Mushroom hunting is not for the faint of heart, that we all can agree on. People are typically on guard when entering the uncharted territory of mushrooms, and quite reasonably so.
For some, it’s moderate caution and for others, it’s fear blown out of proportions. Yet for most, one question looms large:
Is the mushroom edible?
With over 10.000 mushroom species in the United States alone, the task of mushroom identification sounds daunting.
It doesn’t have to be that way! All you have to do is do your homework.
And although hunting for mushrooms requires dedication and quite a bit of research, many people can’t resist the payoff.
By embracing a foraging lifestyle you can:
- Source your food locally.
- Reduce your carbon footprint.
- Add a sense of adventure to your life.
So, nerve yourself, as we at Clean Air Gardening are about to teach you 6 easy mushroom identification tips, so you can start foraging today.
Straightforward Tips for Identifying Mushrooms
So how can you tell if a mushroom is poisonous?
Here’s the hard truth: The only way to identify poisonous species from edible ones is to learn to differentiate between the species.
Mushroom identification is tricky as many mushrooms have toxic lookalikes. That’s why you can’t rely on visual data only.
A winter mushroom called velvet shank (Flammulina velutipes) is a great example! The mushroom is often mistaken for the poisonous species, funeral bell (Galerina marginata).
Funeral bell is typically gone by January, but in mild winter it can overlap with velvet shank.
The only way to tell the two apart is by inspecting the spore print, which is white in velvet shank and snuff brown in the funeral bell.
You also need to have a look at the mushroom ring, as velvet shank doesn’t have one.
There are also some general rules to help you identify which mushrooms are edible.
Ready, mushroom hunter?
Use All Five Senses When Examining Your Mushrooms
First and foremost, you need to know what to look for. Telling a safe from a poisonous mushroom by merely looking at it doesn’t do the job.
Look at the texture of your mushrooms, the bruising, and the color pattern!
Pick them up, scratch them, smell, and feel them! Some toxic lookalikes might bruise after applying pressure to them.
Scrutinize All the Parts of Your Mushrooms
Let one detail escape your attention, and the consequences can be irredeemable. This is why you want to look closely at all the mushroom parts.
- Fruit Body: The mushroom shape can reveal plenty about the safety of a given species. The color as well.
The mushroom’s body often determines its species. Does your mushroom look like a big round ball or rather as a flower? What color is it? Red mushrooms are often toxic or strongly hallucinogenic.
- Cap: The upper part of the fruit body that looks like a cap. Check the cap shape, width, and color as well as the angle at which it stands with respect to the stem.
- The Underside of the Cap: The presence or absence of gills, pores, spines, or tubes at the underside of the cap can help you tell the difference between the members of the same genera that are tricky to tell apart.
- Stem: Stems can also be good identifiers. Make sure you eyeball any rings, stripes, or striations.
- Substrate: The growing medium can also tell heaps about a mushroom. Does it grow directly in the soil, on leaves, or on logs?
- Season: The growing season can be a dead giveaway whether a species is either safe or harmful.
Don’t Jump to Conclusions
There is nothing black and white about searching for mushrooms in the wild. A bright mushroom screaming ‘poison’ all over it can be a good candidate for a scrumptious meal. And contrary to popular belief, edible mushrooms are not always dull-looking.
We can say the opposite of toxic mushrooms. Some of the deadliest mushrooms you can find, such as Galerina and Amanita, won’t dazzle you with their color. They’re quite inconspicuous.
Take a Spore Print
Sometimes you’ll be sweating blood trying to identify mushrooms. Yet, there’s a simple solution for such dead-end situations.
If you’re having doubts about a given specimen, a spore print can help you sort things out.
The experts use this diagnostic character to determine the color of mushroom spores. You won’t have to install a lab to do this! All you’ll ever need is paper or a glass cup.
Note the Regional Differences
Local flora will often differ even inside the same country. What you determine as a safe fungus in New York, for example, might be toxic in California. This is why taking pictures to help with species identification is not always reliable.
To avoid deadly mistakes in identification, learn the species unique to your area. Learn your Latin names too so you can communicate with foragers outside your region.
Common names are not standardized so using them can allow errors to creep in.
Look for Clear Tell-Tale Signs
There are no clear-cut rules for identifying mushrooms. But there are a few ID characteristics that should fire an alarm.
Here are a few signs that can tell you with almost 100% certainty a fungus is a no-no.
- Watch out for the species that have white gills, a ring around the stem, and volva (an underground fungi part). Always look for these, and make sure you dig a fungus out to examine all parts!
- As mentioned before, not all bright-colored mushrooms are toxic. However, many specimens with red stalks or caps ARE indeed poisonous.
So, Should I Pick Mushrooms on My Own?
We do encourage newbie foragers to venture out in the woods, yes, but never without proper support. With no supervision, what seems like an attractive quarry at first can end up killing you.
One-eighth of the death cap mushroom is enough to kill an adult human. So, remember you should never ingest a mushroom unless you’re 100% positive that it’s edible.
If you’re only starting, join the mushroom-picking community and you’ll learn the ropes in no time. Mushroom picking is not always what you expect it to be and it requires patience.
A mycology enthusiast, Jason F. Timmermans, put it quite aptly what this hobby is all about:
“Be able to go into the woods and sometimes, when luck is with you, walk out again carrying something for the dinner table that you are certain is safe to eat.”
A mushroom identification app might sound tempting, but you should regard it for the temptation that it is. A recent launch of one such app has raised concerns inside the mushroom expert community. The controversy ended by the experts dubbing the app a potential life hazard.
Instead, to start soaking up some expert knowledge, turn to authority field guides such as:
- Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora
- One Thousand American Fungi by Charles McIlvaine and Robert Macadam
Check out the U.S. National Fungus Collections Specimen Database to start digging into mushrooms.
Last but not least, look for local mushroom clubs and mycological associations. This is where you’ll get first-hand information on how to identify mushrooms.
Start Mushroom Foraging
Ready for your first wild mushroom outing?
The easy identification tips above are a good start for those intrigued by this palatable but dangerous food.
There’s so much good mushroom hunting can do!
- An alternative way to put food on the table (literally!)
- A great way to reduce gas emissions (you’re sourcing your food locally!)
You might not be able to measure your carbon offset exactly, but knowing that fewer carbon emissions are made in the cycle of your food supply is AMAZING!
So, is hunting for fungi worth the risk? Absolutely yes, but with proper guidance!
Setting off on all those thrilling quests is good, but it’s better to come back unharmed so you can live to tell the tale!
At Clean Air Gardening is here to support all your efforts in sustainable living. With over 20 years of experience in green gardening, you can rely on us for information and tools that will help you benefit yourself, the community, and the earth!
Featured image: wikimedia