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Photo of inky caps by Leah Bendlin.
A troop of inky caps, Coprinopsis atramentaria, showing various stages of maturity. // Photo: Leah Bendlin

Inky Caps

Instead of releasing spores into the wind to be carried off in endless raining of zygotes upon the planet surface, inky caps produce an enzyme that eats their bodies. The resulting black slime gets washed away in the next rain. They digest themselves to reproduce. Or, if humans intercept during the short window between eruption and digestion, we eat them.

Inky caps are the most pervasive summer fungi in our urban environment. Inky caps are identified by four unmistakable characteristics: growth in often dense clusters, auto digestion into a slimy black ink, oval shape when young, and super-wide, packed gills that are like pages in a book. They come up late spring to early fall in lawns and yards, arising in prolific clusters. They are a “safe genus” since all members are edible and easily recognized. However, two important caveats must be applied.

The first is bioaccumulation, a term for the concentration of substances, usually toxic ones, in living things. Mushrooms are adept at extracting toxins and heavy metals from the soil, and some inky caps are being studied for this use. So, be cautious of inky caps near heavily-trafficked, industrial, and contaminated locations. Secondly, inky caps are infamously contra indicative with alcohol due to a mycotoxin, coprine, that triggers Antabuse-like sickness. I do have a fearless friend who tested it out and reported an agreeable intoxication, but it’s generally not a pleasant experience. The species we know of in this group that dependably reacts with alcohol is the inky cap coprinopsis atramentaria.

There are three inky caps substantial enough to eat that frequent our landscapes. Mica caps are tawny colored, the size of a date, and adorned with shiny specs on top. The inky cap is grey and the size of an egg. Shaggy manes are the size of a duck egg—white with a shag surface—and considered one of the most recognizable of all mushrooms. The texture and flavor are similar to oysters, including the mineral edge in the palate.

An interesting side note on shaggy manes is that, in spite of sharing the distinctive and unique qualities of the group, they evolved from an unrelated lineage—the button mushroom. This tendency in nature is called convergent species and has led me to see life differently— not made of specific organisms, but as spaces in our world being filled. Life is evolving into limitless potential niches of expression and, if the niche works well, multiple species will evolve into nearly the same one.

Identifying Attributes: Inky caps grow in bouquets of oval-shaped mushrooms in grass and gardens on white stalks, often above decomposing roots and stumps. In the case of shaggy manes, they can be found on dirt roads and the edges of paths and yards. Thin gills are pressed together with a notably deep blade. Black slime is a key feature for identification, but there will be specimens at different stages of maturity so you can still find fresh ones in the collection.

Cautionary Points: Accurately learn the genus before harvesting. They are best sampled in small quantities if in the city. Avoid alcohol with, or for a couple days after, eating Coprinopsis atramentaria (the medium-large grey variety).

Culinary Attributes:

Inky caps cook faster than many mushrooms. They have a soft texture and refined mineral profile somewhere between seafood and vegetable. Use them in lighter sauces or their virtues will be lost. //

 

 

Kelly Chadwick wrote about the Ballhead Waterleaf in June.

About Kelly Chadwick

Kelly Chadwick grew up wandering the outdoors, which led to a lifelong passion for the natural sciences. He became immersed in mycology at 16, studying and teaching identification of fungi for 20 years, ran a wholesale wild mushroom business, and published "Decomposition, an anthology of mushroom poetry “ with his partner Renée. Email him your wild edible questions at k@spiritpruners.com. Currently he is an Arborist and owner of Spirit Pruners in Spokane, WA.