On a regular basis, foresters are called out to investigate decay in trees to assess whether the decay poses a hazard to the tree and/or people. Trees suffer from decay fungi in several ways, with brown rot causing lack of flexibility, and white rot causing lack of structural stability, and often a combination of the two.
The science of detecting decay is still fairly young and the decision-making process to condemn decayed trees is complex and requires thorough risk assessment. Our interactions with mushrooms are not new, however, and many of the native species of tree decay fungi serve other functions. Here are some common fungi decaying trees, and how they also provide sustenance and even inspiration for art.
Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa)
- Identification: Usually at the base of oak trees in Arlington or on the ground. Brown/gray, frilly fruit 1-2.5 inches in width. Single colonies can grow up to 50 pounds.
- Causes white rot in tree roots. Can cause instability in trees.
- Also known as maitake. Highly valued in Japanese cuisine. Significant medicinal value. The flavor is very nutty, similar to portobello. Becomes unpalatable when older.
Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus)
- Identification: Tan or yellow-colored shelf fungus, growing in overlapping clumps. Highly variable in size. Generally found on the trunk of trees.
- Causes major brown rot in trees, compromising their trunk structure. Once the fruiting bodies show, trees are generally significantly compromised.
- Chicken is the best comparison as far as taste goes. This fungus has the texture and flavor of white meat, and can be used as a great vegetarian alternative.
Artist Fungus (Ganoderma applanatum)
- Identification: Large, hard, gray-brown shelf fungi, generally growing from the trunk of trees (beech and poplar in particular).
- Rots the dead and the living parts of trees, mostly through white rot. Fruiting bodies are often an indicator of major structural damage.
- This fungus is inedible, but is commonly used by artists to create intricate designs on the bottom of the shelf fungus.
Honey Mushroom (Armillaria mellea)
- Identification: Generally a honey-colored cap with a long white stem. Grows in clumps near the base of trees.
- One of the major killers of trees in the region. Causes major decay in oaks and other hardwoods, and has even been found on conifers. If the fruiting body is found, it’s often an indicator of imminent tree demise.
- The caps can be eaten, but need to be prepared properly, using parboiling to remove bitter taste and chemicals that may upset the stomach.
Keep in mind it’s very important to know you’re certain you’re working with a species of mushroom that is edible. Consult with mushroom literature or a mycologist to ensure proper food safety. It’s also a general rule that any mushroom shouldn’t be consumed in large quantities, as they can be hard to digest.
Some sources of mushroom identification and preparation: