Summer Puffballs: Australian Calvatia species

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Calvatia puffballs collected in summer after a visit by the dreaded fungi wreckers

The calvatia genus comprises most of the largest puff balls in the world and in my opinion the best edible puffballs in the country. Australia has a handful of different calvatia species that range from golf ball size up to softball or bigger, over 150 mm across. They start out white, with or without a sterile base, The species in the photo above has the sterile base. As the puffball matures it becomes larger and softer and begins to change colour as the spore mass matures. The colour they change to and that of the mature spores along with the presence or absence of the sterile base are the ways the different species are differentiated visually.

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Calvatia aff. cyathiformis found in January in a sports field.

I have been unsuccessful in properly identifying the calvatia puffball I have found this season, its a bit of a odd one out. Generally calvatia species fall into two categories the ones that turn yellow or red then brown, the spores do the same ending up a mustard to olive-brown colour at maturity or the ones that turn purple then brownish, the spores end up bright or dull purple. The species I Have found turns slightly yellow then dark brown and ends up with a grey slightly woolly spore mass. I have been unable to satisfy myself as to its true identity, Its closest to c. cyathiformis but I’m not really sure. Wikipedia list 58 species globally, I can find  good reference to about 9 species in Australia tho I am skeptical about a few of them. The species are  c. craniiformis,  c. lilacina, c. rugosa, c. fragilis, c. candida and the three I’m not so sure about c. gigantea,    c. fusca and c. olba. As you can see from some of the links the details are sometimes a bit thin on the ground! All of them should be edible while they are young with firm white flesh the main factor will be their palatability. Some species are reportedly bitter while others may have a slight laxative effect.

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Calvatia aff. cythiformis maturing and the fully mature cross section, (bottom right) note the spore mass at the top and sterile base bellow, there is a slight membrane between them.

These puffballs start out white and round on top, pear shaped with the sterile base. The skin is leathery with a lizard skin sort of pattern of cracks or scales, this will vary a bit depending on weather conditions. As they mature the fruit body swells and flattens out somewhat, they also develop some folds and wrinkles. The biggest one I have seen was about 120 mm across. At maturity the skin becomes dark brown and begins to flake off exposing a second thin layer with the grey spore mass showing thru in cracks. The sterile base is quite prominent but smaller then some other species, the mature tissue is quite woolly and brown. The spore mass starts out pure white before becoming grey and powdery, it seems to have a slight woolliness to it. There is a thin membrane between the base and spore mass. I find these growing in grass in parks and roadsides some times with poorer soils. I have seen one patch forming a large fairy ring. Fruiting over summer and into early Autumn. There are a range of smaller white puff balls that grow in similar areas the most common species are Vascellum partense and some bovista species, these are also edible tho not as good. There are also the lycoperdon puffballs that grow more often in forested areas. The calvatia tastes like egg or potato when sauteed in butter. They should only be eaten while they are young and firm before they reach their full size. Once mature care should be taken not to inhale there spore dust. To see more of my puffball photos click here.

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The calvatia on the left at the perfect age to eat. On the right is a large Vascellum partense, another more common lawn puffball.

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Australian oyster mushrooms: Pleurotus species

Pleurotus australis, Pleurotus djamor var djamor, Pleurotus ostreatus

Perhaps  Pleurotus djamor var djamor growing on a dead bangalow palm in the rain forest.

I often find these small to medium oyster mushrooms growing on dead wood or wood chips, I also find this same species or a similar one growing deep in the rain forest on dead bangalow palms. This leads me to believe that its a native species as weeds and introduced species very rarely penetrate our pristine rain forests. If it is pleurotus ostreatus then its also possible that the variety on wood chips is feral. Either way the resemblance of the two? species is very clear. This is another one on the list to DNA as I guess its the best way to see if there is a genetic difference. Queensland mycological society has this or another similar species as Pleurotus djamor var djamor.

Australian oyster mushroom growing on wood chips.

