by Danny Miller
I hope everybody had a wonderful summer. Usually there is not much happening in the Pacific Northwest mushroom-wise during this time, due to the long dry spells, but we had a good amount of rain in June! This led to a nice flush of some fall species of mushrooms in July, including a whole lot of chanterelles! I hope you were among the lucky ones to find some. If not, they and all your other favourites should be back later this month, with any luck!
So it’s almost time to think about wild mushrooms again! If you’ve read any books or taken any courses on identifying mushrooms, you’ve probably heard that although we typically think of a mushroom as something that has a cap, stem and gills, they actually come in many different shapes and forms (see May’s mushroom of the month, the Morel, for a good example). In fact, there are so many different kinds of them, that the “regular” gilled mushrooms are the hardest to identify. It is suggested that beginners learn some of the non-gilled mushrooms first. But if you do want to learn the gilled mushrooms, you’ll need help. There are two pieces of information you will almost always need to get – the spore print colour and the way the gills attach to the stem.
Perhaps a blog article can be written soon on how to get a spore print, but for now, let’s just say that if you pop off a fresh cap and put it face down on a piece of paper, after a few hours you may see the spores eject from the gills onto the paper, making an artistic pattern at the same time (google “spore print art”). Many, many mushrooms have white, off-white, brownish or blackish spores, but pink spores are not that common.
So if you find pink spores (actually a salmon-pinkish brown; pale shades of pink do not count and are something different) you probably have a mushroom in one of two different families, which can be easily differentiated. The Entoloma family have gills that do attach to the stem (and usually grow on the ground). The Pluteus family have gills that do NOT attach to the stem, called “free” (and usually grow on wood). Those are the mushrooms we are going to talk about this month. Take a look at the photos of spore colour and gill attachment.
Pluteus mushrooms are often very elegant and stately looking, with tall, straight stems and convex to flat caps. They might even remind you a bit of Amanita, the mushrooms famous for having species that are deadly poisonous or hallucinogenic. As it turns out, Pluteus is in fact somewhat related to Amanita, which can be differentiated by their white spores and the fact that most Amanitas are also famous for having a volva of some kind at the base of the stem. As it turns out, there is a mushroom in the Pluteus family that also has a volva, so I suppose the relationship between the two is not all that surprising. It is quite uncommon, but see if you can find it someday!
There are many different kinds of Pluteus mushrooms, including some bright yellow species, but by far the most common is the deer mushroom, Pluteus ‘cervinus’ (latin for ‘deer’ since the caps sometimes look like a deer pelt). It can be found year round almost anywhere around here. You may be wondering why I put quotes around the name, which brings up an interesting point about all the renaming of mushrooms that is happening. As is so often the case, Pluteus cervinus is a European mushroom that looks pretty much exactly like the deer mushrooms growing out here, but DNA studies have shown that not all of ours are exactly the same thing, so they probably deserve a name of their own. Thus a new name, Pluteus exilis has been created for the deer mushrooms most often found in the PNW. Pluteus cervinus may also exist here, since it has been confirmed from California. So if you see a quote around a name, it means that the name is technically incorrect, but there is a long history of using that name for the mushroom. So any mushroom from around here called Pluteus cervinus in the last hundred or so years is the same mushroom we’re finding now, the difference is that now we are admitting that perhaps we used the wrong name all along, so a quote has been added.
This mushroom comes in many different shades of brown, from almost white to almost black. This also seems to indicate that there may be more than one species hiding in our woods, all being called the same thing. You can see quite a variation in the photos.
The deer mushroom (and many other Pluteus mushrooms) smell and taste somewhat like radish! So if you enjoy that sort of thing, this might be a fun edible for you. But remember, until you get lots of practice, show all mushrooms you want to eat to a PSMS or other trusted identifier before you do! As has already been stated, this mushroom has somewhat of a resemblance to the deadly Amanita phalloides. Unfortunately, it also has an almost identical but much rarer hallucinogenic relative, Pluteus salicinus, which has a stem that turns blue on handling. Do not eat this one by mistake.
This mushroom also has cool things to look at under a microscope – pleurocystidia with horn-like projections. That is a fancy word for things that look like jester caps on the faces of the gills, with dangly hooks that have balls on the end of them. OK, there aren’t really balls on the end of the hooks, but the resemblance is interesting.
If you want to browse pictures of all the different Pluteus found around here, visit their page in my pictorial key: Pluteaceae