Amanita Velosa, My Illicit Love

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Every spring, I steal away from the house quietly. An uncontrollable urge sends me out, looking for my illicit love. I am gone for long days, and I often come back tired and smelly but very, very happy. Mostly this happens to me a few days after a rain, when the sun has begun burning the dew off the lurid green than is Northern California in March and April. The days are lovely, and so is the object of my lust. She is the ultimate California girl. Her name is Velosa.

Amanita velosa button
Photo by Hank Shaw

Amanita velosa to be exact. She is lithe and beautiful, with honey-brown skin. She often wears a little white hat, and is as fond of hanging out under oaks as any dryad of the Elder Times.

She is a mushroom. And she has me firmly under her spell.

I know what you are thinking: I am hanging out with a dangerous girl. Amanitas can be a rough crowd, deadly even. And you’d be right. I have seen Velosa’s cousins, A. ocreata and A. phalloides, the Destroying Angel and the Death Cap, at the same time I find velosa. I’ve even seen the Angel under the same tree as Velosa.

That element of danger, that requirement that you be very aware of your surroundings and have your wits about you, makes it more exciting. I’ve been hypnotized picking hundreds of morel mushrooms, a gray army in a battered landscape. Do this with Amanita velosa and you can wind up in the hospital waiting for a liver transplant. Or worse. Velosa may be beautiful, but loving her is flirting with danger.

Not that A. velosa is impossible to safely identify. If you are careful, and you follow every one of the following guidelines, and only pick Amanita velosa when she is at her freshest and most perfect, you should be fine. Note I said “should.” Messing with amanita mushrooms is absolutely not for beginners. I picked them for a full two years before I ate one. “Pick many before eating any” is the appropriate aphorism. Got it? Good. Now, on to some ID…

First, Amanita velosa only comes out in springtime, mostly in California and, once in a while, Oregon and Baja California. (Sorry, rest of the world.) I’ve never heard of velosas flushing earlier than February. I’ve seen them as late as early May, and March seems to be the prime month. A cool April will bring her out, too.

There is a similar mushroom, the Amanita vernicoccora, that also comes up in spring, but it is larger and will grow more in the Sierra Nevada. 

Second, she hangs out with oaks. I find velosa mostly with our Central Valley scrub oaks, but occasionally with blue, valley or other oaks, too. Coastal live oak is another good one to look for, too. And look around young trees. I seem to find more around patches of saplings or single young trees more than the great big old ones. Look a bit away from the trunk of the tree, near the drip line and beyond. Destroying angels tend to like to be closer to the trunk.

As an amanita, she will emerge from an “egg,” an orb of mycelial tissue underground. The bottom of the “egg” will remain at the base of the mushroom. When you pick velosas, you want to use a knife or somesuch to dig the whole mushroom out because the shape of that “egg” is very important. Look at the picture to below and to the right: See how the “egg” is conical, not round? Look for that.

Now, take the remains of the “egg” off and look at the stem: It should not be bulbous. It should be the same width as the rest of the stem, called a stipe in mushroomer jargon, or even tapered. Cut the bottom of the stem and look at the center: It should be hollow, with a mix of cottony stuff and gelatinous stuff in the hollow space.

Amanita velosa side view with egg remnant
Photo by Hank Shaw

Note that there is no gossamer ring around the middle of the stipe; this is called an annulus in mushroom-speak. Many other amanitas have one. Velosa does not.

The cap is also distinctive. It should be a pretty hen’s egg brown. If it is anything other than this pretty color, don’t pick it. Velosas can be white, but so are destroying angels. Avoid the white ones. Washed out velosas and death caps can look similar, too. Death caps are a bit more greenish, but color is not a great indicator of species. You need to look at more.

Amanita velosa in the ground
Photo by Hank Shaw

Notice the white “hat.” This is the remains of the top of the mycelial “egg.” Amanita velosa’s hat comes off easily by wiping it with your finger. On many other amanitas, it does not. The hat on velosa is almost always one piece, in the center of the mushroom. Not flecked or polka-dotted like many other amanitas, although I have seen this happen occasionally.

Finally, look at the rim of the cap: It must have striations on it. Both death caps and destroying angels have smooth edges to their caps. But beware: Age can make the caps of other amanitas look as if they have those striations. The best way to tell is when the mushroom has not fully opened. When the cap is still bell-shaped, the presence or absence of striations will be obvious. If they’re not obvious, don’t eat the mushroom.