Pleurotus sp. growing on wood chips at the north coast botanic garden

It has taken me quite some time to become competent in telling the difference between pleurotus and the more common glowers, omphalotus nidiformus which are toxic to humans. Omphas have a woody stem often darker in colour, they also have colour on the top of the cap, ranging from yellow to purple, grey to black. They also glow in the dark. though sometimes the glow is very very faint and can only be seen in complete darkness. Because omphas have so many different morphs its easy, at least it was for me, to become convinced that the glower is an oyster. Once I ate some ompalotus nidiformus because I had decided it must be an oyster mushroom. Lucky for me my rule about only eating a small amount cooked came into play and I was only mildly affected. It was a good Lesson to learn and now I am more careful.

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detail of the decurrent gills and fine white fluffy hairs at the stem base.

The cap of these oyster mushrooms is white to grey or cream, its not viscid. The flesh is thin and rubbery, there is little if any stem and the gills are decurrent, often tho not always running all the way to the stem base where there is fine white fluffy hair, this stem base will readily regrow mycelium onto corrugated cardboard. The spores are white or cream. This pleurotus species is just one of a cluster of native and introduced species in Australia. I most often find these mushrooms in spring and summer.

Fried in oil with a pinch of salt these mushrooms taste great, they have a slightly chewy texture. These are also a mushroom that i have been able to regrow from stem butts. To have a look at all my oyster mushroom shots follow this link

 

Wine caps: stropharia rugosoannulata

king stropharia, wine cap, stropharia rugosoannulata, SRA

king stropharia, wine cap, stropharia rugosoannulata, SRA

Stropharia rugosoannulata has plenty of common names including the wine cap, king stropharia and the garden giant however many people just use SRA. This is a mushroom that lives with people, in many parts of the world, its a lover of wood chips and is probably becoming more common and widespread in Australia. Its one of the best edibles around and is easy to cultivate in outdoor patches as the name suggests it can be grown in the mulch of a garden and makes a fine companion to many veggies. Locally there are two species of stropharia that are edible, besides SRA there is a pure white variety. DNA was done on them both SRA came back a 100% match for the north american species while the white stropharia came back around 98% which probably makes it a different species . Their features and habitat are very similar.

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Detail of stropharia rugosoannulata buttons

This mushroom grows quick and like many mushrooms its best eaten while young and fresh at the button stage while the gills are still white or light grey, as the mushrooms mature they can get very large, the gills become a deep purple, almost black, the spores are the same colour. As you can see in the photos they have a very distinct cog like ring, this is probably one of the best ID features, however it can fall off as the mushroom matures. The cap colour is quite variable, it can be deep red or paler like in my shots, these ones almost have fine pink scales on the cap and as the mushrooms mature the cap becomes white or tan however they can still have that deep red cap when they are large. The cap is slightly sticky when young. The flesh is firm, thick and white. The stem is fibrous and not hollow. The base is somewhat bulbous but there is no volva. They grow in a wide range of habitats, mostly near people in wood chips. They will also fruit in gardens, compost piles, disturbed soil and uncommonly in aged cow dung.

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After three days the cap is over 180 mm across

There are a range of mushrooms that grow in similar conditions to SRA, beware of smaller mushrooms with red caps and always be sure to carefully ID your finds and be sure you have not picked any look a likes, multiple mushrooms species can fruit side by side particularly in wood chips. All these photos were taken in my garden, last season I found SRA fruiting in a massive pile of wood chips, I was able to clone them, make spawn then an outdoor patch using grain spawn and sugar cane mulch, less then six months later I give the patch a new layer of mulch, a week later mushrooms appeared.

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young fresh SRA

Sauted in butter with a little salt the texture and flavour are superb similar to button mushrooms but with a slight hint of potato. Any mushroom that grows around human habitation may have come in contact with toxic substances like herbicides or exhaust fumes. Its always worth considering the likelihood of contamination of the mushrooms before eating them. This is one I’m always on the lookout for. Its also a mushroom that will (hopefully) be a feature of my garden for years to come.

