The honey tree: And other tales while tramping around the woods looking for fall mushrooms

The honey tree delivered a bounty of honey fungus on a good day tramping around the woods in the Rock River Valley area.

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Pat O’Byrne joyfully holds a honey fungus cluster from a truly special fallen tree. Credit: Dale Bowman

Pat O’Byrne joyfully holds a honey fungus cluster from a truly special fallen tree.

Dale Bowman

ROCK RIVER VALLEY, Ill.—Pokeweed and prickly multifloral rose cloaked the honey tree, a downed tree trunk, on Columbus Day weekend. Honey fungus clusters covered the log and kept us busy cutting a long time.

“These things must have been fed MiracleGro,” said Pat O’Byrne as he spaced us out to cut the honeys from the log, then he climbed into the tangles. “They are growing underneath the log. You just wonder how the spores got there.”

We filled five plastic carrier trays, which O’Byrne bought at a garage sale, and could have filled more.

For years, O’Byrne and his wife Cathy, a long-time kindergarten teacher on the North Side, hosted a mushroom gathering on Columbus Day weekend. A couple years ago, I received an invitation via a mutual friend, Ron Wozny, the great collector of Chicago fishing memorabilia and photography.

I had worried about the dryness of early fall, but there were mushrooms. We found some huge hen-of-the-woods, which looked dry. I don’t think we saw any of the other common massive fall mushroom, colorful chicken-of-the-woods.

After breakfast, the O’Byrnes shepherded Wozny and his pipe-fitter friend Mike Zasanski, me and my wife Karyn, and Zach Sitkiewicz, a young law student, into the woods.

O’Byrne is a defense attorney known around Cook County courtrooms for his mane of white hair and for being involved in some notorious criminal cases.

He slings stories as easily as a short-order cook flips eggs. I found his motivation for going into law. An early job was doing kitchen work at the old Martha Washington Hospital at Irving Park and Western. That’s not a life plan.

He told the story of a fawn trapped in a fence in McLean County. It bawled loud enough to attract several does and a coyote. They watched a doe headbutt the coyote away. They found the fawn, freed it and watched it run off.

O’Byrne once fished with one of greatest storytellers (B.S.’er?) in history, the late muskie guide Len Hartman, who told stories all day in the boat. Hartman delivered the ultimate compliment to O’Byrne when he said, “I’ve been doing this over 50 years and I never had anybody in a boat like you.”

For decades, O’Byrne has honed his mushroom skills, too.

Experts are smart enough to know: When you don’t know, ask someone who does.

“When I am in doubt, I contact friends at Illinois Mycological Association,” O’Byrne said.

Don’t screw around with mushrooms. If you don’t know, don’t.

Cathy O’Byrne holds honey fungus in her hand while describing how to recognize them. Credit: Dale Bowman

Cathy O’Byrne holds honey fungus in her hand while describing how to recognize them.

Dale Bowman

Cathy found lots of honeys as we ambled. She picked one handful, then gave me a quick primer in basic identifying. The cap is scooped down and the center brown; the underside is gilled. ID in this case is important because the death cap may look similar to honeys. Death caps also look somewhat like young puffballs.

Puffballs are one of the easiest fall mushrooms, but, as O’Byrne said, “Emerging mushrooms all look like puffballs.”

Cathy found one that looked like a honey fungus with a yellow band on the stem. But the O’Byrnes were uncertain if it was a honey.

“If we don’t know what it is, we throw it out,” she said.

I found one dying tree with fungus growing under the bark, but the O’Byrnes were not positive that they were honeys. I did not collect them.

At the honey tree, O’Byrne said, “Look at that growing right under the bark. Look at those emerging. Those are super, super fresh.”

As he gathered mushrooms, O’Byrne diligently dusted them off.

“It’s so much easier to do it out here,” he said.

Pat O’Byrne dusting off a picked mushroom in the field. Credit: Dale Bowman

Pat O’Byrne dusting off a picked mushroom in the field.

Dale Bowman

By early afternoon, we had the carriers filled. As we walked the mile back, I found two honeys on my own, truest sign of learning. Cathy confirmed the ID.

It was time.

Back at the gathering, O’Byrne recleaned the honeys, then sautédd them slowly in olive oil and fresh chopped garlic. He put them on a plate with paper towels. I carried them for the people sitting in haphazardly arranged folding chairs outside.

“I think these are choice and [as are] Bear’s head, which looks like a bar of soap with icicles on it,” O’Byrne said.

Wozny heated jambalaya and slow-smoked ribs. O’Byrne sliced up corn-fed venison sausage. Venison came from McLean County deer; sausage processed at Bittner’s Meat Company in Eureka.

The fall afternoon warmed, memory of what was.

Some of the bounty of honey fungus collected on one trek over the Columbus Day weekend in the Rock River Valley area. Credit: Dale Bowman

Some of the bounty of honey fungus collected on one trek over the Columbus Day weekend in the Rock River Valley area.

Dale Bowman

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