Each time I teach a wild mushroom hunting class, there are invariably people who attend whose interest in mushrooms was piqued by the mushrooms they find in their yards, gardens, and other human-maintained green spaces. One such mushroom that is amazingly common in the green spaces of North Carolina and other southeastern states is the Ringless Honey Mushroom, Armillaria tabescens.
Habitat and Lifestyle of the Ringless Honey Mushroom
The Ringless Honey Mushroom appears most often as a terrestrial (ground-loving) fungus that grows in the late summer and early fall in North Carolina and other southeastern states. The Ringless Honey Mushroom is one of the most abundant species you’re likely to find, especially when measured up against other wild mushrooms that grow in lawns, as opposed to the forest. Honey mushrooms grow with explosive speed, often reaching full maturity in a matter of a day or two. Furthermore, the honey mushroom grows in clusters of multiple individuals that arise from the same spot in the ground.
Although honey mushrooms appear to be terrestrial under many circumstances, they are actually a decomposing and parasitic mushroom that is classified as a white rot fungus that attacks and digests living and dead wood. Many times, the honey mushroom grows on dead root systems that remain when trees are cleared for residential construction, so the mushrooms are often found next to stumps or divots in the yard where there was once a tree.
The Ringless Honey Mushroom, Armillaria tabescens, is but one of several different species that are commonly called honey mushrooms. Generally, these different species of honey mushrooms share the warm, honey-like color that gave them their common name, which is much akin to dark amber clover honey. However, most species of honey mushrooms have a ring on the stem that is called an annulus, where A. tabescens lacks it.
Identifying Honey Mushrooms
Ringless Honey Mushrooms are classic cap-and-stem wild mushrooms that have flesh-colored gills that are attached to the stem of the mushroom. Sometimes, these gills are decurrent, running down the stem to some degree. The spores of Ringless Honey Mushrooms are white.
Another two distinguishing features that aid in identifying Armillaria tabescens are the consistency of the stem and the top of the mushroom cap. Honey mushrooms have a tough, somewhat hollow stem that often has stringy fibrous material stuffed inside. The tough stem makes it hard to break the mushroom apart easily, and it certainly does not snap open like chalk (as in the genus Russula, which is another extremely common group of wild mushrooms that grow in yards and lawns).
In addition, the cap of Ringless Honey Mushrooms usually have a small ring of wiry blackish hairs on the cap, lending the mushroom a somewhat unshaven hipster appearance. In addition, the cap of this species of honey mushroom is relatively tough like the stem, although not as stringy.
Edibility of the Honey Mushroom: Concerns and Caveats
Although most wild mushroom field guides and mushroom hunting-related websites state that the Ringless Honey Mushroom is edible, I have personally encountered a few people who have had extremely negative reactions to it. These individuals told me that they had gastrointestinal distress for an extended period of time (6 to 8 weeks). Given these anecdotal accounts and other things I have read about honey mushrooms, I have abstained from eating them. As with all wild mushrooms, I do not believe that eating Ringless Honey Mushrooms is worth the risk, generally, but I know plenty of people who are comfortable eating them and experience no problems.
For those who really want to try eating Ringless Honey Mushrooms, I will share that I have been told by numerous people that parboiling the mushrooms briefly is one way to remove whatever compounds it is that disagrees with some people’s digestive systems. Again, I am not speaking from personal experience, so I would strongly recommend additional research and reading to people who want to dine on honey mushrooms.
Environmental Concerns and Honey Mushrooms
Honey mushrooms are, as I mentioned, parasitic decomposing fungi. In fact, the presence of Ringless Honey Mushrooms indicates a white rot infection in the environment that can spell the doom of otherwise healthy trees, and should be monitored closely, although eradicating this fungus is not simple to accomplish without complex and nuanced treatment, such as introducing and nourishing fungi that can beneficially or neutrally occupy the same ecological niche as the honey mushroom, thereby crowding it out.
A cautionary tale is in order here. One of the largest (and oldest) fungi on the planet is a 2,400-acre honey mushroom mycelium in Oregon that has killed many thousands of acres of regrown forest. This particular honey mushroom is Armillaria mellea, which is a dominant species on the west coast and in other parts of the United States. The Ringless Honey Mushroom, for its part, is mostly found in the eastern U.S., and given that it’s not terribly common in the forest, I for one sincerely hope it does not spell similar troubles for our wooded spaces.