Giant Polypore has much bigger ‘shelf-like’ growths. Grifola frondosa also has a strong, fungally, almost meaty smell, which might help you identify this species.
You may see Hen of the Woods being sold as Maitake, a prized mushroom in some parts of the world. You can actually buy it online and in capsule form, as people use it for its nutrient benefits. I love to chop it up and stir fry it with a nice plum sauce. When cooked the texture of this fungus is almost meat-like but make sure you cook it through.
The Parasol (Macrolepiota Procera)
The Parasol is a real stunner. A very big mushroom, its generally considered to be the largest mushroom we have in Europe! It can be seen from quite a distance as the large fruiting bodies stand out when they’re growing in fields and meadows.
This mushroom occurs in Autumn, identified by its bulbous base, ring on the stem and ‘spots’ on the cap. These features can make people wary though, as they’re associated with some of the poisonous Amanitas family. The parasol differs as its cap surface is scaly rather than spotty. The ring on its stem is also almost free and can move around, rather than being rigged like others.
When they start to grow, Macrolepiota procera look a bit like chicken drumsticks, but the cap quickly opens up to form the ‘parasol’ that gives them their name. They are quite a dry mushroom, not slimy in the slightest, but they shrivel up a lot when you cook with them. The parasol is such a tasty mushroom and chopped into large pieces, battered and deep fried they’re one of my favourites.
To work out whether a mushroom you find is another member of the Parasol family, look out for its ‘snake-skin’ pattern on the stem, something that the similar Shaggy Parasol (Chlorophyllum rhacodes) would not have. When you are cutting this mushroom it also won’t turn strongly orange/red, unlike others in the family. The extended Parasol family does have some poisonous members, but these are generally smaller than the 20cm+ caps of this mushroom.
Water Pepper (Persicaria hydropiper)
Water Pepper is a fantastic plant, it really tantalizes your taste buds. You get those strong peppery notes through in just one bite of the leaves, this is not a plant you want a lot of. Add a few leaves to any salad to pack a punch.
You can find this plant in a range of habitats like the edges of ponds, river-banks and damp meadows. I forage for mine in a local reservoir when the water level drops later in the year. Water pepper emerges from the newly exposed mud and quickly covers the area in the autumn.
Water pepper does have some look a likes in the Persicaria family which includes plants like Redshank (Persicaria maculosa). Water-pepper however can be identified by its pale pink, drooping flowers and narrow leaves. The oval shaped leaves don’t have a dark spot like Redshank does. The leaves have a strong peppery taste but don’t taste this plant unless you are 100% sure that you know what it is.
Keeping this plant can be difficult as it doesn’t dry well and it loses most of its peppery notes when cooked. Water pepper is best used fresh in salads, or chop the leaves up and add it to a soup for extra pepperiness. It does flower well into early winter so long as the frosts do not damage it too much, so you have plenty of time to forage for this plant.
So, there are your three species to look for in October, next month we will start to look for a few late Autumn species. In the meantime wherever you explore this month, only ever pick and eat something from the wild if YOU are 100% sure that YOU know what it is.