Picking mushrooms, hearing crime stories: A primer to picking fall mushrooms

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Pat O’Byrne displays a chicken-of-the-woods found Monday. | Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

NORTHWEST ILLINOIS — Wearing a roadkill raccoon cap, trial lawyer Pat O’Byrne spun the tale of driving with a client in her Mazda Miata convertible to court when the car in front of them hit a deer.

They stopped. He threw the deer in the trunk, then drove down East River Road to Park Ridge, where he hung it on a swing set and field-dressed it.

Perfect guy to mentor me in fall mushroom-picking. Ron Wozny did the favor of introducing us.

I’ve hunted morels for 20 years, but you’re not going to screw up on morels. I’ve been leery of fall mushrooms, but not anymore.

Early Monday, I met Wozny, O’Byrne and O’Byrne’s wife, Kathy, in the Green River area — a new spot for them — for the traditional Columbus Day weekend mushroom-picking.

‘‘Whenever we have a couple of days of cold and rain, they explode,’’ O’Byrne said.

That’s why Columbus Day weekend is usually near-ideal, as it was Monday. As we started looking at some shelf mushrooms, O’Byrne said, ‘‘These grew in the last 12 hours.’’

O’Byrne was an Eagle Scout, and it shows.

‘‘There are two kinds of mushrooms, those that are unmistakable,’’ he said.

He calls them ‘‘elephants and giraffes.’’

‘‘The other mushrooms, the majority are little brown mushrooms,’’ he said.

The trick is being able to distinguish honey mushrooms, which are treasures, from similar brown mushrooms that ‘‘will bring you close to death.’’

‘‘If we’re not sure, we toss them,’’ Kathy said.

‘‘All the years [40 or so] of mushroom-picking, nobody has ever gotten sick,’’ O’Byrne said.

Kathy and Pat O’Byrne share a moment while picking mushrooms.<br>Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

Kathy and Pat O’Byrne share a moment while picking mushrooms.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

They used mushroom-picking as a treasure hunt when their kids were growing up.

For now, we will leave the little brown mushrooms alone and focus on the ‘‘elephants and giraffes,’’ which are easily identified and edible treats.

‘‘Hen-of-the-woods is unmistakable,’’ O’Byrne said. ‘‘There’s nothing that looks like it.’’

Chicken-of-the-woods is also easily identified, generally bright and orange-ish.

‘‘Biggest mushroom in my life was at a cemetery on the Northwest Side, a 40-pound chicken-of-the-woods,’’ O’Byrne said.

Puffballs are another easily identifiable mushroom. We found some small ones.

O’Byrne warned that sometimes ‘‘an emerging mushroom [of another type] in early growth will look like a young puffball. That is how people get in trouble.’’

As he picked, O’Byrne touched and smelled the mushrooms for freshness. No point to picking a stale one.

He carried a fillet knife, but there are special curved knives with brushes on the other end designed specifically for mushroom-picking.


O’Byrne cleans his mushrooms as he picks, brushing and cutting away dirt and twigs, then washes and soaks them when out of the woods.

He cooked them by pulling pieces apart and lightly browning them in olive oil. The first pan was unadorned. Then came a pan with salt and Bay Seasoning. Then came pans with garlic and rosemary. Others fry with bread crumbs.

A pan of mushrooms being browned by Pat O’Byrne.<br>Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

A pan of mushrooms being browned by Pat O’Byrne.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

O’Byrne, who picked a couple of mushrooms he wanted to identify, uses Audubon’s mushroom guide, but he would like more pictures of the three stages of growth. I recommend ‘‘Edible Wild Mushrooms of Illinois & Surrounding States: A Field-to-Kitchen Guide.’’

My main point would be to learn under a good mentor. It’s even better if he/she spins tales of crimes featured on the news pages of the Sun-Times.


I’m looking forward to the inaugural Illinois Water Trails Conference on Monday at Four Rivers Environmental Education Center in Channahon. Go to illinoispaddling.info/wtc/signup.

Stray cast

Whopper Ploppers are to subtle presentation what Jim Carrey is nuanced acting.

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