Mention honey mushrooms to any garden lover and you’ll probably get nothing short of a thousand-yard stare. While it’s true that this species can be very harmful to trees and shrubs, they’re also one of the most sought-after edible fungi by novice mushroom lovers.
But the story doesn’t end there—recent research also indicates these beautiful fungi could have several health benefits. Similarly, their balanced nutritional profile makes them a great addition to almost any diet. Here’s what you need to know.
The honey fungus, scientifically known as Armillaria mellea, is an edible mushroom mostly native to North America. Growing in the woods of hardwood and conifer trees, the species is widely considered to be an undesirable mushroom despite its edibility (1).
Honey mushrooms cause a root disease known as Armillaria root rot, which can be fatal to a broad range of trees and shrubs. A. mellea can cause wood decay, yellowing needles, and the progressive death of twigs, roots, and branches (dieback). As such, honey mushrooms are often seen in a bad light.
However, if you’re just looking at honey fungi for their health, nutritional, or culinary values, the species is nothing short of amazing.
Recent research shows that these mushrooms have several health benefits, which range from antimicrobial to antioxidant activities. Furthermore, they provide a myriad of micronutrients such as potassium, calcium, and phosphorus (2) (3).
Renowned chef Antonio Carlucci remarks that the species is shockingly easy to find in the wild, making it the perfect choice for beginner mushroom hunters. He also states that, while the fungus isn’t very pleasant regarding smell and flavor, blanching the specimens can significantly improve both aspects (4).
The honey fungus has a 3–12 cm (1.2–4.7 in) convex cap that flattens out as the mushroom ages, with a golden yellow color that fades to brown. The mushroom can sometimes show very tiny scales near the center of the cap, and the gills are white to brown.
The stem or stipe is rather long, often measuring 7–20 cm (2.7–7.9 in) and tapering down in thickness near the base. The color ranges from whitish to pastel yellow, and it almost always has a white ring near the cap. The spore print is entirely white.
A key fact to remember is that the honey fungus spreads from infected trees through black rhizomorphs (also called bootlaces). Rhizomorphs are threadlike structures that start above ground and go all the way to the soil—similar to tree roots (1).
No known varieties, strains, or subspecies of honey mushrooms exist.
Honey mushrooms have been somewhat of a big fuss among mycologists during the past years. Initially, almost 250 species were considered to be varieties or subspecies of either A. mellea or its sister species, Amarillaria tabsescens.
But as research technology advanced, some scientists wondered if these subtaxa didn’t deserve their own genus. At some point during the 20th century, the genus Tricholoma was born, giving more than 100 species a new home. The rest of the ex-varieties and subspecies of honey fungi were distributed in other, smaller genera.
Ultimately, the genus Armillaria became incredibly small, containing only about 10 or so species. Common North American Armillaria species include Armillaria gallica, Armillaria ostoyae, and Armillaria tabescens.
The few remaining references to varieties, strains, or subspecies of honey mushrooms are pretty much obsolete and are considered to be synonyms for the type species (1) (5) (6).
Not much is known about the history of our honey-colored friends apart from their taxonomical details. However, this doesn’t mean that folklore tales didn’t involve this fantastic species—we just don’t know for sure.
Honey fungi have a curious talent: they can turn the wood they infest phosphorescent, giving it a weak green light when moist. Knowing that ancient cultures attributed several magical and supernatural properties to fungi in general, it’s not crazy to think there might have been several legends involving this species. However, none of them seem to have reached our times (7).
As for their taxonomical history, honey mushrooms were first described in 1790 by Danish mycologist Martin Vahl under the name Agaricus mellea. Almost a hundred years later, in 1871, renowned German mycologist Paul Kummer transferred it over to the Armillaria genus, giving it its current name.
As we mentioned above, a hot debate ensued during the 20th century. While things have been quiet since the massive reclassification of most subspecies to the genus Tricholoma, research on the species is sparking up again (8).
But luckily for us, scientists are now more focused on the medicinal values of honey fungi instead of their scientific name.
A. mellea is a perfect example of a functional mushroom—species with significant health and nutritional values. Functional fungi are the perfect addition to almost any diet, as they provide a delicious way to improve overall well-being and nutrient balance.
Nutritionally, a 100-gram serving of dried honey mushrooms comprises about 81 grams of carbohydrates, 9 of ash, 2 of fat, and 2 of protein, with an energy value of 375 kcal. Furthermore, they provide several minerals and bioactive compounds, ranging from calcium and potassium to citric acid and mannitol (2) (3).
