Living near the woods is a great joy of ours. Being able to wander around within the mature oaks, beech, ash hornbeam and marvel at the beauty of the silver birch and rowans brings a sense of peace and gifts enormous health benefits. We try to get out to the trees daily and watch the changing season closely. Come the late summer and autumn months, there is a bursting forth of the fruiting bodies of the Fungi clan, and the woods becomes a classroom filled with new possibilities to meet and learn about – journeying there with backpacks filled with Mushroom ID books and baskets to collect samples of new future mushroom mates…
One prolific mushroom in our local woodlands is the Honey Fungus. Honey fungus is the common name given to several different species of the fungus Armillaria. It is an evocative name that sings of the honey coloured caps of the mushroom.
Previously classed as part of one giant agaric grouping of mushrooms, the Honey fungus has been moved into its own genus of 30 or so species. Honey fungus is now therefore considered a genus of edible agarics, but is scientifically considered a distinct genus. The more you delve into taxonomy and the naming of genus and species, you realise that plants and fungi end up with common names from previous classifications, and the whole classification process is actually quite fluid according to scientific and botanical advances.
Origins and Folklore of Honey Fungus
There are seven species of Armillaria in the UK. We will be mainly focussed on A.mellea. The most common species in gardens are A. mellea and A. gallica. Armillaria mellea (A.mellea), is an edible fungus in the genus Armillaria. The genus name comes from the Latin ‘armilla’ meaning bracelet, pertaining to the ringed veil. The species from the Latin ‘melleus’ from the Latin for honey, and relates to the honey coloured fungus.
The classic “Honey Mushroom,” Armillaria mellea, was first named in Europe in the 18th Century; in North America it is limited to roughly the eastern half of North America, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf Coast and the East Coast—although it has also been reported from northern California. It grows in tightly packed clusters, usually on the wood of hardwoods, but it is occasionally found on conifer wood.
The Japanese name of Honey fungus is Naratake and the Chinese name, Mi Huan Jun.
Appearance of Honey Fungus – Armillaria mellea.
The cap is a honey beige brown colour. The word beige has such negative connotations these days, but these shrooms look incredible with their smooth caps that can be almost fluffy, growing out of trees like little relaxation zones for the fae folk. Young specimens of honey fungus look like button mushrooms, then uncurl as they age before turning dark and slimy once they are past their peak.
The gills are pale and look very uniform and are deeper nearer the stem, a formation known as decurrent gills. These gills run out from the centre (radially), across the underside of the cap. Some, but not all of the gills will run all the way from the cap edge to connect to the central stalk (stipe).
The individual mushroom stipe has the remnants of a veil known as an annulus. This veil covers and protects the immature gills, and breaks away from the cap as the mushroom grows. The veil is then left visible around the stalk.
In clumps of honey fungus mushrooms, a white dusting on the tops of shorter mushrooms is caused by spore deposits from the caps above them.
The way to truly identify a mushroom is to conduct a spore print. This is like pure artistic magic and is definitely worth trying for the thrill of the spore print emerging.
Honey fungus mushrooms release pale spores which are visible against a black background.
Making a spore print
Your chosen mushroom
Black and white paper
- Pick two of your mushrooms, make sure the veil has already retreated if there is one present. The mushrooms you choose should not be too young, and if too old, they may have already released their spores. Best to use scissors and wear gloves and/or thoroughly wash your hands afterwards. If you’re unsure of the species to avoid, contact with potentially toxic compounds.
- Cut as near to the stem as possible so that only the cap remains and place one on the whole paper and one on the black paper. Some suggest using one mushroom and placing the black and white papers together with the mushroom head over both. This may be more relevant here, as there are fewer sales to harvest. The paper needs to be somewhere it can sit undisturbed for 3 or more hours.
- Place a glass over each mushroom and allow it to sit for 3 or more hours so that the gills can release as many spores as possible.
- Lift off the glasses and carefully lift up the mushroom. Spores should now be visible on the paper depending on if they are white spores or black spores. You may want to take a photo and make notes.
Where does honey fungus grow?
