Foraging for Oyster Mushrooms

versatile, flavourful and delicious

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Hayley Bisofsky Pope
Cornwall dweller, lifestyle blogger and founder of The Little Naturalists Club
19 January 2023

If I asked you what Kingdom Mushrooms belonged to you would likely think they sit firmly in the plant Kingdom. However, mushrooms are fungi and belong to their their own Fungi kingdom which is separate to plants and animals.

What Is Mycelium?

Generally plants make their food by harnessing the suns energy and synthesising nutrients from carbon dioxide and water, a process we know as photosynthesis. In comparison animals hunt down their prey, or scavenge for food and digest it internally. Fungi do neither of these things. The mycelium grows underground and is the main body of the fungi. It looks like white threads and can often be seen in woodlands if you lift up a log. Some mycelium is thousands of years old and they can spread out underground covering whole forests. The mycelium grows around food sources secreting an enzyme that breaks it down. This is why fungi are known as the ultimate recyclers as they help break down all of the dead matter, recycling it back into valuable nutrients to feed themselves and other plants and animals. Given that the food source is broken down and digested externally this makes the way they digest food quite unique and therefore places them in their own special kingdom. Once the food has been digested the mycelium absorbs the digested nutrients and often exchanges some of these nutrients with other plants and trees that it forms a symbiotic relationship with.

Mycelium Explained

Mycelium networks are a fascinating topic to look into. Research carried out by Suzanne Simard an ecologist at the University of British Columbia discovered that trees are social beings that exchange nutrients, help one another and communicate about insect pests and other environmental threats. Previously ecologists thought this happened above ground but Simard used radioactive isotopes of carbon to trace how trees share resources and information with one another through an intricately interconnected network of mycorrhizal fungi that colonise trees roots. In her more recent work she has found that trees recognise their own kin and favour them with the lions share of their bounty, especially when the saplings are most vulnerable despite these saplings being quite a distance away from the ‘mother tree’. Her research inspired James Cameron vision of the godlike “Tree of Souls’ in his 2009 box office hit Avatar. Mushrooms and their mycelium networks are an intellectual and culinary gift that keep on giving. Theres always something more to learn and it’s one of the reasons that mushroom foraging can become a lifelong obsession for many people, including myself. However, at this time of year you can be forgiven for thinking that mushroom season is all but gone. The bulk of your yearly haul may have been foraged in the autumn but there are still a few delights to be found. One such mushroom is Oyster Mushroom which can be found year round.

Identifying Oyster Mushrooms

The Oyster mushrooms is a kitchen favourite but it all has its own unique story to tell. In the 1980’s scientists discovered that Oyster mushrooms are carnivores. Oyster mushrooms poison and paralyze nematodes within minutes of contact, inject their filaments into the corpses, dissolve the contents and absorb the slurry. Fascinating, but also delicious. Oyster mushrooms are a favourite in the kitchen. They grow on deciduous trees but they are not a parasite but rather a friendly janitor of the forest. They especially love beech trees that have fallen or become ill but they will never directly kill a tree. They grow incredibly quickly so pick when young because if you come back in a couple of days time they may gave grown too much and become old and leathery. Once you find a good spot you will likely be able to collect a couple of kilos as they grow in vast numbers. With regards to identification one of the reasons that this mushrooms is called an oyster is becomes it resembles one. They have a broad fan-shaped cap spanning 5-25cm and they come in a variety of colours. on their underside they have white or cream gills and smell slightly almondy when young. Its always worth getting a few mushroom foraging guides to cross reference any mushrooms you find and make sure you’re 100% certain on identification before eating any.