Hericium Hunt: Days Late and Feet Short

hericium mushroom Santa Barbara Santa Ynez MountainsA hericium or “Lion’s Mane” mushroom growing on an oak tree, circled in red.

With the first rain of the season some weeks ago the countdown had begun until the opening harvest of mushroom season. One week passed. It may have still been a mite early at that point for the particular type of mushrooms I was after, knowing it was far too early for chanterelles, if enough rain had even fallen to make them fruit. I only had a fraction of a day that weekend and so I opted to go spearfishing rather than mushroom hunting.

Another week passed and by this time I was figurin’ it was too late, but I couldn’t blow it off entirely, had to take a looksee at one of my go-to sites. Even if I found the mushrooms rancid or partially dried, it was still important to me to witness the ways of nature and how these things work, how the equation adds up under the variables of an exceptional drought. Conditions, weather, had been so dry for so long, the soil hydrophobic in all but the most protected and moist nooks of the forest, that I figured this site would be producing if anywhere was after such minimal rainfall.

Making my way down the steep slope beneath the chaparral and into the creek I noted right off how dry it was already. It was as if no rain had fallen. It smelled parched. The creek was flowing, not unexpectedly, but everything else was crispy and dusty. The leaf mulch crackled under foot rather than absorbing footsteps in muffled compression.

I was surprised to see that the oyster mushroom colony on a standing dead tree rising from the creek bed had not even sprouted. The hericium I was after had also not sprouted. I wasn’t too late. Nothing had even happened. Not enough rain.

Hericium mushroom lion's mane Santa Ynez MountainsI wandered up the creek, my dog bounding behind me. I walked the canyon aimlessly, observant, searching the forest for whatever might catch my attention: step, hop, bound, step, pause, peer. With head tilted upward, scanning the slope rising beneath the oak canopy, a white spot caught my eye. Bingo! A hericium was growing from a knot hole in a big oak.

I hadn’t seen this mushroom in previous years though it grew just a short distance from one I had harvested numerous times, the one that had not yet sprouted, likely because it grows in the rain shadow under a log and requires heavy rainfall. The one I had just found was growing in an hole facing skyward that collects rain.

Santa Barbara hikes foragingTeetering

I scrambled up the slope to the tree and quickly found that the mushroom was too high to reach and that I had no way to climb up and grab it. Using my trekking pole I was barely able to reach the mushroom, standing precariously on tip toes on a rock leaning over a short drop.

I gave it a gentle prod, but they root firmly into the wood and it was clear I wouldn’t be able to liberate it without tearing it to pieces. I drew back my pole, the end of the handle wet with hericium juice. I gave the wet spot a sniff. The fragrance was remarkably fruity and sweet smelling, so much so that it made my salivary glands tighten and my mouth water. That’s probably not something one typically would think of happening when smelling fungus.

I forced a chunk of the mushroom off with my pole and it plopped into the leaf mulch below. I was just a bit too late, the fruit beyond its prime and beginning to rot. While that was a disappointment, I was nonetheless stoked to have found another hericium.

Even on days that don’t go according to plan valuable experience may be gained, experience that accumulates into wisdom. Following the first rain of next season it will be a site I’ll return to, with a rope ladder, to harvest one of the most delectable mushrooms in the forest, far superior to the highly overrated, lesser mushroom, the chanterrelle.

Santa Barbara hericium lion's mane mushroom

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2 Responses to Hericium Hunt: Days Late and Feet Short

  1. James Ansley says:

    Another wonderful post Jack. It’s a bit frightening to imagine what this drought has and yet will do to the ecosystem.

    Jim Ansley, Iverson Ranch

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