Honey Mushrooms: A Complete Guide

Armillaria mellea, commonly known as honey fungus, growing at the base of a tree
© Roman Milavin/Shutterstock.com

Written by Em Casalena

Updated: March 24, 2023

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Have you ever seen a honey mushroom before? These little mushrooms have quite a special look to it: it grows in golden amber-colored clusters straight out of old cottage tales. The honey mushroom is a somewhat unique-looking but also a very real fungus, and it is considered a fun culinary treat when foraged. However, there are a few downsides to this mushroom. Honey mushrooms are not only parasitic to trees and can cause ecological issues in some territories, but they can also cause stomach upset if not cooked properly before eating.

In this guide, we’ll explore all of the basics of honey mushrooms. We’ll take a look at their classification, how to cook and eat them, how they consume trees, where to find them, and much more!

Information About Honey Mushrooms

Honey Mushrooms
ClassificationArmillaria and Desarmillaria genera
DescriptionA sticky yellowish-gold mushroom with ringlets (though some lack rings) around its stem that tends to grow on stumps or near buried, rotting wood.
UsesCulinary (when young and cooked properly)
How to GrowDue to this mushroom’s long mycelium growth rate, and its ability to kill local tree populations it is not recommended to grow this mushroom at home. Foraging is much more practical.
How to ForageLook around hardwood trunks after it rains. This mushroom can be found growing in very dense clusters.
Key Identifying FeaturesThe caps of this mushroom are golden and can be somewhat sticky.

Honey Mushrooms: Classification

Honey mushrooms are classified as part of the Armillaria and Desarmillaria genera. One well-known species is known as Armillaria mellea. That being said, the term “honey mushroom” can also refer to any species in the Armillaria and Desarmillaria genera of fungi. As a member of these genera, the honey mushroom is closely related to species such as the Desarmillaria caespitosa and Armillaria gallica, among many others. The honey mushroom is also known as the honey fungus, popinki, stump mushroom, stumpie, and bootlace fungus.

Honey Mushrooms: Key Identifying Features and Appearance

Honey mushrooms are edible mushrooms that thrive in the Northern Hemisphere. Honey mushrooms of the same species grow from a single base, while some grow in clusters and others spread out. They are fungi that parasitize trees and feed on them (though some Armillaria spp. are reportedly mycorrhizal) but aren’t likely to have any negative effects on humans when they are cooked thoroughly.

Each mushroom’s fruiting body has a small smooth cap with a diameter of up to six inches that is convex at first but becomes flattened with age, frequently with a center elevated umbo, or raised center of the cap, and eventually takes on a dish-like form. At maturity, the cap’s borders are usually arched, and when it is moist from rain or humidity, the surface is sticky.

This mushroom’s color is normally honey or gold, although it can occasionally have a few black, hairy scales around the center that are organized slightly radially. The gills are large but relatively hard to see initially, turning occasionally pinkish-yellow or discolored with age. The gills are either slightly extended down the stem or at straight angles toward the stem.

The honey mushroom’s stem can range in length from one inch to up to eight inches long. It is covered with thread-like filaments, and initially has a hard and spongy consistency before becoming hollow. It is spherical in shape and tapers to a point at the base, where it is bonded to the stems of other mushrooms in the cluster. It frequently has a very black base and is whitish at the upper end and brownish-yellow below. The upper portion of the stem is linked by a wide, continuous ring that resembles skin, though some species don’t have rings at all. When young, this stretches outward as a white partial veil shielding the gills. It has a velvety edge and golden fluff below.

White in color, the honey mushroom cap’s meat has a sweet-tasting flavor and aroma with a hint of bitterness. A mat of mycelial threads that may spread out over significant lengths makes up the majority of the fungus’ subterranean habitat. Rhizomorphs, or thread-like tubes that make up many types of fungi, are much more noticeable in honey mushrooms. They are black in honey mushrooms and group them together. The fungus’s body is not bioluminescent, but while it is actively growing, its mycelia can glow.

Honey Mushrooms: Where They Grow

The honey mushroom may be found all throughout the Northern Hemisphere in temperate areas, as well as the Southern Hemisphere in South America and Australia. It has been brought to South Africa and has been discovered in North America, Europe, and northern Asia. These mushrooms have been sighted in nearly every U.S. state, where they are considered culprits behind substantial tree and shrub death. Occasionally, these mushrooms can even be found growing on wet lawns.

The fruit body, also known as the mushroom, usually grows on hardwoods, although it can also be found nearby, on other live and dead wood, or in open spaces. The honey mushroom favors wet soil and cooler soil temperatures. It may be found in a variety of locations, including natural landscapes, parks, vineyards, gardens, and gardens. You’ll find them when they are ready to be harvested around autumn.

Honey Mushrooms: How They Are Used

Honey mushrooms are mainly used in cooking and cuisine. Young caps must first be cooked before eating to ensure they are safe. This mushroom’s stems are fibrous, which makes them difficult to eat, but they can be used for stock. While the veil is still clinging to the stem, if the species even has one, is the ideal moment to collect these mushrooms for consumption. The mushroom gets more watery and brown after the cap opens. Be cautious and make sure they are thoroughly cooked. We don’t recommend eating a lot of them the first time trying them.