Polyporus squamosus The Dryads saddle

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Polyporus squamosus The Dryads saddle

The dryads saddle or Pheasant Back mushroom is one I’ve become familiar with from overseas mushroom groups on social media but is not a mushroom I expected to find in Australia, that was until the other day when we saw a giant cluster of fungi about 15 meters off the ground in a big old ficus, they were too high to climb to so instead I looked down and sure enough found some more growing on dead wood from the fig on the ground. We found these in mid October after good rain. Many reports say that these fungi fruit in the spring.

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The Australian p. squamosus on a dead branch in a Morten bay fig

This is one of the rare polypores that is soft enough to be palatable. Most polypores are so woody or leathery that they are inedible even if they are not necessarily toxic to humans, they can however be used in other ways, teas, tinctures, extracts, dyes, felt and tinder can all be made from certain polypores or bracket fungi. Another edible polypore is chicken of the woods. The Australian p. squamosus differs from the northern hemisphere variety in that the brown scales on the cap surface are much smoother and less defined. The Australian variant has a pleasant if slightly mealy odor, is soft and supple to the touch and has quite spongy pores underneath. A more detailed description can be found here. As far as I remember this is the only location that i have noticed this fungi, I suspect that this is a sub tropical species that may be more common further north, it is also a type of fungi that until recently I would have not paid much attention to.

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A young fresh dryads saddle

The species in my field guide that could be mistaken for P. squamosus is neolentiporus maculitissimus but I am unable to find much info on them. They look much more leathery and they have larger pores then the dryads saddle. The young fresh caps of P. squamosus are considered edible but not great in the books I have. Its generally accepted that polypores are quite safe and unlikely to cause poisonings but as with all generalizations this is not quite correct. There are bracket fungi that can cause illness , this is just one example. As always proceed with caution, ID carefully, don’t accept folk lore or generalizations and do your own research before eating a new fungi. Having satisfied my brain, I fried up a few slices, cooking well with some oil and salt. I found the taste and texture appealing and not at all rubbery, in fact they were tender. As it was my first time eating this mushroom I only ate two small pieces. This is a fungi that I will be on the lookout for in future.

The Hedgehog Mushroom: Hydnum Repandum

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The Hedgehog Mushroom: Hydnum Repandum

This is another great edible that is annoyingly uncommon. It is a mycorrhizal fungi that grows with some native eucalypts, so when found it should reappear every season as long as the host tree survives. I have only found them growing twice in the Autumn, both times it was in mixed eucalypt woodlands on a ridge. With the distinctive spikes instead of gills or pores these mushrooms are hard to mistake. The caps are meaty and brittle. The spines are also brittle, they have a mild pleasant smell and a great taste and texture when sauteed. Spines are not altogether uncommon in the fungi kingdom, several other fungi that are not edible could be mistaken for Hydnum Repandum, I have seen small black capped Phellodon niger as well as an unidentified white bracket fungi with spines. I have also heard of, but never found, an edible brown morph of Hydnum Repandum. If you find Hydnum Repandum mark the date and check back the following year. I rate these as one of the better edible mushrooms around.

Saffron Milk cap, Lactarius deliciosus

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Saffron Milk cap, Lactarius deliciosus

Saffron milk caps are one of the most commonly eaten mushrooms in Australia, people hunt them and restaurants have them on menus further south but just how common are Lactarius deliciosus in the sub tropics? Well the short answer is they’re not. Some are known to pop up on the plateau during Autumn and they can be found in a few places near the coast in winter. The problem is two fold, the weather is probably a bit hot and we lack the huge areas of pine plantation that can be found in other areas. For those of us with a spot I would say keep it on the down low! These are an introduced species that are most commonly found with pinus radiata and Pinus pinea however they can be found under other conifers with which they form a mycorrhizal association. A symbiotic relationship where the mushroom mycelium becomes entangled with the trees root system, fluids and nutrients are transferred and everyone involved finds the agreement to be of satisfaction.