As for its health benefits, A. mellea is known to be a potent antioxidant, making it a promising prospect for treating several oxidative conditions. These include Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, asthma, Parkinson’s disease, and diabetes.
Like most other functional fungi, A. mellea also has antimicrobial activities, being particularly effective against pathogens such as Staphylococcus aureus and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. These bacteria often develop resistance to commercially available medications—making A. mellea and other fungi essential to the development of future treatments.
Finally, honey mushrooms may also have a significant antibiofilm activity, disrupting bacterial beds and making them more susceptible to antibiotics. However, researchers remark that more studies are needed to fully confirm this property (3).
As always, it’s crucial to remember that fungal research is still in its early stages. If you want to use honey mushrooms for health purposes, check with a doctor first.
The honey mushroom is mostly native to North America, where it tends to grow from late summer to fall (August through November). It’s also possible to find it in temperate climates in Europe, Northern Asia, and South Africa.
The species is pathogenic and parasitic—meaning it feeds on the wood and roots of live trees. It appears on hardwoods (such as oaks, beeches, and spruces) and conifers (such as cypresses, firs, and pines). Experts often recommend looking for specimens in the fall after rains (1).
You can also find A. mellea in stumps or recently dead trees where the mycelium may still be active. Try looking for the characteristic rhizomorphs reaching for new hosts or the faint glowing mycelium.
But remember that the honey fungus is a double-edged sword. If you’re an amateur gardener or horticulturalist, spotting a patch of honey-colored fungi may be one of the most dismaying things that can happen. In that case, you may need to check with a professional to avoid damage to your trees.
Ethical wildcrafting refers to a series of guidelines designed to help you avoid environmental damage while you’re out harvesting. Wildcrafting is often confused with foraging—the key difference is that the former refers to harvesting for medicinal purposes and the latter for eating.
Unfortunately, many beginner mushroom hunters aren’t aware that careless harvesting can damage the surrounding animal, tree, and mushroom populations. Thankfully, ethical wildcrafting is as simple as remembering these rules of thumb:
If you’re a newcomer to the mushroom world, look for harvesting groups in your area. Experienced fungi hunters will usually be more than glad to show you the ropes while teaching you more about the ecological role of fungi.
Unfortunately, it’s never 100% safe to eat wild-picked mushrooms, no matter the species. Even the most experienced mycologists sometimes confuse their desired mushroom with other similar species—which could quickly lead to gastric upsets.
Furthermore, wild mushrooms often carry toxins from the environment. While cooking removes most of them, eating these pathogens can cause side effects ranging from nausea to stomach cramps.
Honey mushrooms are somewhat divisive among veteran and amateur cooks. Some people describe them as being tasteful and elegant, while others go as far as saying that they’re barely edible.
Renowned chef Antonio Carlucci describes them as excellent and delicious, perfect for sautéeing in butter and garlic as a side dish for pasta. However, this isn’t the only way to cook the species—like many other fungi, you can try roasting, boiling, and simmering them (4). If you’re new to cooking with mushrooms, below are some recipes to try out.
Wash the fungi thoroughly, cut the caps, and peel and cut the stems into bite-sized pieces. Heat the mushrooms in a pan over medium-high heat with some water for about 10–15 minutes. Once they’ve released most of their liquid, add salt and a few tablespoons of your preferred cooking oil. After five minutes, the sautéed honey mushrooms should be done—don’t forget to serve with some fresh parsley!
Marinated honey fungi are a perfect side dish or stunning appetizer. First, bring a large pot of water to a boil while you trim the stems of the mushrooms (don’t forget to add salt to the water!). Add the fungi, cover the pot, and let it boil for 10–12 minutes. Drain and rinse the mushrooms. Finally, throw them in a bowl with some lemon juice, garlic, shallots, peppers, and herbs. Refrigerate the mixture for a couple of days and enjoy.
You can find dozens of honey mushroom recipes online, so we encourage you to experiment. However, always remember to clean and cook the specimens thoroughly—eating raw honey fungi can lead to severe gastric problems.
Honey mushrooms are easy to find and extremely rewarding for newcomers to the fungi world. They’re versatile and delicious—although some people may dispute this latter claim. Moreover, they have several potential health benefits and a balanced nutritional profile.
If you want to learn about other functional fungi, keep up on shroomer. We cover every kind of fungus, from choice edibles to psychedelic mushrooms, so you’ll be sure to find something that suits your needs.