Of all the mushrooms that grow in the eastern United States, few outstrip the Hericium mushrooms in terms of beauty and excellent flavor. These mushrooms are also very likely to cause significant heartache among mushroom hunters who find Hericium mushrooms growing high aloft in trees. I personally have had to pass up many Hericium during my time in the field hunting mushrooms, and I actively avoid several Raleigh-area trees entirely because I know that are hosts to Hericium mycelium that fruit preposterously far off the ground.
Like oyster mushrooms in the Pleurotus genus, Hericium mushrooms occasionally grow in spots that are hopelessly out of reach, but enterprising mushroom hunters have designed various methods for getting at such specimens, including me. My first high-up mushrooom grabber was nothing more than a very long and slender stick with a pocket knife securely attached to the end of it. Naturally, this was a rather awkward bit of gear to carry around on long hikes, and so it ended up being used only rarely, when returning to a particular mushroom tree presented no logistical hardship. More recently, I devised what I think is a far better solution that travels with me in my autumn mushroom hunting gear pack: a climbing rope, a bean bag, and a fine chain all linked together that can be flung and looped around the base of tricky Hericium or oyster mushrooms that are out of reach. Although my mushroom saw is not the easiest tool to use, and it certainly invites funny looks on account of my poor aim and tendency to get really worked up when I am trying to get at a mushroom that’s exciting to me, this saw has yet to let me down.
Armed with my mushroom saw and an endless supply of Hericium hunting enthusiasm, I hope for a good season ahead, and sincerely hope that if you read this entry, you’ll be more inclined to chase the Hericium species for yourself!
Yours In Fungal Fancy,
The Hericium Genus – An Overview
There are not too many mushrooms in the genus Hericium, and in North Carolina there are only three distinct species: Hericium erinaceus (commonly called lion’s mane), Hericium americanum (often called comb tooth), and Hericium coralloides (commonly called bearded tooth). The genus is typified by fruiting bodies that are branchy or toothy, and they grow on exclusively on trees. Sometimes they colonize living trees, and other times they take hold on dead wood, but I’ve yet to ever see a Hericium mushroom growing on the ground.
Some mushrooms that decompose wood often take up residence on tree root systems and buried stumps. For instance, the white-pored chicken of the woods (Laetiporus cincinnatus) and the ringless honey mushroom (Armillaria tabescens) are both common North Carolina decomposers that can be found on the ground, but in my experience Hericium mushrooms do not have this growth pattern.
The fruiting body of Hericum mushrooms start out snowy-white, which makes them quite pretty to look at. After a week or so, these mushrooms often become yellowed and a bit dingy, especially on the tips of their teeth. However, this yellowing is largely due to the fruiting body drying out (as opposed to rotting), and so if you find a Hericium in this sad state, it’s not necessarily a lost cause! Simply remove the yellowed bits and consume only portions of the mushroom that are firm and white. Of course, if you notice anything that looks like mold or bacterial rot on your mushroom, steer clear of it, but in general Hericium mushrooms are pretty resistant to rotting and fast decomposition. They are also rather unlikely to be full of bugs, unlike North Carolina chanterelles, hedgehogs, and other terrestrial NC wild mushrooms.
In North Carolina, various Hericium mushrooms can be found in the late summer through the fall, although this year I was astonished to see a photo of a perfect North Carolina lion’s mane mushroom (Hericium erinaceus) posted on Facebook in late May! Usually, I find species of Hericium in October in the NC Piedmont. Hericium mushrooms can grow quite large, often weighing several pounds, and a single tree can produce multiple fruiting bodies, so once you find a Hericium hunting spot, mark it and return every year for many happy returns of excellent fungus!
There are numerous common names for the different Hericium mushrooms, including lion’s mane, bear’s head tooth fungus, monkey’s head mushroom, pom pom mushroom, comb tooth mushroom, bearded tooth mushroom, and my personal favorite, Satyr’s beard, among others.
Hericium mushrooms are saprophytic and perhaps partially parasitic, which is why they can be found growing on both dead and thriving trees. They tend to favor hardwoods, and I usually find them on older oak trees, but there have been instances where eastern United States Hericium mushrooms grew on conifers. I have not personally had this experience, but several sources indicate it happens from time to time.
Given their saprophytic (decomposing) lifestyle, Hericium mushrooms are cultivated commercially, and can be found both fresh and dried in upscale markets and Asian markets. In fact, I would venture to say that Hericium is a good species for home cultivation, and I have a good friend who was able to establish a robust colony of Hericium corraloides mycelium on a downed black oak on his property, which he accomplished simply by stuffing stem butts of these mushrooms in little chinks and pockets of decomposing wood.
Hericium mushrooms have superior culinary value, and are very akin to crab meat both in texture and flavor. They are a little tough, and must be cooked thoroughly at no more than medium temperature on the stove top. The toothy and branchy shape of these mushrooms means that the teeth can cook a lot faster than the solid inside of the fruiting body, and so it’s important to keep the teeth from burning before the tough inside of the mushroom cooks through. However, this is as simple as adding a bit of oil, a little bit of water or stock, and not applying intense heat to these mushrooms, and they’re unlikely to burn or stick to the pan as long as you use a sufficient amount of oil.
