Hawk's Wing Mushrooms, Bitter?!
Updated: Dec 5, 2022
This article is long overdue! Hawk's wing mushrooms, also known as scaly hedgehogs, are one of my favorite species. They're beautiful, they fruit pretty reliably, usually in reasonable quantities, and they're delicious for most people, but more on that later. I've been picking and eating these mushrooms for about 20 years, so they're also a bit nostalgic for me! Hopefully, by the end of this article, you'll feel confident in identifying these very beginner-friendly mushrooms. We'll go over the season and habitats to look for these, cover a couple of possible non-toxic lookalikes, and finally, how to harvest, cook, and preserve them!
Hawk's wings are a summer mushroom species that can be associated with spruce and fir in the southern Rockies from July through September. They grow terrestrially, usually in clusters or small groups, and can reach sizes of 12 inches or more across! To identify Sarcodon imbricatus, look for tan to brown caps with darker raised scales. On the underside, they have teeth as their spore-bearing structure instead of gills or pores. I should note that the developing teeth can sometimes look like pores when very young. Their stems are usually short and can become hollow to the cap as the mushroom matures.
I usually find hawk's wing mushrooms in higher elevation spruce-fir or mixed conifer forests near water or areas that would hold some extra moisture. Focus on stream edges, areas near swamps or marshes, and locations where water runs off or drains through the landscape. Oh, and don't forget to look at the trees! In my experience, their favorite hosts are spruce trees, so they can often be found in similar habitats to king boletes but closer to any water or drainage that might be around. Water isn't always necessary; these can be found growing in the middle of the forest, but I seem to have the most consistent success near water.
It's probably also good to mention that several species of Sarcodon can be found all over North America, but most people agree that these found in the Southern Rockies are the most edible. No idea why that is, but I've heard it from multiple sources! We may have a different, tastier species than other places, or maybe the growing conditions affect their flavor... Our hawk's wings prefer the conifers, but they grow with deciduous trees in other states, which could have something to do with it. Either way, none of the Sarcodon species are toxic, but some are reportedly inedible.
Hawk's wings are a lovely species for beginning mushroom hunters because they have unique features that are easy to learn and have no toxic lookalikes. The few mushrooms that get confused with hawk's wings are either edible or bitter. Those species are dryad's saddle, Cerioporus squamosus, and other species of Sarcodon! The dryad's saddle and hawk's wing confusion come from a crossing of common names and surface-level similarities. It happens regularly enough that I made an infographic to help people sort them out. Their apparent differences are underlined.
The other mushrooms that can be confused for hawk's wings are the closely related Sarocdon species that can occasionally be found in our mountains. I believe we have a handful of other species, I've found around five of them, but they haven't been adequately studied and documented enough to say exactly how many. I usually see Sarcodon scabrosus, which has a much smoother cap than the hawk's wing. It typically grows in association with pine trees but can fruit with other coniferous species. It can sometimes have a bit of blue-green staining towards the base of its stem. As mentioned, this mushroom is not toxic, merely bitter, and considered inedible. For fun, I have heard word of another edible Sarcodon in our mountains that smells like chocolate and walnuts when cooked, but I've never found it to my knowledge.
How to harvest mushrooms is often debated online; should you cut or pull?! Ultimately it doesn't matter, at least as we currently understand it. Mushrooms are the fruiting body of fungi, and the harvesting technique doesn't affect the mycelium that lives in the substrate that it was growing from. So, why am I talking about this? Well, some species are better to pull and clean, like king boletes that have a lot of meat in their stems! Others with less meat at the base of their stems are easier to cut at the soil level. Chanterelles are an excellent example of this, and so are hawk's wings! Though sometimes, finding their stems in the cluster can be difficult, so in that case, feel free to pick them instead carefully. Covering up any holes or stems you leave behind is also good practice.
The best hawk's wings to collect are the young ones with caps around 5 inches or less, as the larger ones are usually buggy and can develop some bitter flavors. If you find some large ones that aren't buggy, feel free to bring them home and dehydrate them! Dried hawk's wings make great mushroom powder and are lovely in any application you could think of for dried mushrooms! After harvesting, you'll want to brush or cut away any other debris from the stems, carefully turn them over, and tap them to dislodge any debris that made its way into their scales or hollowed stems. Occasionally a brush may be needed for that step as well. Once your hawk's wings are all clean, it's best to transport them carefully! Their scales and teeth are a little delicate, so I use mesh or paper bags and try not to let them get jostled or crushed. If you're one to bring a basket while foraging, that's a perfect vessel for them!
At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that these are delicious for most people. However, not everyone enjoys these beautiful mushrooms at the dinner table. A select number of people find these bitter, metallic tasting, or just off, and we have no idea why! I think that it has something to do with genetics, like people who can't eat cilantro, but there hasn't been any official study done to figure it out! So, before you sit down to your first plate of hawk's wings, you may want to collect and cook up a small amount to see if they taste good.
Hawk's wings are a surprisingly meaty mushroom with many savory or umami flavors. They hold up great to high heat and longer cook times as well! A versatile mushroom! Here are some cooking ideas:
Marinate in oil, soy, Worcestershire, and spices before grilling.
Toss in oil with onions and seasonings, and roast in the oven.
Add to soups or stews; ramen would be delicious!
Mince or grind and make it into a mushroom patty. I have never tried this, but I want to.
Slice and sauté in butter; tough to beat the simple sauté!
I hope you give some of these a try with the hawk's wings you find, but there are limitless ways to prepare these mushrooms, so if you find one that you like, send it to me. I wish you luck in your search for these beautiful mushrooms, and I hope you aren't one of the unlucky few who find them bitter!