Bundle up and Bear it: Looking for Mushrooms in the Winter


Flammulina velutipes
Courtesy Wikimedia

Photos by Alison Pollack, unless credited otherwise.

I remember reading the Farmers Almanac back in September and learning that this winter would be a harsh one.  But despite that forewarning, the bitter cold and bookend storms hitting the East coast this winter are jarring.  Being stuck indoors is one thing when the snow is falling gently in the novelty of early December.  However, in the gray ice of February, I’m searching in vain for any sign of daffodils starting to poke out of the ice on the frozen earth.  As a friend of mine noted “no one wants to make a sleet man or have an iceball fight.”

Still, I appreciate the beauty of the season: how it encourages reflection, gratitude for food and shelter, and a focus inward. New hobbies and crafts have a way of entering my life every winter so I can make the most of my time indoors, and this year is no exception. Several weeks ago, I picked up Mycelium Running by Paul Stamets at the library and have been devoted to learning more about mushrooms ever since. The book outlines the incredible ecology of mushrooms and the beneficial impact of mycelium on the ecosystem. In an effort to learn more and make my way through winter doldrums, I’ve also read field guides and joined an amateur mycology group. In spite of this, cabin fever has remained real and vicious, causing my longing for the outdoors these days to burn acutely. Taking a cue from a recent article by fellow Ecotone Exchange contributor, Richard Telford, I decided to bundle up, bear it and revel in the winter landscape. With the help of a willing mushroom forager friend, I layered up and set out to find mushrooms within the ice, snow, and mud of Rock Creek Park in the heart of Washington DC.

Flammulina velutipes (top photo), is a mushroom that is particularly fond of cold weather, and my friend advised me that this is the mushroom we would most likely find newly grown—everything else would be from last season. It’s a spongy, orange mushroom with a velvet stem that grows upwards from the base of hard woods. The delicious enoki mushroom is closely related and cultivated from the Flammulina velutipes, although they look nothing alike. Although this mushroom is elusive, because it flourishes in cold, we set our hopes high to find the little orange sprouts.

I was shocked to see my friend in shorts, considering I was wearing several layers. Apparently his upbringing in upstate New York brought a level of comfort for freezing weather that I just can’t fathom. Together, we exited the metro and took a short-cut through the National Zoo and into Rock Creek Park. The trail was slick, muddy and treacherous and I took embarrassingly cautious side-steps while my friend bounded ahead, excited to find mushrooms. We spotted our first bunch near the trailhead: a grouping of Turkey Tails (Trametes vesicolor) growing out of a log. Turkey tails are identified by the circular ridges growing outward from the center, making them look just like their namesake. These mushrooms were brittle and from last season, but still boldly colored and beautiful.

Turkey Tails on a log

Turkey Tails on a log

Hunting onward, we found Turkey Tails everywhere. They seemed to be the only mushroom on the trail, which makes sense because of their hearty exterior.

Turkey Tail up close

Turkey Tail up close

After an abundance of Turkey Tails, we finally found a different mushroom: Sterium. This mushroom looks a lot like Turkey Tail, except for the distinct pores on the back.

Notice the distinct pores on the back of the Sterium.

Notice the distinct pores on the back of the Sterium.

Eventually, I spotted some mushrooms that looked a little different, only to learn that they were Turkey tails with a parasitic fungus that gives a reddish tinge.

Turkey Tails with Parasite

Turkey Tails with Parasite

My mushroom hunting partner, becoming desperate to find Flammulina velutipes, strayed off the path, looking high and low, to no avail.  Although we didn’t find any Flammulina velutipes on the trail, I was thrilled by the variety of last season’s mushrooms and the promise of the coming season’s growth. Mostly, I was happy to be outside exploring in the woods despite the cold (maybe next time I’ll even wear shorts, too…maybe). Get outside and enjoy your space, no matter the weather.

Bonus shot of an Orangutan at the National Zoo we spotted on our short-cut into the park:

Crossing the ropes!

Crossing the ropes!

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