The winter mushroom, Flammulina velutipes

Flammulina velutipes (Curtis) Singer

Edible, but tough. Despite appearances, the commercially produced “enoki” mushroom found in many grocery stores is a cultivated form of this mushroom.

One of the best-known and most-produced mushrooms in the world, Flammulina velutipes has a far-spanning career that includes appearances in forests, countless Japanese restaurants, and the labs of the space shuttle. F. velutipes, nicknamed the winter mushroom (and also the velvet foot), makes the scene in late fall and under the right circumstances may grow throughout the cold months, even in such life-hostile January climates as Wisconsin.

In the wild, the velvet foot’s color and texture ranges from resembling a kitschy orange vinyl souvenir to a rubbery shroom of reddish or yellow-brown. Boldly bald, F. velutipes prefers hardwoods and may grow fairly high up on a tree trunk.

As mentioned above, the cultivated version of F. velutipes is the enoki or enokitake mushroom familiar to lovers of Japanese cuisine. Farmed since at least 800 A.D., the enoki does not resemble its feral cousin in the least, thanks to being grown in the dark in a carbon dioxide-rich environment that encourages the growth of its telltale long stems. Asian folk belief attributes anti-tumor and other properties to the enoki, and a small body of scientific research does suggest the presence of anti-cancer and anti-oxidant compounds.

In 1993, NASA sent F. velutipes into orbit aboard the space shuttle to test the mushroom’s reaction to zero gravity. Instead of growing more or less vertically, F. velutipes shot out in all directions. Nonetheless, it grew, good news for future astronauts who want an extra on their pizza but are reluctant to take swine into space.

Here’s the disclaimer: F. velutipes, more than most edible mushrooms, MUST be positively identified before you eat it. In one of those tricks Nature likes to play, F. velutipes resembles Galerina autumnalis, one of the more common deadly mushrooms. Extremely poisonous, G. autumnalis adds to its menace by fruiting next to F. velutipes, making it easy to drop a mushroom you definitely don’t want in your basket of benign woodland swag. Left untreated, G. autumnalis poisoning can cause vomiting, internal bleeding, and kidney failure. In the end, it essentially leaves victims with a choice between an emergency liver transplant or death.

As always with mushrooming, eat well, but be careful out there. To that end, don’t forget to take your copy of Mushrooms of the Midwest, the book that describes and illustrates over five hundred of the region’s mushroom species.

Photo: Michael Kuo


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