A Parasol mushroom (or even better a clump of them), is a very welcome sight in early Autumn, when I visit the usual haunts where they have grown in the past. These are famous for their shape, resembling a sunshade and their fabulous decoration is said to look like snakeskin, but it changes slightly as they mature.
Its Latin name is Macrolepiota procera, the second part meaning upraised or high and tall, all of which refers to the brown tip of the pointy parasol. You can pick them from August to October all over the UK and in Kent where I live, they may even arrive in November.
A description seems almost unnecessary because this fungus is unmistakable. It has few lookalikes here in the UK, but there are several in the US.
You can spot the creamy white cap from quite a distance away, as its color is very evident against grass or low-growing vegetation.
Read on for help to identify it properly and learn how to cook it too. You may even grow it if you are lucky enough to be offered some mycelium (the underground root part) of this tasty autumnal mushroom.
Where do Parasol Mushrooms Grow Wild?
This mushroom enjoys open sunny areas where humans cut the grass, where animals do it naturally, or in moist, sunny open spaces with rich soil. They grow in clearings in forests, usually near paths worn down by walkers or animals like cows or horses. They can also appear close to rotting wood in gardens, parks, and forests. Dare I suggest even the less cut areas of golf courses?
My first view in the UK, came on a private piece of land, where I was able to gently dig underground and spot the mycelium. All the guidebooks tell you they sprout on unmanured and unimproved grassland. They are reputed to grow among ferns too but I have always found them in sunny areas in many locations all over the country.
The Shaggy Parasol, a close relative, Macrolepieta rhacodes, is also edible but must be cooked. If you are reading this in the US, there is another close relative which may be poisonous – see more below.
How do I identify Parasol mushrooms?
The first thing to note about Parasols is that here in the UK, there are very few mushrooms like them or poisonous ones to mistake them for. The only close one is the Shaggy Parasol, which needs to be cooked but it is edible as well. However, this one may cause 10% of people some indigestion or stomach upsets but these reports are usually about raw mushrooms. Smell it and if it smells bad to you, that is a possible guide but the only surefire way is to cook it and try it.
- Check the cap. If the mushroom is bigger than an adult hand with similar markings, it is almost certainly a Parasol. Smaller heads expand over time to a maximum of about 30 cm, which is huge for a mushroom so they are not hard to find. The distinctive patterning can look like snakeskin (see pics), although there are over 40 varieties of edible Parasol in Europe, so it may vary slightly. The pointed brown central tip is always visible, prominent and brown. Round and bulbous when young even when the mushroom is up to 20 cm high.Compared to the Shaggy Parasol, the cap is flatter but still has the point.
- Check the gills. These are found under the cap when you turn the mushroom cap over. These are white, and slightly slimy to the touch. These gills do not feel as soft as a field mushroom, they are very smooth and white. Be careful when cleaning the gills because small slugs just adore being in there.
An important identifier is that the gills do not connect with the stem at all. They feel slightly slimy, and damp and often provide hiding places for small slugs. A forager’s tip I learned is to drop the cap into water for 5 minutes and most creatures will vacate the gills. If you are checking the colour, it should be gleaming white. If the gills look yellow or green, I would check further for the skirt (see below) but be wary.
- Check the stem. It can be creamy white or bright white and usually the texture has a pattern of mottling or snakeskin. It should also have a moveable white ring, which mushroom foragers call the skirt. This moves up and down freely on the stem, which is a great way to be sure that this is the correct mushroom. When you cut the stem, it is usually hollow inside too.
- Check the base. The final identifier is the base of the mushroom. It looks slightly bulbous.
- Check the spore print. The last check if you are still unsure is to take a spore print. Just remove the cap from the stem and lay it down on dark paper with the patterned side facing upwards, like how it grows, and wait for 12 hours for the spores to drop. If it is white, it is fine to eat. If green, do not eat. The spore print is always white from a Parasol, whereas some of the less palatable foreign ones have a yellowish or green print.
The unique shape of Parasols is a giveaway from a distance. If you are lucky, you can spot the creamy white cap miles away and as you get closer, you can see if it is solitary or in a group.
Like all writers about foraging from the wild, I encourage you to check and double-check and not to eat that fungus until you are certain, and you have made the spore print etc. Remember the foraging rules that you only pick just what you need, not the whole crop. Be mindful of pulling them too hard because that can damage the mycelium. Using scissors to cut the stem is ideal.
My second Parasol sighting is this bunch, and you can see young and older parasols in this picture. There are two distinct Parasol bunches. The littlest one (top right) is small but still distinctively a Parasol. The shape is elongated, more than parasol-shaped, but the brown tip and the emerging pattern are a dead giveaway. If this one is left to grow it will expand widthways.
The way the mushrooms are growing in a clump is another good indicator. They like to crowd together in bunches. This location is not typical, however. This is a neglected area with an old seat I am going to use for something but have never got around to, and there is spinach and rocket happily growing in this patch too.
The closest relative, the Shaggy Parasol, can cause digestion problems and even vomiting, if you consume it raw and if you are susceptible. It must be cooked too and never eaten raw. You do not know if it will not agree with you until you cook it and try it, so that is up to you. However that said, the Parasol mushroom is famous for being the beefsteak of fungi and if your identification is correct, you are in for a culinary treat.
Differences between a Parasol and a Shaggy Parasol
The Shaggy Parasol is a smaller mushroom (5-15 cm) in general, but the cap also has a very scaly pattern with rough edges, giving the mushroom its name. The cap shape looks more like an oval, scalier mushroom than an open Parasol but when young, both mushrooms can look quite similar. The stem is more brown than cream with a pinker base but the stem is always smooth.
