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Camaraderie of picking mushrooms at different annual gathering: Yes puffballs, no honeys, yes odd ones

An annual gathering for picking fall mushrooms in the Rock River valley was different this year and so were the finds of mushrooms.

Pat O’Byrne sautéing freshly picked puffball mushrooms. Credit: Dale Bowman
Pat O’Byrne sautéing freshly picked puffball mushrooms.
Dale Bowman

ROCK RIVER VALLEY, Ill.—An eastern chipmunk scurried down a log and through the leaf litter as Ron Wozny and I began searching for mushrooms last Saturday.

I took it as a good sign.

Regular life retreated as we checked downed trees, sides of trees and the forest floor.

Our first mushrooms looked like much-desired honeys on a downed oak. But my Seek app didn’t identify them as honeys and Wozny and I weren’t sure. I thought the stem was too narrow. We cut a few to save for an opinion from the husband-and-wife team of Pat and Cathy O’Byrne.

For decades, the O’Byrnes hosted a mushroom gathering on Columbus Day weekend. Pat is a defense attorney known for his mane of white hair, story-telling and being involved in notorious cases (kind that show up in the Sun-Times). Cathy is a long-time kindergarten teacher on the North Side.

A couple years ago, I received an invitation via Wozny. This year the event drew fewer. The others were Brian Healy, Zach Sitkiewicz, a final-year law student, and his dad, Bob.

Wozny and I found good numbers of stump puffballs, a smaller puffball. We were hoping for honeys and chicken-of-the-woods, but it was not to be. Instead, for edible mushrooms, we found puffballs. Wozny found the biggest puffball of 2-3 pounds.

Ron Wozny holds the big find of the day, a good-sized puffball, at an annual gathering to pick mushrooms. Credit: Dale Bowman
Ron Wozny holds the big find of the day, a good-sized puffball, at an annual gathering to pick mushrooms.
Dale Bowman

We found more different mushrooms than usual. I found bleeding fairy helmet, not one I wanted to eat, on a small downed oak. Wozny found a blewit. In the afternoon, I found a funeral bell. (No, I didn’t pick it.)

When the others arrived, we asked the O’Byrnes about the honey look-alikes.

“It looks like a honey but I’m not comfortable,” said Pat O’Byrne, sporting his original skunk cap.

He checks photos of mushrooms against his mushroom books and uses the Illinois Mycological Association. The IMA Facebook page is great. He now uses Picture This, a plant identifier app. I was impressed enough to upload it ($29.99 a year).

In the afternoon, the group went searching. When we came upon more small white mushrooms, not stump puffballs, O’Byrne said, “That’s how novices get in trouble. They look at that and think it’s a puffball just coming up.”

If you are not sure, don’t pick it or eat it. In the spring, you probably can’t screw up on morels. Fall mushrooms are another matter.

Also, remember collecting mushrooms is prohibited in most park districts and forest preserves.

Collecting is not allowed in state Natural Areas (Natural Areas Preservation Act [525 ILCS 30]). It’s nuanced at other Illinois Department of Natural Resources sites. Jayette Bolinski, IDNR director of communications, gave a legal reading via Administrative Rule 110.70:

Collection of edible fungi is permitted “on Department-owned, -leased or -managed lands where the collection would not be incompatible with resource management activities or recreational programs at the site. . . . and shall occur only when the collection is for personal use only and not for re-sale.”

Late afternoon, back at base, O’Byrne checked the stump puffballs Wozny and I picked. He threw out those that had a yellow or green center. Really old ones give a puff of smoke when squeezed. Good puffballs are white through.

While Healy grilled half-pound burgers, I cleaned approved stump puffballs. O’Byrne sautéed them with garlic and rosemary in an iron skillet. Wozny fried onions and potatoes.

We ate with relish at a picnic table, swapping stories as the sun dropped below the trees.

It was time.

Driving off at dark, I braked to avoid clobbering two does bolting from a cornfield.

Pat O’Byrne sorts through freshly picked puffballs while his wife Cathy works on other dinner matters at an annual gathering for picking mushrooms. Credit: Dale Bowman
Pat O’Byrne sorts through freshly picked puffballs while his wife Cathy works on other dinner matters at an annual gathering for picking mushrooms.
Dale Bowman