There’s a vast array of mushrooms in the wild. Some are dark and mysterious, some are edible and beneficial, while others are, well, not so helpful. In fact, you could be thrown into an altered state of consciousness or even poisoned from eating the wrong type of mushroom.
So, how do you tell the difference between the many species of fungi?
Well, it helps if you learn the processes involved in positively identifying mushrooms.
We’ll go over how to do that in a bit. But first, let us review a few rules that will help you stay safe while foraging mushrooms in the wild. These rules are particularly important if you are just getting started on your mushroom hunting journey.
First of all, never eat a wild mushroom without first having an experienced mushroom forager verify its identity for you. There are many poisonous mushrooms out there, and you don’t want to eat one by mistake.
If you don’t know any mushroom hunters, then the North American Mycological Association is a good place to start looking. They have clubs throughout the US, Canada and Mexico, and many of those clubs hold group mushroom hunting expeditions.
Invest in a Good Mushroom Field Guide
Mushroom guides are full of good information about mushrooms, with photos and rules for identification. While not a replacement for an experienced mushroom forager, you will learn many details about how to identify mushrooms from a field guide.
We recommend Falcon Guide’s North American Mushrooms: A Field Guide to Edible and Inedible Fungi.
Another very thorough book for beginners is Mushrooming Without Fear: The Beginner’s Guide to Collecting Safe and Delicious Mushrooms.
Two excellent mushroom field guides — if you can find them — are Peterson Field Guide to Mushrooms of North America and the National Audobon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms. Both are out of print, but you may be able to find a used copy on Amazon.
Mushrooms of the Northeast: A Simple Guide to Common Mushrooms — we live in New England and this is the guidebook that we use. Great pictures, and pocket-sized so that we can take it with us on walks.
Three Mushroom Identification Rules for Novices
Being a novice is nothing to be ashamed of. There’s always a first time for everything. But keep these three rules in mind if you are new to picking mushrooms in the wild.
- Avoid any mushroom with a red stem or cap. Agreed, not all red fungi are poisonous, and you could miss out on several beneficial red mushrooms. But consider the upside; many (though not all) poisonous mushrooms have red caps.
- Stay away from any white mushroom with a ring, sack-like volva (the base), and white gills. The deadly Amanita mushroom family is known for these physical characteristics. Again, you will miss out on some delicious edible mushrooms, but it is better to be safe than sorry.
- Lastly, and most importantly, do not eat any mushroom unless you are completely sure it is okay to do so.
Three Risky (and Uninformed) Mushroom Identification Assumptions
- “If animals can eat the mushroom, it is safe.” This assumption is completely false. Some poisonous fungi do not make animals sick but can be fatal for humans.
- “A mushroom is safe for consumption if you can peel the cap.” That’s another risky and faulty thinking. The poisonous Death Cap mushroom is quite easy to peel.
- “Mushrooms that grow directly on wood are okay for human consumption.” Some mushrooms, such as the Funeral Bell, grow on wood and are very deadly.
Start by Learning the Different Parts of a Mushroom
If you know the names of the different parts of mushrooms — gills, volvas, spores and rings, for example — you will understand the terminology used in mushroom identification guides. For more details on mushroom parts, please see our article, Mushroom Structure: What are the Basic Parts of a Mushroom?
Understand the Four Different Categories of Mushrooms
Be sure that you understand the four different categories of mushrooms— saprotrophic, mycorrhizal, parasitic, and endophytic. These categories are easy to understand, and will really help you to identify the different mushrooms that you see.
Learn the Different Mushroom Families
A good starting point for learning how to identify mushrooms is to learn about the different mushroom families. Some of the most common ones include:
- Agarics: The safe and edible members of the Agaric family have black or brown gills, stout stem with some ring, and a white cap. But you need to be careful as some members of this family are poisonous.
- Amanitas: This mushroom family all have spores, bulbous volvas, and white gills. Sometimes, the volvas can be hidden under leaf debris, so be sure to check the base of any mushroom during identification. Some amanitas are edible, but many deadly mushrooms are found in this family, including the destroying angel (Amanita virosa).
- Boletes: Boletes are fairly easy to identify. For example, the Suillus, Boletus, and Leccinum mushrooms have stout stems and no gills. In place of gills, they have spongy pores. But not all Boletes are edible. Consider those that stain blue when bruised and those with red color anywhere on them as poisonous. Always remember the first rule of mushroom identification.
- Russulas: This mushroom family has brittle stems and gills. Russulas are not easy to identify without thorough study. Some of them are poisonous, some don’t taste good, while others are delicious. Tasting a tiny bit of the Russulas can help you identify whether or not they are edible. However, only taste the mushroom if you are 100% sure it is from the Russulas family.
Learn How to Make a Spore Print
You can get spore prints by cutting off the stem from a mushroom and placing the gills face-down on a piece of white paper or clear glass overnight.
Spore prints tell you what a mushroom is and isn’t. The color of the spores is the most important factor. Think of it as the “keys” on a map that identifies different features represented on the map.
Learn the Scientific Names
Common names can be confusing as different regions or countries may know a mushroom by one name and not the other.
It is best to learn and use the scientific names of each mushroom that you are looking at when you want to identify mushrooms to avoid possible misidentification.
Crosscheck with Different Pictures and Guides
The same mushrooms can look different depending on its age, where it is growing, the weather conditions, and a few other factors.
For these reasons, it is important to confirm from a few mushroom guides and pictures to help you identify the mushroom correctly.
The 10 Most Important Questions for Identifying Mushrooms
The following questions can help you identify mushrooms in the wild. It is a good practice to always carry a pen and paper while on the field to jot down the characteristics of each mushroom you find.
You can go through your notes later and see if you can answer these questions about the mushrooms.
- Where is the mushroom growing? Is it growing on a tree, under it, or in grassland? Which type of tree are they growing on or under?
- What time of the year is the mushroom growing?
- What are the shape, texture, color, and size of the cap?
- Does the stem have a ring or skirt? Are there any markings on the stem?
- How is the stem shaped? Is it equal, bulbous, club-shaped, or tapering toward the base?
- What is the texture of the flesh?
- What is the distinct smell or odor of the mushroom?
- Does the mushroom turn bluish or another color when cut?
- It the mushroom going alone, in small groups, or large groups?
- Does it have pores, spikes, or gills? If it has gills, are they supple or brittle? Are they attached to the stem? And how closely packed are the gills?
It may seem daunting to remember all these rules for how to identify mushrooms, but with continuous practice, you will get the hang of it and they will become second nature.
No matter how numerous (and boring) the dos and don’ts may seem, don’t ignore them, because they are the only way that you can be sure you are consuming a safe mushroom.
And if for some reason, you can’t figure out the identity of some mushrooms no matter how hard you try, don’t get discouraged. If it is of any consolation, even long-time mushroom hunters still can’t identify every mushroom that they find.
Now that you have learned the basics of identifying mushrooms, check out our article Mushroom Foraging — The Ultimate Guide for more information on how to actually forage for mushrooms.
To get an overview of how to cook your mushroom finds, see our article The Essential Guide to Cooking Mushrooms.
And for more great mushroom recipe ideas, see our mushroom recipe page.
Like this article? Pin it to Pinterest!