The habitat is also different – the Shaggy Parasol prefers shadier corners than the Parasol and you can often find it in neglected pine or conifer forests. The true Parasol is its more glamorous, edible cousin and flaunts its gorgeous cap with distinctive patterning in sunny and grassland locations, often right on the edge of cultivated land.
The poisonous False Parasol (Chlorophyllum molybdites) is not known in the UK apart from a few examples found inside tropical greenhouse locations, not in the open countryside. This one is very common in the US so look for advice on local websites.
When and How to Harvest Parasol Mushrooms
Seek permission first if you spot one on private land. It is illegal in the UK to pick plants or fungi from forests or wild areas without permission. If it grows in your garden, you are free to harvest it whenever they appear! This is from early September (maybe August if it has been particularly wet) and can continue until October-November. Do not pick all of them and do not pull them out. You are likely to get several from one clump so pick large ones, and come back 3-4 days later to pick again.
Hold the stem in your fingers and cut it using a sharp pair of scissors. Pick carefully to encourage the underground mycelium to remain intact. This looks very long and stringy and can be moved in large clumps but will need time to settle down.
How to Cook Parasol Mushrooms
This is reputedly the beefsteak of mushrooms and I can vouch for the taste. It is rich and creamy in pate or soup.
Cut the stem away from the cap and lay it down to remove the wildlife! A forager I met advised me to drop the whole cap into a bowl of water to remove the insect and slug life that hides in there. Then remove the cap and drop it onto tissue paper and so will they. This works, but I prefer examining the gills carefully and removing them.
Once that is done, it’s time to cook. You can use Parasols in any recipe that uses mushrooms so they can be fried, cooked in stews, sautéed, or added to a cooked breakfast. Use them fresh for the best flavour.
Richard Maybe suggests sage and onion stuffing, bacon, or sausage meat in “Food for free” so you can be imaginative. Here are some of my vegetarian suggestions.
Fried. Cut the cap in half to serve 2, with some eggs. Using a little oil, fry them gently on both sides for a total of 5-8 minutes to brown gently, and then serve them with eggs and toast. The flavour is wonderful and sesame oil really brings out the taste if you have some handy!
Mushroom soup. Cut the cap into small pieces and add them to a saucepan of milk. Allow the milk to simmer gently for at least 15 minutes, by which time you will be testing to see if they cooked because it smells so good! Add a pinch of salt to taste if you like. Serve with a whirl of cream and warm toast.
Stuffed mushrooms. The bigger caps are large enough to be filled, so use anything you think will complement them. Meat with a strong flavour will overwhelm them in my opinion, so think of subtler tastes like leftover rice, crunchy amaranth, other slices of vegetables such as courgettes, or lentils. The cooking liquid is absorbed by the stuffing and this makes a fabulous meal.
Mushroom pate. Use 2 complete caps. This is delicious and simple to make. Chop the mushrooms small and cook them in a little oil. If you prefer to use water, then cook them gently for 10 minutes on a low heat and save the liquid to add to the mix when whizzing in a food processor. I like the rough texture so I do not liquidize too much. The gorgeous patterns of the cap can still be seen in this pate when you spread it on bread. Chill and serve cold with salad on slices of toast.
How to grow Parasol Mushrooms
A word of caution here. I am not recommending that people go out into wild forests to dig up patches of land looking for Parasol roots (called mycelium). In fact, this is illegal in the UK. You need to either be the landowner or have permission from them before removing any wild plant from the ground.
So if you stumble across one on your own lawn or a friend’s private land, then yes you can try this method, with permission from the landowner. I recommend taking only one mushroom with some white long thin threads of mycelium and being super careful not to damage the existing area in any way if you intend to try growing them. Try to give them a similar environment to the one you just removed them from.
I was lucky enough to come across a clump of Parasols in a neglected garden and with permission, dug up a pot-sized patch of mycelium with a shovel, to try to grow these edible mushrooms in other places. I put one mushroom intact to grow in a pot of soil from the area. It died back as usual that winter and I forgot all about it. Surprise! Left to itself, it produced a new mushroom the following year so I removed it carefully to a suitable growing environment and my photos are the result.
How to Grow Parasols from Mycelium
The easiest method is to go online and buy some from a reputable grower, which also accurately identifies the mushroom. I found 5 suppliers on eBay who will deliver to the UK, whose source was Lithuania, and another was Germany. Depending on the type they supply, these growers advise sawdust and manure mixed with soil to cultivate the mushrooms and I am sure these work.
My method over the years has been to provide rich soil in a natural sunny environment, with an edge on trodden ground for ease of access. In my case, this is a strimmed edge where I go backwards and forwards with buckets and tools, and keep it tidy during the summer. I do add mulches every year to give the mushrooms some growing power and I think, once established, they are there to stay.
The most important gardening instruction is to do nothing. Cut back overhanging brambles or branches and give it sun. My patch got a leaf mould mulch from a tree growing nearby, and sunshine and rain typical of my area but no digging whatsoever which is what happens in the wild.
After the first heavy rainfall late in the summer, keep your eyes peeled. From early September to November, they appear in clumps in the south of the UK, in Kent. In other areas, they are common from late August right through to October but in Kent, we may even find a few in November, if the weather is still warm enough.
This guide is primarily for UK readers but if you are resident in the US, check carefully for local foraging information because poisonous lookalikes are common there.
Parasol mushrooms are very easy to identify but make sure you go through all the steps before you consider eating any wild mushroom. If you are not sure, then do not eat. If you would like to try to grow them, find a friend who has them in their garden, or buy some online from a reputable source. You are in for an autumnal treat in your kitchen, so bon appetit!
- Roger Phillip, Mushrooms and other fungi of Great Britain and Europe.
- Richard Maybe, Food for Free.
- US readers https://www.mushroomdiary.co.uk/2010/08/parasol-mushrooms/