Warning: this is NOT A BEGINNER's mushroom.
This mushroom cannot be positively identified by observing features alone, a spore print must be done for positive identification. This mushroom has many lookalikes, some of which are deadly, others will make you very sick. Use the following tips as a guideline only, but confirm your identification with other reliable sources and a trusted local expert.
As always, it's your responsibility to make sure you are 100% sure of any wild plant or mushroom you consume.
Finally, even when properly ID-d, ringless honeys are notorious for giving some people ACUTE GI problems. Always try a very small amount, like a single cap, for the fist time, then a small portion (3-4), before you consume a whole meal's worth.
Identification difficulty level: Intermediate
Armillaria tabescens, commonly known as the ringless honey mushroom, is one of the most prolific edible wild mushrooms of early fall, at least some years. When they fruit, I find I can't go anywhere without tripping over hundreds of patches, still other years I won't see a single one.
Please read carefully all content below. Each step, including location and substrate, is essential to identification of this fungus. Wherever possible, I have tried to illustrate every single feature with a photograph, or two.
I chose to write this article because a blog post can show many, many more pictures than a book can, allowing me to really illustrate more features.
Where and when to find ringless honey mushrooms:These fungi are Native to the east coast of the United States, from the Mid-Atlantic states south, and west to mid-Texas and Oklahoma. You can find them in parts of New England, like CT and MA, but I am not sure about Northern New England. Be very careful of your identification there.
|All of these mushrooms probably come from the same mycelium, which sends up many fruiting over the course of a week.|
Ringless honeys will fruit abundantly in an area, generally for a very short time: only about a week or two, in the North, the timeframe is shorter, in the South it's longer. It seems like every single group of mycelium (the underground organism that actually grows the mushrooms) will send up clusters of mushrooms, every day or two, if there are sufficient rains.
This occurs in early fall, but what constitutes early fall varies by location. In New Jersey, I found them most often in mid-September. In Texas, I found them in very late October. Look for daily highs in the 80s, nighttime lows in the 60s, and gentle rains.
How to find them:Ringless honey mushrooms grow exclusively on root wood. They are primarily saprobes, aka decomposers, but may also act as parasites and/or symbiotes with living trees. These fungi may appear nestled at the base of a living tree, on or between tree roots (either exposed roots, or ones just under the soil), or near dead stumps.
They should not be found growing on the raised trunk of a fallen tree. Regular (ringed) honey mushrooms may grow that way, but not the ringless ones. If you find the what you think is a ringless honey growing like this, it's probably another mushroom.
On occasion, you may find ringless honeys growing in what appears to be an empty field. This can happen if there is a dead tree whose roots are still buried under the soil, however, until you are extremely familiar with this fungus, you should avoid such atypical growth, as it can increase the number of dangerous lookalikes.
Because of their frequent growth on decomposing stumps, I find I get my best hauls in well-maintained parks, in urban or suburban areas. Parks generally cut down larger trees, to help the overall growth of all the other trees, as large trees block out the sun and stifle smaller trees. The result is lots of stumps, and lots of ringless honeys.
Clustered growth from one base:Ringless honey mushrooms are nearly 100% found growing in clusters of many mushrooms from one central mass of mycelium, which is found just below the ground. If you wiggle this cluster, you should be able to pull it up as one, and view this at the base of the fungus. If all your stems are not coming together at one point, you probably do not have a ringless honey, and should not eat it.
Note: removing this mycelial mass may hurt the organism that grows the mushrooms, or it may not. It's essential for identification, until one is very familiar with the fungus, so it's something you should definitely do. Once removed and confirmed, you can cut it free from the stems, and nestle it back down where it was. This may mitigate some of the effect of your removing it. If you feel strongly about not pulling the mass up, use a knife to cut through all the stems at the same height, low to the ground. Check that all the stems attach by carefully inspecting the stem bases that remain.
I personally have never noticed that pulling this mass up has any long-term effect on subsequent growth.
