Volvariella bombycina, a silky haired and stately mushroom

Volvariella bombycina (Schaeffer) Singer

[The cap is] oval at first, becoming bell-shaped to broadly complex or nearly flat; whitish or tinged yellowing to brownish in age; the margin not lined; dry; covered with silky hairs.

Volvariella bombycina sounds like a nickname Italian tabloids coined for Sophia Loren. Also called the silky sheath, silver-silk straw mushroom, and the tree mushroom, it has more unofficial titles than James Brown, and that’s before we invented “V-bomb” for this blog post, a decision not endorsed by Michael Kuo and Andrew S. Methven in Mushrooms of the Midwest.

V. bombycina offers mushroom hunters a novelty: looking up instead of down, as it often anchors in the wounds of living hardwood trees. Mycologists and that tiresome mushroom snob we all know insist on a white cap on V. bombycina. Yellows and—perish forbid—browns get consigned to the variants. In any color, though, it’s a stately shroom, with a classic bell-shaped (later almost flat) fuzzy cap that can spread to eight inches in diameter, pink gills underneath, and a sturdy, gently arcing stem.

V. bombycina can grow in clusters but often appears singly. Mildly flavored, laced with antibacterial compounds and antioxidants, V. bombycina nonetheless demands firm identification before eating as it resembles some of the poisonous death caps and destroying angels.

For years the silky sheath lived in the Agaricus genus. The German-born Rolf Singer, one of the giants of mycology, shifted it into the Volvariella genus in 1949 while teaching at the Universidad Nacional de Tucuman in Buenos Aires. Argentina was but one stop on his travels. Singer had fled Nazi Germany in 1933, settling first in Vienna, then in Barcelona, Paris, Leningrad, and a smattering of posts in the United States. All the while he collected mushrooms in locales as far-flung as Siberia and North Africa. After a lengthy stay in Argentina, Singer returned to the U.S. to take up faculty duties at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a post as mycologist at The Field Museum.

Photo: Noah Siegel

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