It bear repeating one more time: If the mushroom doesn’t meet every one of these criteria, chances are it’s not Amanita velosa. Don’t eat it.

Once you have your stash of velosas, you are in for a thrill. They are, to my mind, the best-tasting mushroom in North America. Better than morels, better than porcini, better than black trumpets or chanterelles. The flavor is almost sweet, yet fully savory, a bit nutty, clean-tasting and mild.

Reportedly they are one of the few mushrooms that is good to eat raw, although I’ve never done this. I always sauté them in butter or duck fat, with a little salt and black pepper. They need nothing more to enjoy them, although the slightest squeeze of lemon juice can brighten things up. And I always share them with Holly, my girlfriend. If I didn’t, then I’d really be in the doghouse…

What is it about Amanita velosa’s allure? Taken together, it has all the elements of a torrid, brief affair. She is beautiful, for sure. And part of the allure is her rarity. I’ve never found more than a pound at a time, and there are years when she simply doesn’t show up at all. I’ve long since gotten over the danger element, having picked this mushroom for the better part of a decade now, but every time I see one it still sends a shot of adrenaline through me.

And picking Amanita velosa is also one of the most intense forages of the year: They are often only up for a few days, and each mushroom can go from perfect to ruined in one hot day. You walk and walk and walk for them, finding one here, one there, each one buoying you for another mile, another hour.

And then, just like that, she’s gone. A sweet memory that will linger until she again decides to return to your life.

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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11 Comments

  1. Just wondering… Have you or anyone ever tried to dehydrate velosas for later, or any other means for preserving? I know, the answer is probably “why?”. However, it has been a wet year in Cali, it is March, and good gathering so far 🙂 Also, I agree with you Hank, I have decided chanterelles are my second favorite!

  2. I’m not sure that hen’s egg brown adequately describes the A. velosa I’ve seen in the East Bay, which have a “cooked salmon” hue, recognizable on sight. I’m not advocating anyone deciding to collect this mushroom “on sight” on that asis, because there are indeed variables, as the article notes. But the brown/white dichotomy is too exclusive, I think.

  3. Great article, well-written. The thing I like about velosas is, they taste like nothing else you have ever tasted. Lots of that flavor, but not in an overpowering “bomb” kind of way like, say, a porcini or black trumpet.

  4. Delicious, and I harvested them for a while (I live in Sonoma, where they are not that uncommon), but, just about confusing a Death Cap (the spring flush doesn’t have the green color, and the cap often has a veil), I don’t think the risk is worth it.

    But, I agree, one of the best edibles.

  5. We’re having a bumper crop of amanitas in El Dorado county this year! Last month it was Vernicoccora, this month the Velosas are everywhere.

  6. I am brand new to mushrooms, for some reason I had this secret hate for them. For the first time I have tried rabbit this year…..liked it….so I decided to broaden my horizon I made some salsberry venison with mushrooms and loved it so I am deciding to become a mushroom hunter. and learn about many mushrooms here in Michigan. I have access to many acres of land I can hunt for them. So I thank you for your info on so many things and I enjoy your blogs so much so I sign people up for it. I ask them first.

  7. Was lucky enough to find Amanita Velosa for the first time this year. The date seems a little early as they where found in the the Los Angeles area on January 23rd. Didn’t eat them, not quite ready to venture into the Amanitas. Thanks Hank for the awesome post as usual.

  8. Great post. I have to say that I agree with you regarding velosa’s flavor. They are absolutely delicious. They seem rather delicate and frail, and yet they hold together surprisingly well in the pan. Great texture, rich, meaty flavor. Mmmm. This year was a very good for velosa at my patches, but I still wish I had collected more.

    As for identification, David Arora recently posted in the California mushroom identification group on facebook about the different clades of amanitas and the best way to distinguish them. It was very informative and helped me to better hone which features to look for as the most distinguishing. He shared examples from all over the world and had people venture guesses of which clade they belonged to in order to demonstrate his point. Not sure if you’re a member of that group, but you might want to see if you can dig the post up.

  9. Mushrooms as a whole are still too intimidating of a source of foraged food for me. But a fascinating read, and I’m glad there are still such folks out there with the courage, intelligence, and caution to preserve this knowledge.

  10. I tried some years ago and thought they tasted kind of metallic; not very good. Maybe just the soil in my neighborhood? Perhaps I should try again.