A.mellea is found in the temperate regions of the Northern hemisphere. Honey fungus grows in groups known as trooping clusters – imagine them marching through tree wood pushing up their fruiting bodies. They thrive on both living and dead deciduous trees (a term given to trees that shed their leaves each year). Their appetite is voracious and diverse, and they are not fussy about which species of deciduous tree they inhabit.
White sheets of fungal mycelium grow under the bark of roots and stem-bases, plus black rhizomorphs (aka bootlaces) grow on root surfaces, under the bark, and in the soil.
If you are seeing honey fungus in a tree, it could be a sign that the tree is dying or already dead. The life cycle can last hundreds of years or just several months depending on the food sources available.
Many gardeners and ground people live in fear of this family of fungi moving in on their patches as it spreads underground, attacking and killing the roots of perennial plants and then decaying the dead wood. It is the most destructive fungal disease in UK gardens.
Medicinal Benefits of Honey Fungus
Several antibiotics, primarily sesquiterpene aryl esters, have been isolated from A. mellea and show strong action against gram-positive bacteria (Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, Enterococcus etc.), as well as yeasts and other fungi (DM Donnelly et al. 1985). This is extremely promising considering antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria so prevalent today. We have included honey fungus as an internal preparation in conjunction with careful external treatment of strep skin in sections, which can be very worrying if they start to spread potentially leading to the blood infection, septicaemia.
A.mellea mycelium contains high levels of polysaccharides with anti-ageing (always an interesting researched action of compounds but usually referring to antioxidant qualities), immunomodulating and anti-vertigo activity. In addition, nucleoside analogues play a role in some of A. mellea’s functions and a number of indole compounds have been isolated, including tryptamine, L- tryptophan and serotonin, with A. mellea fruiting bodies containing 2.207mg serotonin per 100g dry weight. (LW Gao et al, 2009, J Wu et al, 2012).
There are some amazing potentials for Honey fungus in medicine, as long as careful preparation to remove the potential toxic compounds is carried out.
Don’t stop reading yet…!
If you want to know the more about Honey Fungus, why not join our Coven? You’ll soon have access to our best resources while increasing your confidence and knowledge about the magic of herbs and master the art of herbal remedy creation, spells and rites, plus step by step guides to getting to know your plants better.
Our article on Honey Fungus – Identification, Medicine and Food will cover the topics above more in-depth, plus:
- Honey Fungus and Cancer
- Antibiotic properties of Honey Fungus
- How to prepare honey fungus for food
- And much more!
Bozena Muszyńska, Katarzyna Sułkowska-Ziaja, Małgorzata Wołkowska, Halina Ekiert. (2011).
Chemical, pharmacological, and biological characterization of the culinary-medicinal honey mushroom, Armillaria mellea (Vahl) P. Kumm. (Agaricomycetideae): a review. International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms.
D M Donnelly, F Abe, D Coveney, N Fukuda, J O’Reilly, J Polonsky, T Prangé. (1985). Antibacterial sesquiterpene aryl esters from Armillaria mellea. Journal of Natural Products
Gao LW, Li WY, Zhao YL and Wang JW. (2009) The cultivation, bioactive components and pharmacological effects of Armillaria mellea. African Journal of Biotechnology.8(25):7383-7390.
Shengshu An, Wenqian Lu, Yongfeng Zhang, Qingxia Yuan, Di Wang. (2017). Pharmacological Basis for Use of Armillaria mellea Polysaccharides in Alzheimer’s Disease: Antiapoptosis and Antioxidation. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity
Tsang-Pai Liu, Chien-Chih Chen, Pei-Yu Shiao, Hui-Ru Shieh, Yu-Yawn Chen, Yu-Jen Chen (2015) Armillaridin, a Honey Medicinal Mushroom, Armillaria mellea (Higher Basidiomycetes) Component, Inhibits Differentiation and Activation of Human Macrophages. International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms
Wu J, Zhou J, LangY,Yao L, Xu H, Shi H, Xu S. (2012 ). A polysaccharide from Armillaria mellea exhibits strong in vitro anticancer activity via apoptosis-involved mechanisms. International Journal of Biological Macromolecules. Nov;51