Lisa Suits is enamored by mushrooms. They’re what compel her to hike. She hunts for them and cooks with them, but her favorite thing to do is photograph them. On a warm day in August of 2009, Lisa began to notice mushrooms everywhere around her. It was like they came out of nowhere and became all she could see. With her first digital camera, she flipped on the macro setting and began snapping photographs of a purple mushroom. She hasn’t stopped since, and now she can identify the mushrooms too. This fungi-enthusiast has become a bit of an expert on the subject with many hunters in Missouri bringing questions about their finds to her. She visits Rock Bridge Memorial State Park in Columbia at least two times a week to search for mushrooms.

“It started because it was a great photo subject, because they’re beautiful and interesting and they have fascinating shapes that you just wouldn’t believe were mushrooms,” Lisa says. “Then the appeal was that it was really satisfying to identify them, because it’s not just this weird thing you found; now you can put a name on it and you recognize it.”

There are more than two thousand mushrooms in Missouri identified on MushroomObserver.org, a collaborative mycology website. The fungi kingdom is estimated to contain up to 3.8 million species, but only about 148,000 have been described.

Even at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, Lisa often comes across mushrooms she can’t identify right away. So she digs them out of the ground, puts them in a waxed paper bag, and takes them home so she can study them. She has pored over internet articles and read mushroom guides, such as the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, cover to cover to learn about different species and exactly what to look for. Her advice for new mushroom hunters is to trust your guides and sources while hunting.

Lisa Suits

“If you try to make a mushroom fit a description or the other way around, you can make some mistakes,” she says. “The mushroom will match the description in a field guide, so if you say, ‘Well I don’t think it’s really tan, it looks more brown,’ that may be your first warning that you’re on the wrong track. You have to learn to recognize when you’re trying to talk yourself into it.”

There is no rule of thumb for how to identify a poisonous versus edible mushroom, but once you take the time to learn about characteristics of fungi, hunting will become easier.

“It’s frustrating when you first get into it and you get very excited about it, but you have to slow down,” Lisa says. “You have to slow down and learn how to identify them properly.”

But Lisa thinks all of the learning is worth it. Once you begin to identify mushrooms correctly or when you find an extra special one, there’s a euphoric sense of joy like when she found an eighteen-pound hen of the woods—a late fall, prized edible mushroom—on the side of a gravel road. She almost mistook the mushroom for a pile of leaves next to an oak tree. She split the mushroom, which was the size of a paper grocery bag, with her neighbor.

“They’re beautiful, they’re fun to photograph, they’re fascinating organisms, and you can eat some of them,” Lisa says. “It’s like a treasure hunt. I don’t know why that’s fun, but it is.”\

What Exactly is a Mushroom?

They are a type of fungi that grows on top of its food source. This makes them distinct from plants. Mushrooms were given their own kingdom in 1969: Kingdom Fungi. Scientists typically agree there are six kingdoms total: plants, animals, protists, fungi, archaebacteria, and eubacteria. Mushrooms can be found on the ground and on dead or alive trees, and they thrive in humid environments.

Parts of Mushrooms

Although not all mushrooms look the same, here are the main parts of a developed mushroom:

Mushroom Fun Fact

Mushrooms are more closely related to humans than they are to plants because they get their food from outside of themselves.

Our Edible Mushrooms & When They’re in Season

Morels (Morchella)
March–early May
Beware of false morels.

Boletes (Boletaceae)
May–November
Some boletes can be poisonous. Don’t eat any that have orange or red pores or that bruise blue.

Coral Fungi (Artomyces and Ramaria)
June–September
These can be found on the ground or decaying wood.

The Puffballs (Lycoperdon and Calvatia)
July–October
These are only edible in immature stages. Slice them in half, and the flesh should be white and undifferentiated.

Bearded Tooth (Hericium erinaceus)
August–November
Only eat these mushrooms when they are young and white. If they are yellow, they will taste sour.

Chanterelles (Cantharellus)
May–September
Beware of the jack-o’-lantern mushrooms (Omphalotus illudens) and big laughing gym (Gymnopilus junonius). They are poisonous look-alikes.

Shaggy Mane (Coprinus comatus)
September–October
The spore print should be black. Beware of other white mushrooms that grow in the same habitat and could be poisonous.

Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus)
May–November
The bright orange color and distinctive shape on this mushroom make it easily identifiable.

Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa)
September–November
This mushroom usually grows in the same spot each year.

Oyster Mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus and Pleurotus pulmonarius)
Year-round
These mushrooms always grow on wood.

Visit Nature.MDC.MO.gov/discover-nature/field-guide to learn more about the mushrooms you can find in Missouri.

Source: Missouri Department of Conservation

Mushroom Fun Fact

Psychedelic mushrooms, commonly known as magic mushrooms, contain psilocybin, a naturally occurring psychoactive compound. John Hopkins University has been conducting studies to learn how these mushrooms can treat anxiety, depression, addiction, and more. In 2020, Oregon became the first state to legalize these types of mushrooms.

