If you are like me and enjoy (or rather crave) the euphoric satisfaction of confidently identifying a plant, mushroom, or any other organism for that matter, then I’m sure that you can relate and offer your sympathy for when the exact opposite happens. Sometimes, due to no fault of your own, your seemingly careful and thorough research leads you further and further astray, coaxing you instead through a labyrinth of overwhelmingly complicated and outdated taxonomic literature that few sane amateur mycologists wish to trouble themselves with. Allow me to introduce you to Boletus subvelutipes.
Let’s take a few steps back for a moment so as to allow me the time and space to give you some context. Back in late August of 2016 my fellow ‘fungiphiles’ and I were taking a walk through the humid summer woods of southern Ontario and encountered an unknown species of bolete mushroom growing in a grove of eastern white pine, bitternut hickory and oak (predominately red oak intermixed with northern pin oak, Quercus ellipsoidalis, a rare species in Ontario restricted to a handful of localities in and around Brantford and Paris, but that’s a story for another time).
I had never encountered a mushroom like this before and they were growing gregariously, forming sporadic clusters that must have continued for hundreds of yards through the undergrowth. Having myself virtually surrounded by so many of them, I foolishly assumed that they were likely a well known species, guessing that a bolete that appears to be this common here is likely be found growing in equal numbers in suitable habitats elsewhere.
These unfamiliar boletes were exceptionally colorful and intriguing, emerging individually, in pairs or occasionally as triplets among the leaf litter with velvety, bright rusty red caps which faded to buff or cinnamon near the rims and were placed atop tan or beige colored stalks with fine, longitudinal reddish streaks. On further inspection the pore surface on the underside of the cap was not only pitted and sponge-like, as is typical with boletes, but vivid red with yellow margins.
Additionally, pulling the mushrooms up from the ground revealed that the bases of the stalks had a coating of fine reddish hairs and that even with gentle handling, the flesh of the mushrooms bruised blue. Upon noticing this curious and exciting transformation we subsequently discovered that cutting the stalk and cap of the mushrooms lengthwise in half caused an intense and dramatic staining of the faintly yellow flesh to a bright blue that faded to an almost inky black with time.
After harvesting several specimens and returning home, I eagerly began the task of identifying them which I thought would take little to not time at all considering the myriad of what I thought were unique identifying features that I had yet to encounter in any other bolete or bolete-like mushroom. As 5 minutes turned to 15 minutes, and one hour turned into nearly 2, the reality of the situation sank in. I wasn’t going to come to a solid conclusion or anywhere near one. I had unknowingly stumbled into a quite a taxonomic enigma.
That reality of the situation turned out to be that only are there numerous closely related species that all fit the descriptions of the specimens I had on hand, but that these species could very well be either many and well defined or few and highly polymorphic. This made the task of separating each species from the other using our existing understanding of these relationships about as clear as mud. In order for me to not reinvent the wheel and attempt to explain what has already been explained well enough already, allow me to draw your attention to the following excerpt from the Mushroom Expert website:
I’m going to make this easy. If your brown-capped, red-pored, blue-staining bolete was collected under hardwoods east of the Rocky Mountains and has a stem that lacks reticulation but features a finely fuzzy coating over its base, call it “Boletus subvelutipes“–unless you are in the southeastern United States, in which case you should consider Boletus austrinus (stem covered with purple floccules) and Boletus hypocarycinus (basal mycelium white, spores under 12 µ long).
That’s pretty much as accurate as you can be–even from a scientific standpoint, unless by “scientific” you really mean, “I want to immerse myself in a mess centered around a 40-year-old treatise of Michigan boletes,” or, “I want to apply European species names and concepts to North American boletes despite the fact that the European species probably don’t actually occur on our continent.” If any of that sounds like fun to you, I’ve done my best to help you out, starting with couplet #50 of my key to red-pored boletes. Alternatively, you could try entertaining yourself with Smith & Thiers’s 1971 key to Stirps subvelutipes. (Alter-alternatively, you could just pound your head into a wall.)
This is an area of bolete taxonomy that needs a lot of work. I encourage you to participate! If you find subvelutipes-like boletes in the woods, why not take careful notes on the ecology, photograph or scan the mushrooms, describe the collection, and preserve your specimens? Described below, and illustrated to the right, are examples representing three rather different subvelutipes-like boletes I have collected.
In light of this information, I have concluded that my specimens are most likely the true Boletus subvelutipes, which simultaneously acts as a label for this dumping ground of highly variable and widespread yet undoubtedly poorly documented complex of species. I do not claim for this identification to be correct, for I am not exactly satisfied and confident in this conclusion, yet this post needed a title and so why not go with the ‘lumper’ that summarizes the whole group, yes?
This specimen could very likely be B. discolor, B. queletii, or Neoboletus luridiformis, as these are all possibilities according to couplet #50 mentioned in the above excerpt. If during your excursions in the summer woods in eastern North America you happen to encounter any of these red pored, blue-staining boletes, then I encourage you to also follow the advice described above and carefully document the habitat, time of year and anatomical features of your specimens as they may prove to be indispensable to some brave soul who may at some point attempt to rationalize and further study this group of fascinating fungi.
In conclusion, you may be wondering, are any of these species edible? From what I understand, no one knows for sure and it is highly unlikely. It is far more likely that they will cause some degree of gastrointestinal distress and since as of this writing classifying them on a species level is, as we have seen, notoriously unreliable except perhaps for highly specialized experts, it is best to leave this group alone and divert our focus to some of the more easily identified of delicious, edible boletes.
Photo Credits: Abbe Greggus