Caps:Armillaria tabescens have tawny brown caps when very young, which lighten to fawn tan as they mature. The mushroom caps start out no larger than a pencil eraser, but should not be eaten at this size.
|Left: young mushrooms, caps about the size of a dime. They are harder to ID at this size, and should not be eaten.Right: caps the size of a quarter. This is a good starting size for ID.|
When fully mature, each cap may be as large as 4" across, but they are frequently buggy if they get that large. I find that cap sizes 1.25" wide to 2.25" wide are generally at their best.
The cap texture is rather brittle, and the edges can chip easily in your hand.
All ringless honeys should have a small textured area, of darker coloration, in the middle of each cap. This can resemble scales, or brown tufts. If you don't see this, at least small, you do not have a ringless honey.
|Occasionally darker specimens may be found, where it's harder to observe the key cap features. Avoid these abnormal fruitings until you are very familiar with the fungus, as they increase the list of potential lookalikes|
Gills:Armillaria tabescens have slightly decurrent gills. That is to say, the gills run down the stem a small amount. If the gills of your fungus are separate from the stem, you do not have ringless honeys.
Gills should be white or lightly beige.
Gills are "close. Each gill is separated from it's neighbor by approximately the thickness of another gill.
Gills will generally fork, except in very very young mushrooms. Other gills will spring up in the forks between gills.
Stem features:Stems should be white, fibrous, and almost woody; on mature mushrooms they will be grey at the base. When broken, they should appear jagged, fibrous, and almost look like a broken stick.
The stems have no ring, that's a small "flap" of mushroom material that encircles the stem. They should also have no "ring zone", no dark or light band around any of the stems showing where a ring was before it fell off. If you have a ring, you have another mushroom.
When cut as a group, the stems will reveal a lighter colored core. As the mushroom ages, this core may become hollow. But beware: that hollow core is a pathway for bugs. Always cut a few of your caps in half, to make sure they aren't infested.
Spore print:Assuming you have observed every other feature above, and found a 100% match, then there is just one more step to take.
A spore print is essential for positive identification of Armillaria tabescens. Ringless honey mushrooms should have pure white spore prints. No deadly mushroom which follows the above list of features will have white or light-colored spore prints, but read on for warnings about the jack o lantern.
Take 2 fresh caps from each cluster of mushrooms, to ensure accuracy. I suggest 2 caps, because one may already have released it's spores.
|With the black and red printing, the blocky text, and the surreal spore prints, it could almost be an album cover|
If you are expecting a light spore print, you can use only dark paper, as I did here, but be on the lookout for seemingly "blank" areas, these can be brown spores -- a sign of a deadly lookalike. Note: I rarely have dark paper on hand, so I save all dark-printed junk mail for exactly this purpose.
Don't know how to do a spore print? Check out my post!
|Sometimes the spores will already have released, effectively spore printing the ground under the cluster.|
Preparation and edibility:The caps on ringless honeys are generally all you want. The tough and fibrous stems aren't very appetizing, especially as the mushroom gets older.
Even correctly identified, Armillaria tabescens is very difficult for some people to digest, leading to INTENSE gastrointestinal issues.
I am one of those people. For my first time, small number of caps, cooked in butter, and spent 6 straight hours with uncontrollable diarrhea. Un . . . con . . . troll . . . able. My husband, who ate significantly more (despite my warnings about small samples the first time) was completely fine.
It's a shame too, as prepared with a light sauté in butter, this mushroom has an excellent, mushroomy, umami flavor and dense, meaty texture, almost like an organ meat: heart or tongue.
But to be on the safe side, one should boil ringless honeys for 10 solid minutes, in lightly salted water. This will remove a lot of whatever it is that distresses so many people. Ironically, despite my sensitivity, I can use this boiled water as a mushroom stock, and eat risotto and others made from it with impunity.
Sadly, after this rough treatment, the mushroom looses a bit of it's flavor and some of it's meaty texture, becoming a bit rubbery and crunchy at the edges.
