Tom Volk's Fungus of the Month for March 1997

This month's fungus is Flammulina velutipes, also known as the winter mushroom, velvet stem, velvet foot, enoki, enokitake.

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Flammulina velutipes You can be sure if a fungus has a common name there is either something very good or something very bad about it. Or at least something very distinctive about it. The several common names for this fungus show that there are many things distinctive about it. The "winter mushroom" refers to this fungus's predilection for cold weather for fruiting-- I've even found it in February in Wisconsin! "Velvet stem" or "velvet foot" refers to the black fuzzy base of the stipe. Enoki and enokitake are Japanese names for the cultivated variety of this fungus (discussed below).

Flammulina velutipes is a delicious (or at least quasi-delicious) edible mushroom that can often be found when there is nothing else available. It is particularly common on dead elm trees and can often be found by morel hunters during the spring, even when there are no morels to be found. It's better than coming home empty-basketed!
It's pretty likely you have seen this mushroom for sale in the specialty mushroom section of your local grocery store as enoki or enokitake, but the white-stemmed, small-capped mushroom in the store bears little resemblance to the wild form. Enoki is cultivated in jars in the dark. As the mushroom fruits, it seeks the light and grows long and thin, preserving its energy until it finds its way out, much like an etiolated bean seedling finds its way out from under the ground. The relationship between the two forms can clearly be seen in the above picture. I found this cluster of Flammulina velutipes on a partially debarked elm tree. There were some "normal" mushrooms fruiting on the edge of a barked area. You can see the dark area on the wood where I peeled away some of the bark to reveal the white/yellow area of the fruiting, the enoki stage that had been growing in the dark.
You may have learned this species as Collybia velutipes, but it is quite distinct from that genus, especially with Collybia tuberosa as the type species of the genus. The genus Flammulina was segregated from Collybia because of the structure of the pilleipellis (the upper surface of the cap), which in this case results in a slimy texture, and the presence of large cystidia (sterile cells) on the gills. Most agaricologists agree that Flammulina velutipes is definitely not closely related to any of the species of the present genus Collybia. Interestingly, Roy Halling of the New York Botanical Garden, co-authored by Vladimir Antonin of the Czech Republic and Machiel Noordeloos of the Netherlands, have published a very comprehensive treatise that splits up the remainder of the genus Collybia into three rather distinct genera. Roy Halling writes (quoted with his permission):

" A paper forthcoming in Mycotaxon to appear sometime the middle of [1997] discussing the 'breakup' of Collybia s.l. into Collybia, Rhodocollybia (maculata and butyracea types of things) and Gymnopus (dryophila, confluens, subnuda etc.). Microscopic characters, biogeography and ecology of the taxa involved all contributed to our decision. There seems to be wide support for such."

Note: you can now read about Collybia and its breakup at this excellent site by Roy Halling. It is clear that the former Collybia members belong in at least four separate genera.

I would suggest you also check out Roy Halling's and Greg Mueller's web page on Agaricales of Costa Rican Quercus forests, where you can see some other examples of Collybia species as well as lots of other interesting fungi. This page is an excellent example of succinct, user-friendly reporting of biodiversity information in a way that is accessible to researchers, students and the public. Their inclusion of beautiful pictures is certainly more likely to get people's attention than the mere publishing of a list, or even a list with descriptions. Not that publishing lists is bad-- I've done it myself!

Galerina autumnalis. photo by Sean Westmoreland, M.S.If you plan to collect Flammulina velutipes for eating, there are some precautions you must take. Most importantly you must make a spore print-- and for Flammulina it should be white. The mushrooms should also have no annulus (ring) on the stalk. If the spore print is brown and there is a ring, you have likely picked a deadly Galerina autumnalis. You must check every mushroom you pick for brown spore color and annulus. If either characteristic is present do not eat it. Sometimes the annulus falls off and sometimes in young specimens the brown color of the gills is not fully developed. The major problem with Galerina poisoning comes when the picker becomes careless and inadvertently includes this deadly mushroom in a collection. The two species can occupy similar habitats and can be sometimes found fruiting side by side. Galerina autumnalis contains the same toxin as Amanita virosa, the death angel, so you must be very careful.

Obligate disclaimer: Don't rely just on this web page; you should consult a field guide or other literature with more specific characteristics described to be certain of your identification. Preferably a local expert mycologist (professional or non-professional) should be consulted. This is certainly one place you don't want to make a mistake just for the sake of a meal! For more images of Galerina click here, which will take you to an index of six images on my images pages, including a blurry, rainy image of Galerina growing on top of a picnic table, as if enticing people to eat it!

For additional images of Flammulina velutipes, I suggest you check out Mike Wood and Fred Stevens' really outstanding "Fungi of California" : Mykoweb: Mike's Mycological Museum, where you will finds links to pictures and descriptions of over 160 species of fungi-- or go directly to Mike Wood's Flammulina page. These pages are extremely well done, and you shouldn't miss them.

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