The mushrooms have a somewhat sweet and nutty flavor and, depending on how they are cooked, can have either a chewy or crunchy texture. Parboiling mushrooms before eating them removes the bitter flavor present in some species and may reduce the number of gastrointestinal irritants. While dried mushrooms preserve and improve their flavor, reconstituted mushrooms can occasionally be challenging to consume. Honey mushrooms can also be marinated, grilled, or pickled.

There are a variety of ways that these mushrooms can be used in cuisine once they are cleaned and cooked properly. Honey mushrooms can be prepared in an Asian stir-fry dish with soy sauce and ginger or with garlic and fresh herbs like thyme and rosemary. Even after cooking, these have a chewy and somewhat gelatinous texture. Trim the tops off of older mushrooms because older honey mushrooms have fibrous stems. Moreover, the stems can be dried and stored to be subsequently used to create vegetable stock for soups and sauces.

Honey mushrooms also have a few possible medicinal properties that can benefit your health. Polysaccharides are incredibly abundant in these mushrooms. Due to their potential biological effects, particularly antioxidant and immunomodulation actions like scavenging free radicals and preventing lipid oxidation, polysaccharides from natural sources have gained more attention. Polysaccharides, which also have strong immune-boosting properties, may be found in honey mushrooms, which can be ingested to possibly maintain the immune system functioning at its best. According to research using rats, honey mushrooms are thought to be good for the brain and may offer some protection against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Honey Mushrooms: Where They Are Purchased

Honey mushrooms are very common and found around the world, but you will not easily find them sold fresh in grocery stores due to how quickly they begin to break down. You might get lucky and find dried packages of these mushrooms at specialty stores, such as international markets or health and wellness stores. However, you might have better luck simply foraging for these mushrooms, since they grow all over the United States. Just keep in mind that honey mushrooms have quite a few toxic lookalikes (which we will explore later on in this guide) and foragers should tread carefully or be accompanied by a forager with more experience.

Honey mushrooms or armillaria mellea growing from the stump of a tree in clusters

Honey mushrooms (pictured) can be identified by their fruiting bodies as well as their black rhizomorphs that can be found behind tree bark.

©iStock.com/maksim kulikov

The Honey Mushroom Life Cycle and Behavior

The honey mushroom is a basidiomycete type of fungus. Typically, hardwood trees and conifers are infected by this mushroom, although it can also occasionally infect non-woody foliage-dense plants and a few herbaceous plants. The few indications of infection that do present are sometimes difficult to spot. Honey-colored mushrooms at the base of the diseased plant are the most obvious symptom. White mycelia with a fan-like form and black rhizomorphs that can be seen in the tree’s bark or underground near the tree are further indicators. They are frequently harder to see since they are hidden by the bark and in the soil. Slowed growth, branch dieback, yellowing foliage, decaying wood at the tree’s base, or signs of tree rot are only a few of the numerous symptoms of honey mushroom infection. Leaf withering, defoliation, and dieback follow the disintegration of the cellular plant tissue.

Most of the time this mushroom spreads its infection through the rhizomorphs, which may grow up to 10 feet long and penetrate the host species to locate fresh, live tissue. Basidiospore-mediated infection of live host tissue is extremely uncommon. For two basidiospores to be viable and develop mycelium, they must germinate and fuse. The honey mushroom produces white to golden-colored mushrooms with notched gills in the late summer and early fall. When they appear, you may find them on nearby live and dead trees. The wind disperses the sexually produced basidiospore that is produced and released by these mushroom fruiting bodies. This is the sole phase that produces spores. Rhizomorphs or vegetative mycelium are the two ways the fungus overwinters. After the underlying wood and vascular cambium are destroyed, degradation in the roots and tree base weakens infected wood.

Honey Mushroom Lookalikes

Although these mushrooms are fantastic mushrooms to forage, there are a few other mushrooms that should not be consumed, notably the deadly Galerina mushrooms.

Galerina marginata, also known as the funeral bell, is a species that has a similar honey-colored cap to the honey mushroom. Not only are these mushrooms poisonous, but they are known to be lethal in humans. You can tell the difference between these two mushrooms by looking closely at their caps. Both mushrooms have variable cap shapes as they age. Spore print color, stem reticulation, growth patterns, and the growth of hairs are all helpful ways to tell these mushrooms apart.

The honey mushroom can be parasitic to plants and can cause stomach upset to humans if not cooked before eating, but it isn’t considered toxic. When foraged and cooked properly, these mushrooms can make an excellent and unique addition to many different dishes. This is a great mushroom to forage for, as they are very common in the wild and have a few poisonous lookalikes (remember that one of those lookalikes is deadly though!). If you have a guide with you or have some experience in mushroom hunting, then go for it!

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About the Author

Em Casalena is a writer at A-Z Animals where their primary focus is on plants, gardening, and sustainability. Em has been writing and researching about plants for nearly a decade and is a proud Southwest Institute of Healing Arts graduate and certified Urban Farming instructor. Em is a resident of Arizona and enjoys learning about eco-conscious living, thrifting at local shops, and caring for their Siamese cat Vladimir.

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