Guide to Pine or Matsutake Mushrooms in British Columbia
Pine mushrooms (Tricholoma murrillianum) in British Columbia are an edible mushroom related to the popular Tricholoma matsutake found in Japan. In North America there is the American Matsutake and in British Columbia the Western Matsutake.
Pine mushrooms are generally large and white with reddish-brown patches. They also have a solid texture and a pungent "spicy" smell.
These mushrooms are popular due to their distinctive taste, fetching a higher price than even morels. Many pine mushrooms are harvested and sold commercially for the export market. Extra care should be taken not to confuse pine mushrooms with poisonous lookalikes.
Pine Mushroom Identification
Key features for identifying pine mushrooms:
Dense, rubbery texture. Stem cannot be crushed between fingers.
Spicy smell. Variously described as similar to cinnamon, gym socks, or even pine resin.
Base tapers to a point.
A fine, grey "podzol" soil around the base.
Overall colour is white, both inside and out. Spores are also white.
When mature, develops a yellowish tinge, cinnamon-brown scales, and a broad wavy cap.
Soft, prominent veil when young. Leaves a soft ring when mature.
How to distinguish pine mushroom from look-alikes
Pine mushrooms have two distinctive characteristics that set them apart from their lookalikes: The smell (whether spicy or sweaty - it should stand out), and their firmness. You should not be able to crush the stipe of a pine mushroom between your fingers.
Western & American Matsutake: T. murrillianum vs T. magnivelare
Western matsutake (Tricholoma murrillianum) is found west of the Rocky Mountains, mostly in the Pacific Northwest.
In 2017 it was separated from its grouping with T. magnivelare (the American matsutake), which used to be known as Armillaria ponderosa.
Western pine mushrooms are said to be whiter than other North American varieties, although they are still very similar. The easiest way to distinguish these species is based on where you find them.
Pine Mushroom Look-alike: Amanita smithiana
Picture Below: The mushroom on the left is a pine mushroom. On the right is the potentially deadly Smith's amanita. Note that they share many superficial characteristics, like being white with brown markings, tapering towards the base, and so on.
The two key features to distinguish a pine mushroom - smell and firmness - cannot be assessed from a picture.
Other Pine Mushroom Look-alikes
Tricholoma caligatum / T. dulciolens
Catathelasma imperiale group AKA "big brown cat"
Tricholoma focale group
Leucopaxillus albissimus group
Russula brevipes, with their low stature and brownish scales, make for especially deceptive and frustrating pine mushroom lookalikes. Fortunately, Russula brevipes are an edible, although unappetizing mushroom.
Above: A short-stemmed russula mushroom, Russula brevipes.
Pine Mushroom Lookalike: Amanita aprica
To the untrained eye, various Amanita mushrooms could be mistaken for pine mushrooms. This is because of their generally pale and stocky appearance. Furthermore, the volva (egg sacs around the base) could be mistaken for the "pointed" stem base of the pine mushroom.
Amanita aprica is one example of an Amanita mushroom that has been mistaken for matsutake. Amanita aprica was classified relatively recently (in 2005) and looks similar to the more widely known Amanita gemata.
You can differentiate these mushrooms from mutsutake by the following:
Amanita aprica fruit in the spring, while pine mushrooms are late fall
Amanita aprica have no distinctive odor, while pine mushrooms have a strong spicy cinnamon smell
Consuming Amanita aprica can have a number of unpleasant effects, including vomiting, nausea, cramps, and confusion.
Pine Mushroom Cousin: Tricholoma focale (group)
This relation to the pine mushroom has some common features, including a broad wavy cap, tapering stem with grey soil at the base, and promiment veil remnants. They can also grow in the same places as pine mushrooms.
However, there are two good ways to tell them apart:
T. focale has a bright orange, almost metallic colouring (see right).
T. focale lacks the distinctive smell of the pine mushroom. It's smell is variously described as metallic or like starchy vegetables.
Tricholoma focale is not edible. Its common names include "Booted Knight" and "Veiled Orange Trich".
Confused about mushroom identification?
👈 Then check out our new online mushroom foraging course covering the basics of mushroom hunting including biology, identification, collection, and more.
Or, sign up to become a member of the school for future notifications.
Above: A large pine mushroom or "flag"
How to Find Pine Mushrooms
Pine Mushroom Habitat
Pine mushrooms generally grow under conifers in nutrient-poor soils (thin, sandy). Pine mushrooms also grow from under moss, and can spend their prime days hidden from view.
