Hawk's Wing Mushrooms, Bitter?!
Updated: Apr 4
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 good 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 a bit nostalgic for me as well! 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 possible non-toxic lookalikes, and finally how to harvest, cook, and preserve them!
Hawk's wings are a summer mushroom species that can be found growing in association 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 when very young the developing teeth can sometime look like pores. Their stems are usually short, and can often become hollow all the way 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 would run-off or drain through the landscape. Oh, and don't forgot 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 definitely 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 there are a number of species of Sarcodon that can be found all over North America, but most people agree that these ones found in the Southern Rockies are the most edible. No idea why that is, but I've heard it from multiple sources! It's possible that we have a different, tastier species than other places, or maybe the growing conditions effect their flavor... Our hawk's wings prefer the conifers, but they grow with deciduous trees other states, maybe that has something to do with it. Either way, none of the Sarcodon species are toxic, some of them are just 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 do get confused with hawk's wings are either edible or just bitter. Those species are dryad's saddle, Cerioporus squamosus, and other species of Sarcodon! The dryad's saddle and hawk's wing confusion comes from a crossing of common names and their surface-level similarities. It happens regularly enough that I actually made an infographic to help people sort them out. Their obvious 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 property studied and documented enough to say exactly how many. The one that I usually see is Sarcodon scabrosus which has a much smoother cap compared to the hawk's wing. It typically grows in association with pine trees but can fruit with other coniferous species as well. It can sometimes have a little 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 hotly debating online; should you cut or pull?! Ultimately it doesn't matter, at least as far as we currently understand it. Mushrooms are the fruiting body of fungi and the harvesting technique doesn't effect 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 simply cut at the soil level, chanterelles are a good 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 carefully pick them instead. It's also good practice to cover up any hole or stems that you leave behind.
The best hawk's wings to collect are the young ones that have 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 pretty much 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, and then carefully turn them over and tap them to dislodge any debris that made it's 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. Unfortunately, not everyone gets to enjoy these beautiful mushrooms at the dinner table. A select number of people find these horribly 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 to you.
Hawk's wings are a surprisingly meaty mushroom with a lot of 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 some onions and seasonings, roast in the oven.
Add to soups or stews, ramen would be delicious!
Mince or grind and make into a mushroom patty, never tried this but 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 that you could prepare these mushrooms, so if you find one that you really 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 finds them bitter!