I've tried to accumulate information on every conceivable lookalike for the ringless honey. Some of these aren't poisonous. I have listed from most to least dangerous.
Deadly Galerina: deadly poisonousI don't have any pictures of Deadly Galerina, please check mushroomexpert.com
There are several Galerina species, and several of them have been renamed as new DNA sequencing has discovered several mushrooms which appear identical are actually genetically different. If you look in guides, you will see the following names: Galerina marginata, Galerina autumnalis, and, less frequently, Galerina venenata. The deadly Galerina sometimes goes by the common name "Autumn Galerina", but I prefer the more to-the-point epithet.
The deadly Galerina, is, unsurprisingly, DEADLY.
Just one quarter of one cap can kill a grown adult. Death is extremely unpleasant, taking days or weeks, and usually occurs via kidney failure. THERE IS NO CURE for Galerina poisoning. With early detection, the best treatment can offer an 60-80% chance of survival, for adults. Many who survive will need dialysis for the rest of their lives.
Galerina marginata shares many features with Armillaria tabescens: they both grow on wood, they have lighter colored stems and tawny to brown caps, both have decurrent gills, both have close gills that fork, and finally Galerina frequently features clustered growth.
There are some differences which can be made with observation: Galerina produce a ring on the stem, however it is flimsy and often falls off, it frequently does not leave a ring zone. Galerina do not have the dark "tufts" in the center of the cap, but they do sometimes have a darker area there, with a different kind of scaly appearance. Galerina generally have sticky or shiny caps, but can appear duller if the weather has been dry. Galerina also generally grow on fallen wood, on the side of the tree, not at the base between or on wood, but again, that's generally.
Until you are very familiar with ringless honeys, the only way to 100% be sure you do not have a Galerina is to do a spore print: Galerinas have brown spore prints. Medium brown and slightly reddish.
Sulphur Tuft: poisonousUnfortunately, this is another one I don't have any images of. Please visit mushroomexpert.com for some pictures.
Sulphur tuft mushrooms, Hypholoma fasciculare, are a virtual dead ringer for ringless honeys. Though in theory they are bright yellow, or greenish yellow, brown and tawny specimens are not uncommon. They grow in clustered growth, have gills that attach to the stem (though they don't run down it), have fibrous stems that break like wood, and have darker areas in the centers of their caps.
Unlike ringless honeys, the caps are generally free of those dark scales or "tufts", and they could generally be described as "delicate" feeling in your hand, or dainty, with thin flesh, as opposed to robust but brittle, like the ringless honey. Still, this is the kind of observation that comes best in the field, rather than a book or webpage, which is why I recommend working with a local expert.
The best way to distinguish a sulfphur tuft from a ringless honey is to do a spore print, sulphur tufts have a purply brown spore print, as opposed to white.
Jack O'Lantern: poisonousThis is the jack o' lantern mushroom: Omphalotus illudens (North America). Similar, related and equally poisonous species are: Omphalotus olivascens (North American west coast), or Omphalotus olearius (Europe).
This bright orange mushroom is generally too vivid to be mistaken for a ringless honey, yet older specimens will be duller hue. Like the ringless honey, the jack has clustered growth on wood, decurrent gills, white or light stems, and no ring or ring zone. The jack is generally described as having a cream-colored spore print, but it may also be white.
Experience is the best way to distinguish ringless honeys from jacks. Jacks have orangish gills, but they may be pale orange, resembling beige. The gills on jacks are closer together than on ringless honeys. Most importantly, jacks lack that cluster of dark "tufts" in the center of each cap, that help define ringless honeys.
Jack O'Lanterns won't kill you, but I'm told they make you wish they had. Acute gastrointestinal distress, including diarrhea (sometimes bloody) and vomiting. Symptoms can last 2-3 days, and may require hospitalization to deal with the dehydration.