How To Spot Pine Mushrooms
To find prime pine mushrooms, look for baseball sized lumps on the ground and carefully excavate to check for their caps. Replace any moss or topsoil that you disturb.
Check for small pits dug-up in the soil or moss. Deer often dig for pine mushrooms as well.
Mature pine mushrooms are sometimes called "flags", being more noticeable in the undergrowth thanks to their caps extending into broad, wavy discs.
Pine Mushroom Indicators
The "sugar" or "candystick" flower (Allotropa virgata) is a tall, red and white plant that feeds off pine mushroom mycelium. Look for these plants as indicators for future pine mushroom foraging spots.
Pine mushrooms are found with various conifers and some hardwoods in the Pacific Northwest.
Where To Find Pine Mushrooms on Vancouver Island
Known locations for pine mushrooms on Vancouver Island include the areas between Campbell River and Comox, between Port Alberni and Tofino, and in the Cowichan Valley.
Pine mushrooms have mycorrhizal relationships with a wide variety of trees like Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla).
They also tend to grow in well-established forests (50 to 200 years old) with thick undergrowth, including abundant acid-loving plants like evergreen huckleberries (Vaccinium ovatum), kinnikinnick or bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), and salal bushes (Gaultheria shallon).
Other associated plants include vine maple (Acer circinatum), prince's pine (Chimaphila umbellata), and boxwood (Pachistima myrsinites). (source)
Overall, look for pine mushrooms in forests that are well shaded with thick layers of moss and undergrowth growing over fine, sandy soils.
Above: Chimaphila umbellata, pipsissewa or prince's pine.
Above: A pine mushroom cap exposed in the undergrowth
Above: Dense undergrowth featuring pine saplings, salal, and evergreen huckleberry
A common identifier for pine mushrooms is a fine, powdery grey soil around their base.
This soil is known as "podzol" and can be a crucial indicator for pine mushroom habitats.
Basically, podzol is formed when organic matter combines with minerals and seeps down through the more porous upper layers of the soil. As this mixture leaves the topsoil, it bleaches the layer below, leaving an ashy substance behind. This grey soil layer gives this soil-type its name, as the word "podzol" comes from a Russian phrase meaning "under ash soil".
Podzolic soils are also typically quite acidic with inhibited or stalled decomposition.
If you're really serious about your pine mushroom hunting, feel free to peruse the BC government's soil survey maps for Vancouver Island.
Pine Mushroom Season BC
Pine mushrooms typically appear in the late-fall. A good time to go looking for pine mushrooms is between October and December. For Vancouver Island, the optimal time to go looking for pine mushrooms is between the end of October and the end of November.
The most important trigger for pine mushroom fruiting is temperature. As such, pine mushrooms will begin fruiting in cooler areas, such as higher elevations or shadier aspects. Once the season is underway, pine mushrooms will then start to appear in warmer areas, either at lower elevations or in sunnier spots. So, if you find a pine mushroom that is too old, try sunnier spots at lower elevations, and do the reverse if you're finding mushrooms that are too young.
Typically, pine mushrooms will begin to appear after temperatures have dropped below 15° C and then risen again to 18-20° C. Subsequent stages of temperature drops and then rises will result in new flushes appearing. If the temperature drops too consistently, or the subsequent warming periods are too long or too short, fruiting can be stalled.
This dependence on temperature is usually why mushroom harvests can vary drastically from year to year.
Once the first light frost appears, the season will probably be over.
How To Pick Pine Mushrooms
Use a long, slender tool to reach under the pine mushroom and lever it up from its base.
Or, grab the cap and gently wiggle or rotate the mushroom free from its hole.
Replace any disturbed ground or moss (at the very least, this keeps the forest floor looking nice, and helps to hide your new foraging spot)
Make sure to check each and every harvested mushroom for the correct smell and texture, to ensure that you don't have any deadly Smith's amanita mushrooms.
How to Cook Pine Mushrooms
Because of their very strong smell, pine mushrooms should only be used in very simple dishes, or as a flavourful garnish. Alternatively, you can grill and eat them separately.
Use them in a stir fry, or to add flavor to miso soup.
However, as David Arora suggests, sautéing pine mushrooms can deplete their flavour. He recommends grilling or roasting them instead.
Facts About Pine Mushrooms
The German name for pine mushrooms is "kiefernpilz"
The French name for pine mushrooms is "champignons des pins"
Most commerical pine mushroom picking in BC is for export to Japan, where pine mushrooms fetch a very high price