Experienced mushroom hunters know that hunting for mushrooms is often more about hunting for trees. Find the right trees at the right time and flushes of delectable varieties are often waiting for you just around the trunk. If you haven’t learned your oaks yet, now is high time!
In the eastern US and many other parts of the world, Oaks are one of the most important fungal host and ally. Oaks are host to, among many other saprophytes (species that decompose wood) a number of edible and medicinal polypores including chicken of the woods, hen of the woods, black staining polypore, berkley’s polypore, reishi , and turkey tail. Mycorrhizal species associated with oaks include chanterelle, black trumpet, bi-color bolete, old man of the woods, and indigo milky. The Quercus genus consists of around 600 species which range across much of the norther latitudes. Species of oak that would look at home in Pennsylvania are even abundant in higher elevations of central and South America.
Learning to distinguish oaks from other common trees of the forest can be an extremely important step in becoming a more successful forager. If given the choice between walking a path into a poplar forest or an oak-beech forest, choose the latter and there’s a better chance you’ll leave with a heavier bag. Another bonus of hiking an oak forest is that it’s more likely to be more free of thick under-story and invasives, making spotting mushrooms easier. I do some of my best hunting from the road. Once you know what oaks look like you can let your eyes dart (from the passenger seat of course) from tree to tree and you’ll be surprised what you can spot at 50 mph.
So how do you learn to identify trees? The easiest feature to learn is probably the leaf. This is a good place to start, but it can slow your forage to a crawl if you stop at every tree to stare up into the canopy. In Fall the rust color of the leaves are a quick indicator, but it requires a discerning eye. The overall shape of the tree and the bark are more reliable tools for identifying oaks.
The shape of an oak, once you’re familiar with it, is a dead giveaway. Oaks tend to have fairly straight trunks with large branches that start higher up the trunk in medium aged trees. As an oak ages, the crown (area where mass of branches form) actually drops and the massive branches extend out far from the trunk. The base of the trunk usually tapers outward and the beginnings of roots give the base a scalloped appearance.
Knowing your oak bark is a great way to tell different oaks apart. For instance, if it’s October and you’re hunting for hens, you want to find white oaks. White oak bark is lighter in color than black or red oaks and it often sticks out in strips somewhere along the trunk. If you want to find chickens, you’re more likely to find them with red oaks, so you look for areas of the bark that are flattened out and smooth, almost shiny. Chestnut oaks are probably the easiest bark to identify in this area of the world. Extremely deeply ridged, chestnut oak bark can resemble the grand canyon from above. Chickens and hens both grow on chestnut oaks.
The trick I find with bark is to not only look for the identifying features, but for counter-indicators. For instance, black birch bark can look like red oak bark, but if you look at the base you’ll see larger patches of smoothness dissimilar from the strips of smoothness seen on the oak. Start by scanning the entire length of trunk until you’re confident of your assessment.
When you start to get it down, stare. Let the essence of the tree sink deep into your hippocampal circuits and you’ll build a subconscious portfolio for these species that will automatically call out to you as you scan a forest. I’d tell you to practice, but finding pounds of delicious mushrooms is probably reinforcement enough encouragement.
Get out there and learn your oaks!