Popinki (or podpinki or pidpenky) are remarkable mushrooms in many respects. As this mushroom prefers to grow on dead or injured roots and wood it got its name from the phrase, "під пеньки" meaning "near the stump." These mushrooms are actually a complex collection of six to thirty species collectively called Armillaria mellea in biological latin. Their exact number is disputed even by experts. In English they are called "honey mushrooms." The yellow and the tan varieties are the most popular variety among Rusyns.
The yellow summer popinki mushrooms bloom up in September while the tan winter ones appear after the first frost, usually in late October. If there is a warm spell, the winter popinki can produce harvests as late as December. Popinkis have a quite dense, almost meat-like texture. Popinkis are usually dried on strings or occasionally parboiled before use as they sometimes can cause stomach aches if eaten fresh or raw.
Most mushrooms shrink to half size or more when dried. But popinki, being so dense, do not skrink quite as much. Good air circulation is important when drying popinki or any mushroom. Putting the mushrooms on a string gives maximum exposure to the air. When stringing up mushrooms one should use a big darning-type needle and heavy string. Under the pressure of a mushroom's weight, thin string of thread type can cut right through a mushroom, allowing it to fall off the string. Strung up on strings under the eaves on the south side of a low building is an ideal place for drying mushrooms. There they are sheltered yet get exposure to warm, dry autumn air. Hanging the strings of mushrooms in a window above a radiator is also a good way of drying them. Near a doorway where the passage of passing people stirs the air is also acceptable.
When dried, popinki are reconstituted in boiling water before being used in various food dishes. Popinki in sauerkraut or sour cream are common dishes among Rusyns as well as popinki-stuffed kapustiniki. Holy meals such as Christmas Eve supper required meatless and non-dairy meals and dishes with the meat-like popinki were especially popular at such times.
The visible part of growing mushrooms are only part of it. Below ground are the feeding hairs, the mycelium. The mycelium can be compressed into root-like "rhizomorphs" which can spread outward at a rate of about one meter per year and it is in this way that popinki mushrooms spread and reproduce themselves. There doesn't appear to be any natural limit to this process except the availability of dead wood or injured roots and so these extended mushroom fields can grow to great size, in one recently discovered case, covering several square miles and several thousand years old. But this was neither the popular yellow nor the tan variety.
The mycelium and the rhizomorphs are bioluminescent and glow in the dark. Some sources say this applies somewhat even to the mushroom itself. It is said that this bioluminescence is most prominent in damp conditions at temperatures of about 25 degrees Centigrade. Rotten wood infected with the mycelium of the popinki glows with a soft, eerie green light. This greenish light is known as "foxfire" and a piece of rotten wood glowing with foxfire is called "touchwood." Touchwood can glow brightly for one or two weeks after being taken from a forest.
Touchwood has been used as a source of light prior to electricity. It have been used as light when digging tunnels, and on the advice of Benjamin Franklin it was used to provide illumination in the first submarine used in battle, the Turtle. As forests decrease in extent and people visit forests increasingly seldom, foxfire and touchwood are becoming less and less well known. One tale has it that a man seeing eerie green light coming from his stack of firewood, thought it to be caused by leakage from an atomic power plant. The image on the left above is a night photo of foxfire.
Before trying to find popinki mushrooms, consult a mushroom guide book or other expert source. There are varieties of mushrooms, similar in appearance, that are poisonous.
Images: Nathan Wilson, Fred Stevens and Bruce McAdam