Poisonous Mushrooms to Beware of

Amanitas
These species of mushrooms can be deadly. They can resemble a small puffball mushroom when immature and have white gills and a white spore print. Avoid all mushrooms with these characteristics.

False Morels
(Helvella and Gyromitra)
This mushroom does not have pits and ridges like true morels and is not hollow on the inside.

Jack-o’-Lantern
(Omphalotus illudens)
These bright orange mushrooms can be confused with chanterelles, but jack-o’-lantern mushrooms grow on wood, which might be buried roots, and the chanterelles grow from soil. The inner tissue of jack-o’-lantern mushrooms is orange instead of white.

Little Brown Mushrooms
While some little brown mushrooms are not poisonous, it can be hard to differentiate between the poisonous mushrooms, like the Galerina autumnalis, and the edible ones, so avoid all mushrooms that are little and brown.

False parasol (Chlorophyllum molybdites)
These mushrooms are often found in the lawn of homes and are the most common poisonous mushroom. They have a large ring on the stalk and a green spore print.

Mushroom Fun Fact

Mushrooms are high in B vitamins. They also produce Vitamin D.

Recipes

All wild mushrooms should be cooked before eating. Do not consume them raw.

Photo courtesy Nick Grappone, Unsplash

Wild Mushroom and Parmesan Cheese Strata
Courtesy Chef Michael Smith at Farina in Kansas City

Ingredients:
1 tablespoon butter
12 slices of crusty artisan bread, cut into rounds the same
diameter as the custard cups
3 whole eggs
1 cup whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cups of assorted mushrooms (portabellas, morels,
oyster, or chanterelle mushrooms), sliced
1 teaspoon garlic, minced
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
½ cup grated parmesan cheese
12 thin slices gruyère cheese
2 tablespoons Italian parsley, chopped

Directions:

  • Prepare 6 deep custard cups by smearing generously with soft butter. Set aside.
  • Heat oven broiler to high.
  • Place the cut bread rounds on a baking tray and toast both sides under the broiler until dark golden brown. Remove and set aside.
  • Change oven setting to bake at 375 degrees. In a medium stainless bowl, combine the eggs, milk, cream, salt, and pepper. Whisk until the eggs are fully emulsified. Set aside.
  • Heat a large sauté pan over high heat and add the olive oil. Sauté the sliced mushrooms until golden brown.
  • When mushrooms are almost ready add minced garlic, salt, pepper, and fresh thyme.
  • Stir to incorporate and then set mushrooms aside. Drain any leftover mushroom juices into the custard mixture.

For the Stratas:
Build all six mushroom stratas at the same time. Place a toasted piece of bread on the bottom of each custard cup. Sprinkle each bread generously with parmesan cheese. Divide the mushrooms into 12 small bundles. Using half the total amount in each bundle, place a layer of mushrooms on the parmesan. Add a slice of gruyère cheese. Pour enough of the egg custard into each cup to reach the gruyère. Add the remaining toasted bread on top of the gruyère. Sprinkle remaining parmesan on the bread and add the remaining half of the mushroom bundles and the final slices of gruyère cheese. Pour remaining custard to fill the cups. Place the strata cups on a baking tray with sides and add a half inch of water to the tray. Bake the mushroom stratas in a 375-degree oven for about 35–40 minutes; or until the custard has set. Check doneness with the tip of a paring knife inserted into the custard. It should come out clean. Remove them from the oven and sprinkle with chopped fresh basil or Italian parsley, and serve without delay.
Serves 6

Photo by Kukuvaja Feinkost on Unsplash

Sautéed Mushrooms
Courtesy Chef David Ivancic at Sycamore in Columbia

Ingredients:
¼ cup olive oil
½ pound mushrooms of choice. (Currently, Sycamore is
using shiitake, black pearl, and lion’s mane mushrooms from Ozark Forest Mushroom Company in St. Louis.)
1 clove garlic, minced
A splash of dry white wine
Salt
Pepper
2 tablespoons butter
Parsley
Toasted baguette

Directions:

  • Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat, then add mushrooms until they start to soften.
  • Add garlic and dry white wine, stir until the wine is almost gone, then reduce the heat.
  • Add salt, pepper, and butter to create the sauce.
  • Serve with a sprinkle of parsley and a toasted and buttered baguette.
    Serves 2–4

Affäre Mushroom Terrine
Courtesy Chef Martin Heuser at Affäre in Kansas City

Makes 1 (6-cup, 8.5 x 4.5 x 2.5) terrine

Day One:
1 tablespoon butter
3 1/2 tablespoons diced shallots
7 ounces veal, diced
1 slice white bread (about 31/2 ounces), diced
1 egg white
3 tablespoons heavy cream
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1 pinch each: ground mace, white pepper, allspice, ginger

  • Heat butter in a sauté pan and cook half the shallots until translucent, about 5 minutes.
  • Add veal and sauté 3 to 5 more minutes or until lightly browned. Add bread.
  • In a small mixing bowl, whisk the egg white, 3 tablespoons cream, salt and spices; add the egg mixture to veal mixture and combine, remove from heat and cover pan, allowing flavors to blend overnight in the refrigerator.

