King Stropharia, or Wine Cap mushrooms, are one of the most unsung heroes of the mushroom world. Not only are they edible and delicious (and HUGE), but they are one of the easiest to grow, and most beneficial mushrooms in the garden. In soil ecosystems, their mycelium acts as an intermediary between primary and secondary decomposers. This means that they first digest and break down fresh debris, and then they host complex communities of decomposer microbes that join with it to create new, rich soil. The sweet scent they produce as they grow attracts bees, earthworms, and other beneficial insects. They also produce unique spiny cells, called acanthocytes, which immobilize and digest harmful nematodes. Provided enough moisture, they can fruit year-round, and frequently produce more than you can even eat. As long as they maintain a steady feed of fresh compost to break down, this species will remain a resident in the garden indefinitely.
Wine caps are named for the color of their immature caps. When young, they are a rich burgundy color, with a thick white stem. This gradually softens to brown, and eventually grey as they grow larger and larger. These mushrooms are also called “Garden Giants” because they can grow large enough to seat a small child! They can grow at an alarming rate, appearing first as tiny buttons in the morning, and towering into 5 pound monstrosities by sunset of the same day. They commonly grow wild in hardwood forests, and in urban areas where woodchip mulch is used in landscaping. They travel in the potted soil of commercial ornamental plants, and have a wide distribution all over the world.
Flavor-wise, Wine Caps are fresh, delicate, and nutty (though some people say they taste like potatoes!). Their edibility declines as they age, but young Wine Caps are crisp and sweet. The large caps are excellent for stuffing, as you would a Portabella. Because of their abundant surface area, they do well on the grill or BBQ. You better figure out lots of ways to prepare them, because if you grow your own, you’re going to have more than you know what to do with!