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Saffron Milk cap, Lactarius deliciosus

Lactarius deliciosus are an easy species to ID with few look alikes, they are bright orange, the gills bruise a dark green when damaged. they have a carrot coloured milky sap that oozes from the cut flesh, the stems are short with a distinct pattern of darker orange blotches. the spore print is pale yellow. They last a long time once they are up so its easy to pick old mushrooms. Mushrooms are food for plenty of different critters, some visible, some not, I think its important to pick and eat only young fresh mushrooms, picked before they become infested with tiny creepy crawlies. Always carefully inspect and clean your harvest. Worldwide there are a number of lactarius species some of which are eaten and in Australia we also have a range of native lactarius of unknown edibility. L. deliciosus is another mushroom that I’m not overly excited by, they have great texture but I find the taste not to my liking. Many others go bananas for them so maybe I’m just a bit fussy.

Lycoperdon Puff Balls

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Lycoperdon Pyriforme growing with introduced pines

Lycoperdon Pyriforme and Lycoperdon Perlatum

Puff balls are quite common in the area, with one of the larger genus being lycoperdon. Lycoperdon puff balls can be distinguished by their upside down pear shape and the fine spines that cover their surface. The spines get darker as the fruit ages and can be rubbed off. They are safe to eat while they are young and fresh, its good to check the firmness of the fruit before picking. Slice them in half, the flesh should be firm and pure white. They start to go soft as the spore mass matures and edibility quickly declines. Never eat them after the flesh changes colour to yellow or brown and be careful of breathing the spore dust once they are fully mature.

Most white fleshed puff balls are considered safe to eat while young. Puff balls that have dark flesh should not be eaten, most of the ones I see have black flesh and don’t smell very appetizing. Its also important to remember that some mushrooms and stink horns start out as eggs that can look exactly like a puffball. Slicing them in half will show the mushroom to be or the dark gelatinous interior of the often bizarre stink horn. Many mushroom in the genus Amanita start out as volva eggs and some can be deadly including the infamous death camp, amanita phalloides.

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Lycoperdon Perlatum growing in native forest

I am not a huge fan of the flavour of cooked lycoperdon puff balls, I have tried both species fried in butter with a little salt, they are not bad just not great either. However like most new foods an appreciation may develop over time or with the right recipe. To see all my puffball photos follow this link.

 

Pioppino: Agrocybe Aegerita

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The black poplar mushroom or Pioppino: Agrocybe Aegerita

Under a big old poplar (Populus Nigra) in a park this winter i found a whole bunch of black poplar mushrooms, Agrocybe Aegerita, some of which were huge, unfortunately the rain had got them and but for one or two they were all soggy and turning to mush. The Pioppino is considered a choice edible in Europe and is widely cultivated as a gourmet mushroom. I find it interesting that they grow with just a few varieties of trees like poplars and willows, but do not appear to be mycorrhizal. Its also fascinates me how they made it half way round the world, mushrooms are after all great travelers, hitching a ride in this case in the roots and soil of a poplar seedling, probably all they way from Europe. Perhaps they grew tired of the cold winters in their native clime.

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Agrocybe Aegerita

The mushroom caps of Agrocybe Aegerita are quite distinct, cream coloured margins with the rust brown flush in the center when young, they also have these interesting little dimples and folds that seem quite common in this species. They can get quite large, some of the specimens I found were more then 150mm across. They have long thin woody stems and light grey gills. The spores are tobacco brown. Fried in butter with a bit of salt the flavor and texture were excellent. I have cloned the wild specimens that I found and hopefully I can get them to fruit in the future. Agrocybe Aegerita are high on my list of quality edible fungi, if only I can find more Poplars!