Day Two:
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 pounds mixed mushrooms (chanterelles, porcini, trumpet, hedgehog or button),
slice larger mushrooms but leave the small mushrooms whole
1 tablespoons butter
3 1⁄2 tablespoons diced shallot
1⁄2 clove garlic, crushed
7 ounces chicken stock
1 tablespoon minced basil
1⁄2 tablespoon thyme
1⁄2 tablespoon sage
1⁄2 tablespoon caraway seeds, crushed
1⁄2 tablespoon salt

  • Heat oil over medium-high heat and add mushrooms. Sauté the mushrooms for a few minutes until they have given off their juices. Strain mushrooms through a sieve and reserve the juices (mushroom stock).
  • Melt the butter in the sauté pan over medium heat and sauté shallots and garlic for 2 to 3 minutes or until fragrant.
  • Add mushroom stock, chicken stock, basil, thyme, sage, caraway and salt to the pan and continue to cook for 15-20 minutes, or until the liquid reduces down to a syrupy consistency.
  • Strain the broth through a chinois over mushrooms. Stir broth into the mushrooms; cover and marinate overnight.

Day Three:
3⁄4 cups heavy cream
3 1⁄2 ounces shaved truffles

  • Process veal-bread mixture in a food processor fitted with a metal blade; chill the mixture for 30 minutes.
  • Add the cream gradually in a steady stream and process until well combined. Using a spatula, gently fold in the sliced truffles.
  • Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Butter the terrine mold and fill it with the mixture. Make sure not to leave air pockets! Close terrine lid. Place terrine inside a roasting pan and
    pour boiling water three quarters up the sides of the mold. Bake terrine in a 170 to 180-degree F. water bath for 45-50 minutes or to an internal temperature of 160 degrees.
  • Remove terrine from the oven and allow to cool completely.
  • Unmold the terrine by inverting over a plate, slice and serve.

Mushroom Fun Fact

Chicken of the woods is so named because when cooked, it tastes like chicken.

Mushroom Festivals

Photo courtesy Morels and Microbrews


Morels and Microbrews

It should be no surprise that one of the most hunted mushrooms in Missouri is the morel. They’re especially tasty when fried, which is what inspired Garry Vaught, the owner of Beks in Fulton, to create the Morels and Microbrews Festival in Fulton as a part of the town’s revitalization plan in 2012. The one-day festival has increasingly gained popularity and welcomes thousands of visitors from all over the state. This year it is scheduled for Saturday, May 1.
“We have a fry tent, and we sell them,” Garry says. “We sell a quarter pound at a time, and then we also sell fresh morels that we gather.”

In the beginning, Garry gathered the morels on his own with the help of some friends around Callaway County, but now the festival has grown so large that other people contribute. Garry certifies the morels through the state of Missouri to ensure they are real morels, as is required when selling morels. They end up with three hundred to five hundred pounds of morels and always sell out (with the exception of one year when there was a torrential downpour.) There is also live music and domestic and craft beer vendors at the festival.

Although his restaurant keeps him busy, he still finds time to hunt some of his favorite mushrooms like hen of the woods and chanterelles. Garry has learned that tree identification helps him hunt mushrooms.

“When I walk through the woods, I just look for trees, and then I’ll look around the base of those trees,” he says. “That kind of narrows down the field of where I’m looking.”

Like many, Garry started out hunting morels in the Show-Me State with his family when he was young, and it’s a tradition he continues today.

“I just remember that being a very early part of my childhood,” he says.

Richmond Mushroom Festival
Richmond also hosts a large event to celebrate these elusive fungi. For forty years, the town has held the three-day event with more than two hundred vendors, a Lil’ Mr. & Miss Mushroom Contest, and 5K race. The Mushroom Festival will be held April 30–May 1 this year. Keep an eye on the Facebook page (Mushroom Festival-Richmond MO) for updates.

Mushroom Fun Fact

Many mushrooms can create natural dyes.

Learn More About Mushrooms

The Missouri Mycological Society was started in 1987 and is a great resource for mushroom enthusiasts. Become a member, attend events, and forage for wild mushrooms. MOMYCO.org

With more than one hundred thousand followers, the Missouri Morel Hunting Facebook page is one of the best spots to get up-to-date information on morel hunting in the Show-Me State.

Share photos of your findings and get help with identifying them at Missouri Mycological Society on Facebook and Missouri Wild Mushroom Hunters on Facebook.

Illustrations by Adrienne Luther // Top photo by Andrew Ridley, Unsplash