In some ways, going for a walk through the woods in the fall, reminds me of spring. An early November day may be cool but not cold, just like in March. There are no leaves on the trees but there are lots of colorful plants to be seen. There may not be a lot of new wildflowers to see in November but the multi-colored leaves of fall are everywhere on the forest floor. The leaves of the ferns are turning from green to yellow and brown and the clusters of sumac berries are bright red. Juicy purple grapes hang from leafless vines and the poppy-red berries of jack-in-the-pulpit jump out at me on the leaf-covered ground. Like spring, the fall gives us a chance to enjoy some special colors, but only for a short time each year.
I like to stand in one place and scan all around, picking out the colors that jump out. What jumped out at me this morning was bright orange and on the ground further in the woods. Whatever it was, something that orange had to be identified. Often as not, bright objects in the distance turn out to be some sort of trash.
As I got closer, it looked round, about the size of a volleyball and looked even brighter orange. It almost seemed to glow.
I knew what it was when I saw that it had petals. No! It wasn't a giant flower at all or any of the above. It was a Hen of the Woods mushroom growing from a decayed birch stump. Its flower-like petals overlapped each other and were nickel sized in the center and were larger toward the outside. This mushroom is quite a common sight around these parts but to see one this large and this bright orange was a rare treat.
These beautiful and quite edible mushrooms are usually faded when I see them. This means they are getting too old to eat. The younger, more colorful ones are the most tender and tasty and the smallest petals in the center are the ones I like to pick. Mushrooms can be prepared in many ways but I prefer to sauté them in a frying pan with a little olive oil and a dab of fresh organic butter.
I've been eating wild mushrooms a couple times a week since early September, always in moderation. My favorites, this time of year, besides the Hen of the Woods, are the tiny Fairy ring mushrooms that grow in pastures. They are only a couple inches tall with little brownish-beige colored caps. The stems are tough but can be pinched off. They have a nutty flavor and are good mixed in an omelette. I've also eaten a couple giant puffballs this fall. They are very good sliced and fried in the frying pan but they are very rich. The white oyster mushrooms that grow from the branches of box elders and maple trees are also very good sautéd. They also can be dried and stored in fruit jars for future use.
Finding the Hen of the Woods is an extra good treat but remember never to eat a mushroom that you can't positively identify as edible.
I hope your Indian summer has been as nice as ours has. You can always make it even a little better by taking a walk down nature's trail.
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