Pholiota species: possibly poisonousThere are many species of Pholiota, more than I want to get into at this time. Pholiota were historically considered non-poisonous (but unappetizing), but new research indicates that many are in, in fact, poisonous to many people, especially in conjunction with certain foods and/or alcohol.
As you can see, some Pholiota resemble Armillaria very closely. They are similar in color (especially when fresh), some varieties have darker areas in the center, grow in clusters on wood and at the bases of trees, have nearly identical stems, and decurrent gills.
When young, they also have light-colored gills. Technically, all Pholiota have rings, or ring zones. But don't believe this. On many varieties, the ring immediately falls off, leaving a ring zone that is impossible to recognize.
The only way to 100% prevent accidentally consuming a Pholiota is a spore print. Pholiota have brown spore prints.
Please see Michael Kuo's entry on Pholiota terrestris for excellent pictures of Pholiota that resemble ringless honeys.
Inky caps: possibly poisonousLike with Pholiota, there are many varieties of inky caps, or Coprinoid (latin name) mushrooms. Some of them are edible, some will make you sick and some will only make you sick if you drink or have drunk alcohol either within the week before, or in the week following ingestion of the mushrooms.
Many Inky cap mushrooms have similar identification features to ringless honeys: growth in clusters, attached beneath the ground, growth from roots and at the bases of trees, and a darker center area, which may have small scales.
There are some observational differences: Corprinoid mushrooms are generally "fragile" rather than brittle, the whole thing can crumble with rough handling, they also have dainty, narrow stems, that don't feel woody or fibrous.
But, the most guaranteed way to know you have an inky cap is to attempt to do a spore print. I say attempt, because inky caps have a very very short shelf life, and usually dissolve into a mass of black, goo-y ink long before you can spore print them. If you try, you might want to use a plate under your paper, for easy clean-up.
Ringed honey mushrooms: edible
Not going to go into a ton of detail here, but Armillaria tabescens has a bunch of cousins, other Armillaria species, which share many of the same or similar characteristics, except the other Armillaria have rings around the stems.
In most books you will see all these ringed Armillaria grouped to gather as Armillaria mellea, yet new tests have determined that the true Armillaria mellea is limited to overlap roughly the same area as Armillaria tabescens, and other Armillaria are throughout the country, including Armillaria sinapina, Armillaria gallica, and a bunch of others that force me to undo autocorrect over and over and over. If that wasn't confusing enough, there was a brief period when they reclassified the honey mushrooms of Armillaria (now the only Armillaria left) as Armillariella - so you may find that name in books as well.
Many hardcore mycologists and groups of mushroom hunting/identifying purists don't care much for foragers, or they begrudgingly put up with us, at best. As if picking something solely to write down in a notebook, what you found, is somehow more noble than picking something to go on top of a pizza.
There are many varieties of ringed Armillaria, some of which cannot be distinguished by observation alone, and may require microscopic and/or breeding tests to figure out what they are.
The ringed honey mushroom I am most familiar with, and since I lived most of my life on the East Coast, I assume it's Armillaria mellea, is a bright yellow when very fresh, with a warm brown center. It fades to creamy yellow and toasty brown, after the rain or a few days in the sun.
What may matter to a forager is that, in my opinion, ringed honey mushrooms don't taste as good as ringless honey mushrooms, and have a less appealing texture. Like their ringless cousins, Armillaria mellea and friends may cause gastric upset, and should be boiled to be safe. But ringed honeys loose a lot of flavor, and take on an almost exclusively crunchy texture, after boiling. They are best used in situations where they can absorb the flavors around them (in sauces, soups, etc) and/or when they can be food processed into a stuffing for dumplings, pierogi, gyoza and the like.
The velvet foot: edible
|The velvet foot, caps (left) and velvety brown stem which gives the name (right)|
Grown commercially, this is the same mushroom we know as the Enoki! Enoki are grown in a abnormal conditions, leading to long, spindly stems, tiny caps, and pure white coloration. Having never sampled the wild specimen, I cannot tell you if they differ in taste.