For my money, one of the best ways to prepare Hericium mushrooms is to saute them in light olive oil, white wine, and salt, and then adding them to crab or lobster salad recipes in lieu of the seafood. You can also make a great bisque with them, again substituting the lobster for the Hericium bits. Another application I love is creating a mock pulled pork with Hericium mushrooms; simply cut or peel the mushroom into strips (which is very easy to do), cook thoroughly on the stove top, and add some pulled pork sauce a few minutes before removing them from the heat. Once you remove them from the stove, serve them on a toasted baguette with a little Swiss cheese and mustard, and enjoy the explosion of excellent flavor!
Hericium mushrooms have significant medicinal value, and Hericium erinaceus (lion’s mane) in particular is being explored for its potential to help people with cognitive difficulties, dementia, and other brain disorders, because the mushroom contains compounds that aids myelination (sheathing) of neurons and neural differentiation. Furthermore, Chinese herbal medicine employs Hericium erinaceus to reduce sugar and lipid levels in the blood, and research on this mushroom indicates that it is good for reducing the pain associated with ulcers. If that weren’t enough, Hericium erinaceus appears to be a helpful remedy for pancreatitis, Crohn’s disease, hemorrhoids, and has been effective in reducing the negative side effects of cancer treatment such as nausea and fatigue.
Hericium erinaceus, the Lion’s Mane Mushroom
The lion’s mane mushroom, Hericium erinaceus, is perhaps the most well-known species of Hericium, and it enjoys significant commercial success and is grown worldwide. Hericium erinaceus is easy to distinguish from the other two North Carolina species of Hericium because it has straight, icicle-like teeth that emerge from a single fruiting body. The other two species treated in this article have branchy bodies that may emerge from several locations in the surface of a host tree, but Hericium erinaceus emerges “all of a piece.” This mushroom is amazingly delicious and easy to spot and identify, as it looks very much like a small cascade of frozen waterfall or Santa’s beard stuck to the side of a tree!
If you’re interested in the fine art and frustrating science of mushroom taxonomy, Hericium coralloides is a good example of how the mycological landscape and mushroom nomenclature is always “subject to change.” As it stands today, Hericium coralloides is a mushroom that has a branchy, coral-like body with short spines that emerge from a fractal-y fruiting body. It is very pretty, and the species epithet “corraloides” is spot-on, because its little white fingers and protrusions of fungus flesh make it very akin to a coral in appearance. However, this mushroom was not always called Hericium coralloides, and so a different species (Hericium americanum, described below) appears in many mushroom identification field guides as “Hericium coralloides.”
From a mushroom identification perspective, it can be tricky to distinguish between the “true” (current) Hericium coralloides and the old Hericium coralloides (now Hericium americanum), especially with younger specimens. However, from an edibility standpoint, you need not worry if you can’t tell the difference between the short, stumpy-toothed Hericium coralloides and the more graceful, longer-toothed Hericium americanum, because they’re both edible and choice!
Hericium americanum might be, in my opinion, the most beautiful of the Hericium mushrooms that grow in North Carolina and other eastern U.S. states. It sort of looks like a cross between Hericium erinaceus and Hericium coralloides, to be honest, because it has the branchy body of Hericium coralloides and the long and flowing teeth of Hericium erinaceus. If you find this mushroom when it’s young, it may be difficult to distinguish from Hericium coralloides, but as it matures, its teeth get significantly longer and hang down like the hair on a West Highland Terrier’s ears. This mushroom can often be found emerging from multiple spots on the surface of a host tree’s bark, and its spines are very icicle-looking and quite pretty to look at!
Concluding Thoughts on Hericium Mushrooms
Hericium mushrooms are excellent candidates for novice mushroom hunters because they are easy to identify, lack lookalikes, and they taste absolutely wonderful. They’re also easy to cook, which sets them head and shoulders above some of the other wild mushrooms that are common in North Carolina and other states east of the Great Plains. Chanterelles, for instance, are lovely edible mushrooms that give me great joy, but it took me quite some time to get good at preparing them. By contrast, the Hericium mushrooms are delightfully easy to cook, and so it requires no great culinary genius to work with them.
Hericium mushrooms are great for a wide array of reasons, not the least of which is their excellent culinary performance and medicinal benefits. Coupled with their reasonably common appearance in the fall, it’s a great idea to get familiar with them. One of the things I did when I was first learning my mushrooms was to select several species that are easy to identify, lack lookalikes, and are thus very difficult to misidentify. The Hericium mushrooms meet all these requirements; unlike your classic ground-loving cap-and-stem mushrooms (for example mushrooms in the Amanita genus), Hericium specimens are easy to get down to genus (and usually species) on account of their unique growing form. Now, if I could only guarantee that, upon finding a Hericium, you would certainly be able to collect it, I would definitely place it very high on my list of excellent North Carolina edible wild mushrooms. However, there is an inherent chance for disappointment in all things, and hunting Hericium mushrooms is no different!