In Australia we have a few species of Agrocybe mushrooms, Agrocybe parastica grows on some rain forest trees in the area though is not very common. The agrocybe praecox cluster is also present but again is not very common, I have only found one member growing on a grassy bank in my front yard. I have also found what looks like another agrocybe species, edibility unknown, growing at the north coast botanic gardens in Coffs Harbour. Photo below. Not all the members of the agrocybe family are edible and it can be hard to distinguish the different species. As Agrocybe Aegerita is found growing with poplars and willows it is reasonably easy to ID.

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Agrocybe species i found at the botanic gardens.

Cantharellus concinnus: The apricot chanterelle

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Cantharellus concinnus: The apricot chanterelle

We found these bright orange Cantharellus concinnus in the rain forest, near a stream growing in sandy soil under palms and water gums, basically where i find all the good mushrooms! Being a chef for about 14 years trained my nose well, when I picked one of these tiny mushrooms and gave it a sniff I almost swooned with pleasure. The smell is really something special, a rich mushroom meets apricot at sunset on a tropical shore kinda perfume. I’ve been looking for Chanterelles in Australia for years with no luck, finally this season I found heaps with my only complaint being that they are to bloody small to eat!!

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Cantharellus concinnus

Apart from the odor these fungi can be distinguished by their folds or fake gills. They look a bit more like forking veins then true gills. Locally we have a larger Smooth Chanterelle that has more potential as an edible, Australia also has a handful of other Chanterelle species and morphs that are larger then these tiny apricot chants. Some grow down south others in southern Queensland and FNQ so here’s hoping we find them locally. For more varieties check out the Mushroaming blog.

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A more successful harvest of Chanterelles from a few years ago, picked on an island in Finland!

Volvariella volvacea: The Paddy straw mushroom

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Volvariella volvacea

After driving past a massive pile of camphor laurel wood chips for more then a year I finally stopped to see just what the massive mushrooms that always seemed to be fruiting actually were. To my surprise they turned out to be the paddy straw mushroom, Volvariella volvacea, I was aware of them growing in southern Queensland but this was my first and so far only encounter with them locally. How exactly they got themselves established is anyone’s guess. They are the only edible fungi I have found that will grow on camphor chips to date. Paddy straw mushrooms are widely eaten in Asia and can be found in cans at most Asian food shops. They are canned because they do not have a long shelf life when fresh.

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Volvariella volvacea, best eaten at this ‘egg’ stage.

These mushrooms need to be carefully identified as some of the potentially deadly Amanita family also form in these volva sacks or eggs. Volvariella volvacea are saprobic, growing in wood chips, rich soil, compost and gardens. They grow in clusters starting out as a dark brown to almost black egg quickly shooting up to become a large supple mushroom. The gills start out very light pink almost white before darkening, the spore print is salmon pink. The amanita section that forms from a volva includes the infamous death cap so it is very important to know the difference, death caps grow with introduced trees, mostly oaks, they have a pale to olive green cap, white gills and a white spore print, they do not to my knowledge grow from wood chip piles or much further north then around Canberra.

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An Amanita species, not a death cap, at three stages of growth, starting from a volva sack

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Volvariella volvacea, pink to brown gills at maturity, pink spore print.

In the upper right corner of the Photo below are two mushrooms that are not Volvariella volvacea. They look superficially similar but they have white gills and do not grow from an egg. This is an important point because different species of mushroom often grow next to each other and can easily be picked along with the edible mushrooms. In this case I’m not a hundred percent sure what those two odd mushrooms are, they do look a lot like a lepiota species which means they could be poisonous. They may also be Leucoagaricus aff. americanus. Volvariella volvacea are only good to eat at the egg stage so here it should be easy to stay safe. As a general rule, I never eat a mushroom unless I am sure of its ID and I have verified it as best I can with multiple sources of quality information. if in doubt don’t eat them. Here I would google Volvariella volvacea and look at wikipedia, mushroomexpert and then do a google image search. That way I get multiple photos and written descriptions to compare.

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Volvariella volvacea with two mushrooms from a different species top right