There aren’t that many mushrooms you can forage year round, but orange witches butter will pop out of softwood logs any day of the year. That includes -20 days right in the middle of our zone 4 Vermont winter. While it may not taste like much, it is edible, and it’s a year-round survival food. Witches butter mushrooms are also medicinal, and they’ve been shown to have anti-tumor properties, as well as potential to treat certain respiratory conditions.
Many years ago, joined a group of a dozen others for a guided mushroom walk with a well known local forager. One of the first mushrooms she showed us was witches butter (Dacrymyces palmatus), and she told a story about how her young granddaughter would eat it anytime they were in the woods together. It’s not hard to spot a common, bright orange mushroom and the little girl seemed to be drawn to it. She’d ask for a positive ID from grandma before popping the orange jelly fungus in her mouth again and again.
A short while later, the little girl finally got a diagnosis for a condition she’d been battling for some time, and it turns out she had some sort of respiratory problem. Our foraging guide believed that her granddaughter had the intuition to self-medicate and that the witches butter helped her limp along until she had a proper diagnosis.
The story stuck with me, and every time I see witches butter mushrooms in the woods I think of a sick little girl I’ve never met.
Identifying Witches Butter
There are three types of mushrooms with the common name “witches butter” and all are generally considered edible. They look quite similar, and two of the three are practically identical, with yellow jelly-like fruiting bodies. I’m most familiar with the third variety, which is orange jelly fungus (Dacrymyces palmatus).
Yellow Jelly Fungus
Tremella mesenterica and Tremella aurantia mushrooms are yellowish-orange in color and found on hardwood trees with bark still attached. They’re parasitic of other mushrooms, specifically mushrooms that help decompose trees. For that reason, they’re commonly found on downed hardwoods.
Orange Jelly Fungus
Dacrymyces palmatus is known as orange jelly fungus and is much more orange in color. While the yellow jelly fungus grows on hardwoods with bark attached, the orange species grows on conifers such as pine and hemlock, and prefers barkless pieces. Unlike the other two “witches butter” species, it is not parasitic on other mushrooms, but rather is a wood decomposer.
Is Witches Butter Edible?
Both types of jelly fungus, that use the common name “witches butter” are edible, that’s not up for debate in all the sources I’ve found to date. To the best of my knowledge, there are no toxic look-alikes, but since witches butter isn’t commonly eaten, it’s hard to be sure there’s not a toxic look-alike lurking out there that no one’s happened across yet.
Even though the general consensus is that witches butter is edible, there is considerable debate about whether or not it can be eaten raw. It’s often referred to as a “survival mushroom” that’s available year round, easy to identify and you can just pop it in your mouth. My foraging guide was clearly comfortable letting her young granddaughter eat it raw.
Others say that it has to be cooked, either boiled or steamed. As a general rule of thumb, you should always cook any mushroom, wild or cultivated. While many people may be able to get away with eating them raw, I’d hate to be the one that doesn’t have the right constitution and find out the hard way.
This is especially true when foraging with kids. My three-year-old daughter is a budding mushroom hunter, and she’ll often collect specimens for my inspection. I’ve tried to instill in her one core rule, that a mushroom must always be cooked, largely because it prevents her from popping them in her mouth in the wild. That’s true for adults too, and just the act of bringing a mushroom home makes you think on it a bit harder. The excitement of the find has passed, and you can take a second look in the kitchen.
Cooking Witches Butter
Just because something’s edible, doesn’t mean there’s a great reason to eat it. Witches butter is a neat curiosity, with exciting medicinal potential, but it doesn’t taste like much. It quickly shrives down to nothing if left on the counter after picking, though it’ll rehydrate quickly. Many foragers suggest cooking it into a soup for added nutrition.
I found one recipe that crispy fries it in a breading with cajun seasoning. They say it tastes just like calamari, which I’d believe given the texture. Beyond that, I haven’t found any witches butter recipes, or anyone claiming much experience eating it. There’s plenty of it on my land, and I’ll be cooking with it over the next several months trying to develop some tasty recipes for an otherwise tasteless mushroom.
Witches Butter Folklore
Since orange witches butter is a decomposer that often sprouts in barkless softwood after a heavy rain, it’s not uncommon for it to sprout from exposed door frames. Historically, witches butter sprouting from your doorframe was seen as a sign that your household had come under a spell, and stabbing the mushrooms with a sharp tool was the best remedy. Once the wood is infected, it tends to put out a bloom after each heavy rain, which is likely to keep a family paranoid of evil spirits if they don’t replace that beam.