Mushroom hunters foraging woods, fields and lawns of Indiana may be rewarded with a wide variety of edible fungi. Different species fruit during different seasons, with some like the oyster mushroom erupting from rotting trees as late as November. The first wet weeks of early spring bring the most popular wild mushroom crop--the morels--above ground. Safe mushroom hunting means limiting the harvest to a few types you know well. Learn new varieties by consulting books and presenting samples to expert gatherers--never eat a mushroom you haven't certified as safe. Even the most popular edibles have lookalikes that can cause serious illness. Beginners should avoid any gilled mushrooms--the most difficult to identify and potentially the most deadly.
As the ground warms in April and May in Indiana, the distinctive honeycomb caps of the morel emerge. Fruiting along with the first green growth of understory plants, morels grow as tall as 8inches. Expert spotters detect caps pushing just beneath the fallen leaves. Look for morels near old apple trees, elms or cedars. Locations that fruited heavily one year could be barren the next. The cap of the true morel connects continuously to the stem--false morel caps spread and may be poisonous.
Oyster mushrooms fruit during wet weather from spring through late fall. Found on rotting logs and stumps as well as dying deciduous trees, the distinctive white caps range in size from 2 to 10 inches across. Gills connect to and follow the top of the stem. Caps of older mushrooms typically split and yellow and may become woody. Clusters appearing at ground level actually grow from rotting roots and buried wood. False oysters--an inedible fungus--grow only to a little over 2 inches across.
Fruiting in summer and fall, chanterelle mushrooms share a common characteristic that helps Indiana mushroom hunters distinguish them from hazardous lookalikes: Gills connect to and follow the top of the stalk. False chanterelles have gills that do not connect to the stem. Some chanterelles are very distinctively colored and easy to spot. The golden chanterelle is egg-yellow throughout and smells of apricots.
Harvest the giant puffball--a common feature of Indiana's lawns and fields in summer--before it reaches its maximum size. Slice through the center for quick identification and a quality check. The true puffball shows uniform soft flesh throughout, with no sign of stem or gills forming. Any puffball past its prime--and too old to eat--will be discolored in the center. Only keep the puffballs that show pure white flesh.
Of interest to the experienced hunter, the Indiana Shaggy Mane or Inky Cap grows in manure rich ground and compost heaps. Often fruiting in clusters, the shaggy caps soon dissolve into a distinctive black inky goo. Shaggy Manes often fruit reliably in the same location--some practice allows an early harvest before the caps decay.
Old Man of the Woods
One of the most distinctive of the boletes--mushrooms with pores beneath the flesh of the cap rather than gills--the Old Man of the Woods grows from the ground in association with hardwoods like oak trees. With a shaggy scaly cap two to six inches across, the color includes shades of black, white and gray. The cut flesh turns red, then black in about an hour. The black color extends to anything cooked with it.