Fall is the season when local woodland wanderers stock cellars with oyster mushrooms. These fungi are no secret to Nebraska mushroom hunters. The white-to-tan fan-shaped, or oyster-shell shaped, mushrooms sprout from the sides of trees and logs. Given the right conditions, they will even pop through snowmelt. A single find is often bountiful; a good haul of oyster mushrooms can exceed 20 pounds. They can be dried, pickled, or canned. They pair well with nearly every dish. Oyster mushrooms make an extra-special stuffing for your Thanksgiving guests.
Chris Wright is a mycologist with special interest in oyster mushrooms. Wright has a Ph.D. in plant, soil, and microbial sciences and is the executive director of Midwest American Mycological Information. He researches how oyster mushrooms break down biopollutants.
Wright also regularly finds and eats wild oyster mushrooms. He points out three species of these mushrooms in the Midwest region: Pleurotus ostreatus (the predominant species), Pleurotus populinus (characterized by a white to pink fan), and Pleurotus pulmonarius (the so-called lung-shaped oyster). They are not difficult to identify. Wright says decurrent gills (those running down the stalk) are a distinguishing characteristic of oyster mushrooms. The fungi also have a white to lilac spore print on paper. Wright says it is difficult to mistake something poisonous for oyster mushrooms; however, there is one poisonous look-alike that mushroom hunters should be aware of—Pleurocyubella porrigens.
When asked where to find oyster mushrooms, Wright says, “Look in the woods or on your supermarket shelf.” He also says oyster mushrooms are saprotrophic—they recycle nutrients locked up in woody matter, i.e., “They are a wood rot fungus.”
Oyster mushrooms can be found on ash, aspen, cottonwood, and poplar trees. They will push through the bark of trees after a cold rain. They can sometimes be found in public parks and in neighborhoods, especially on freshly cut trees. Sustainable harvesting requires removal of only the fruiting body and allowing some mushrooms to remain for reproduction.
Wild or domestic, they’ve become a popular commodity. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, from 2015 to 2016, the nation’s oyster mushroom production measured roughly 3,749 tons. In 2016, the total value of oyster mushroom sales surpassed $36 million. Whether you buy them or find them, Wright says they all smell “mushroomy.”
“It is a mild smell. Not a strong odor,” he says. “They will pick up the flavor of what’s cooking—garlic, etc.”
He says they have a relatively soft texture and are a nice complement to stir fry or steak. Wright thinks that wild oyster mushrooms differ from commercial mushrooms.
Wild oyster mushrooms grow in a great variety of hues, like a fall bouquet. They smell like rainfall—a trait that cannot be substituted. They are biochemically unique and may play a role in cleaning our planet. Native to the Great Plains, they are delicious and easy to find during this time of year.
Visit midwestmycology.org/Mushrooms/Species%20listed/Pleurotus%20species.html for more information.
Disclaimer: Some varieties of wild mushrooms are poisonous, even deadly. If you choose to harvest or eat wild mushrooms, do so at your own risk.