This highly prized mushroom is known by many names: "The Winter Mushroom", "Velvet Foot", or "Enoki", as the Japanese call it. One of the most surprising things about them is that the cultivated version looks nothing at all like the wild ones. They are cultivated in total darkness so they remain white and slender versus the robust brown clusters that grow in nature. You can buy cultivated Enokis at many groceries or you can look for them during winter walks in the woods growing out of elms, beech, ash or oak trees.
When we refer to winter fruiting mushrooms, like for Oysters or the Velvet Foot, we mean they fruit up until the hard freezes set in and then can very quickly fruit again during any sort of brief warming spells that may occur in the winter. You can even find them while you're skiing. I've never done a side-by-side taste test between the two, but can only imagine that the wild ones have a richer flavor because they grow out of natural substrate instead of in a basement in wood chips. They are saprobic so they decay the lignin and cellulose within a tree. They also have a lot more vitamin D in them due to exposure to the sun, something that happens to all wild mushrooms.
You can recognize the Winter Mushroom by it growing in clusters directly out of trees or sometimes from the ground at their base. If you look under the overlapping caps, you can often see white spore deposits there. Spore color is a very important feature so you can rule out any brown spored mushrooms which may be poisonous such as Jack O'Lanterns or Galerinas. Those bad ones will also have a ring on their stem while Enokis do not. Other features include a yellowish to orange-brown sticky cap, closely spaced gills, a thin to medium thick stem which is similar in color to the cap but darkens quite a bit with age and develops a furry texture, hence the name 'Velvet Foot'. Whether you find them in the wild during a winter hike or at your grocery, try cooking with them since they do have a very nice flavor. As always, before eating any wild mushroom, know it well and know its look-alikes. Happy hunting.
Gary Gilbert teaches mushrooms locally and through the Boston Mycological Club. He is also the originator of Mycocards.com, flashcards for learning mushrooms.