The parasol mushroom, scientifically known as Macrolepiota procera, is a widely appreciated edible fungus among mushroom enthusiasts. It can be found in all regions of Italy, and its distinctive morphological features make it easy to recognize. Due to its unique appearance, the parasol mushroom is also commonly referred to as the parasol or giant umbrella mushroom. While it possesses a degree of toxicity, it can be made safe for consumption by harvesting relatively young specimens and cooking them using appropriate techniques.
In this article, we’ll delve into the world of the parasol mushroom, explore similar species that it could be confused with, and understand how to handle it to avoid food poisoning.
Characteristics of the Parasol Mushroom
Macrolepiota procera belongs to the Basidiomycota division, Agaricaceae family. The common name parasol mushroom is derived from the shape of the cap in young specimens. In these, the cap is closed, small in size, and spherical. As it matures, it tends to open up, becoming first convex and then flat.
When fully open, the cap of the parasol mushroom can reach considerable sizes, up to 40 cm in diameter. Its other distinctive features include:
- A surface covered in coarse, ochre-brown scales against a light background.
- Radial arrangement of the scales, with increasing spacing from the center outward.
- Fringed edges.
- A hazel-white fibrillose and silky cuticle.
Stem and Gills
The stem of the parasol mushroom is long and slender, capable of reaching up to 50 cm in height. It is straight with a hollow interior, firm and fibrous in texture. The stem’s surface is prominently decorated with small brown scales. At the base, it takes on a bulbous shape, while at the top, it terminates with a conspicuous, double, and mobile ring. It’s important to note that the stem is not edible. The gills are free, initially white, but they tend to “stain” gray-brown along the edges.
The flesh, located beneath the cap, is a beautiful white color and doesn’t tend to change color when cut or bruised. In some varieties similar to Macrolepiota procera, such as M. fuliginosa, permixta, or pseudoolivascens, the flesh may turn pinkish after cutting. The odor is pleasant, reminiscent of hazelnuts, and the taste is delicate and slightly sweet. After cooking, the volume of the parasol mushroom significantly reduces, a characteristic shared by many edible mushrooms, like porcini or chanterelles.
Habitat of the Parasol Mushroom
The parasol mushroom is a fairly common edible fungus. It can be found in deciduous or coniferous forests, where it often grows in dense clusters. However, it’s also easily encountered in mountain meadows and high hills, near roadsides, and in clearings.
When to Harvest Parasol Mushrooms
Parasol mushrooms can be found from summer to autumn, essentially until the arrival of the first real cold spells. It’s crucial to harvest them before they become too mature to avoid toxicity issues. So, how can you determine if a Macrolepiota procera is “old”? The answer is simple: just examine the gills. Older specimens have grayish and somewhat wavy gills. It’s best not to collect these. If the gills are white and straight, the mushroom is fresh and ideal for picking. Nevertheless, when foraging for mushrooms in the woods, it’s a good practice to consult your local health authority, where mycological inspectors can certify the edibility of your harvest.
Cooking and Preparation of Parasol Mushrooms
To avoid poisoning from consuming parasol mushrooms, proper cooking is essential. The mild toxicity is limited to certain raw parts of the mushroom. Therefore, thorough cooking of the cap’s flesh (the only part used) is crucial, both on the outside and inside. Parasol mushrooms are typically breaded and fried, similar to a cutlet. They can also be sautéed in a pan or diced for delicious omelets. Grilling is another popular method, although it carries a higher risk of incomplete cooking. To mitigate this risk, you can blanch the cap beforehand, let it dry gently, and then proceed with grilling.
Guidelines to Differentiate Parasol Mushrooms from Toxic Species
It’s important not to confuse Macrolepiota procera with lepiotoid mushrooms, which are much smaller and can resemble miniature parasol mushrooms in appearance, shape, and color. Specifically, we are referring to fungi from the Lepiota helveola group, which have caps measuring at most 5-6 cm in diameter. However, confusion is unlikely because of the significant size difference between these mushrooms (parasol mushrooms are much larger). Additionally, these smaller mushrooms typically have a small, transient ring on the stem instead of the robust double ring characteristic of the parasol mushroom. There are also other Macrolepiota species that resemble the parasol mushroom but are much more toxic. These include M. Rachodes, Venenata, Puellaris, Affinis, Mastoidea, Fuligineosquarrosa, and Rickenii. These species can cause gastrointestinal distress even after prolonged cooking. The most dangerous among them is M. Venenata, characterized by a shorter stem without decorative scales. Unlike the original parasol mushroom, the flesh of this fungus turns deep red upon cutting.