Identifying mushrooms isn’t as easy and straightforward as you might think. There are approximately 14,000 different mushroom species worldwide. Classifying and identifying them requires knowledge and experience. Most mushrooms are edible. In fact, many are poisonous and can make you sick. Some can even kill you.
To make matters worse, many edible mushrooms, have toxic look-alikes.
So, the first thing to do before setting out into the hardwood forest for mushroom picking is to learn how to identify them.
This article will give you a general overview of poisonous mushrooms and will talk about the steps you should take if you eat one, but it is just a starting point. Don’t rely solely upon the internet or your mushroom identification app for a subject as important as mushroom identification. Find an experienced mushroom forager to run your finds by.
If you are in the US, Canada, or Mexico, the North America Mycological Association (NAMA) has clubs in many cities and towns, and it is likely that there is a club near you. Visit their website to learn more.
Always carry a good field guide when you are looking for mushrooms. We are currently recommending Mushrooming Without Fear: The Beginner’s Guide to Collecting Safe and Delicious Mushrooms.
Two excellent mushroom field guides — if you can find them — are the 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.
How to Identify Poisonous Mushrooms
To discuss poisonous mushrooms, we should begin with the Amanita family of mushrooms. This species has some of the most poisonous ones of all. Just a couple of bites of a death cap or a destroying angel can kill you.
You will go a long way toward protecting yourself by learning how to identify these two mushroom types. Read our articles on death caps and destroying angels for more details about these very deadly mushrooms.
While not all poisonous mushrooms fall within the Amanita family, the most deadly ones do, so it is very important to learn how to identify Amanita mushrooms so that you can leave them alone.
Define the Features of Amanita Mushrooms
There are a number of factors to consider while trying to identify whether a mushroom falls within the Amanita family. See below for some of the features to follow. Again, we are laying out these features as a starting point. Take note of some mushrooms next time you are walking in the woods and see if you can figure out whether they might fall within the Amanita family. Once you have a handle on what to look for, find an experienced forager to run your knowledge by to make sure that you are correct.
- Check the color of the mushroom – Most of the Amanita mushrooms have color shades ranging from yellow, orange, red to white and grey. While the mushroom’s color should not be the sole identification factor, it cannot be ignored if you see other amanita characteristics falling into place.
- Check the cap shape – The cap of Amanita mushrooms usually looks like a very wide, letter ‘U’ upside down. It is shaped like an umbrella, then this is another characteristic that you should take note of.
- Check if the cap is dry or slimy – Feel the cap. Amanitas have dry caps. If the cap is moist, then note this feature, as it could help you identify your mushroom. Don’t rely on it though as it may have rained recently.
- Examine warts or scales on the mushroom cap – You will easily identify Amanita mushrooms by checking if they have off-colored patches on their cap. If the mushrooms are white, you’ll see slightly brown scales, and in the case of red mushrooms, you’ll see white warts.
- Look for a spherical cup around the base – Remove the mushroom from the ground with a pocket knife and check its base. If it is a rounded, cup-like shape, it may be an Amanita mushroom, as most other mushrooms do not have such a base.
- Look for a ring just below the mushroom cap – This is easily noticeable. The ring is visible around the stem in most Amanita mushrooms.
- Find white gills beneath the mushroom cup – You can check the gills’ color by inverting the mushroom. If it’s Amanita, the gills will be white or pale in color. Not all Amanita mushrooms have white or pale gills, so don’t rely on this factor alone.
- Take a spore print and check if the spores are white – Certain Amanita mushrooms won’t have white or pale gills, as said above. However, they have a white spore print. Checking this will help you feel more certain while identifying toxic mushrooms.
Other Poisonous Mushrooms
While the deadliest mushrooms fall in the Amanita family, there are plenty of other risky ones out there as well. To list them all would be beyond the scope of this article, so we will discuss some of the more common ones.
Identify the Look-A-Like Mushrooms
- Distinguish between true and false morels – You should check the cap shape and interior for this. True morels will have a hollow cap attached to the stem. On the other hand, false morels have a cap that is not connected to the stem. It hangs freely. Additionally, they are fibrous and have a dimpled, cotton-like appearance. Check out our article on differentiating between true and false morels for more information.
- Distinguish green-spored parasols from shaggy ones – The green-spored parasols are toxic and can even have some serious consequences if consumed. Their spore print will either be green or grey. On the other hand, the spore print of shaggy parasols will be cream.
- Check the gills to see if it’s a Jack o’lantern mushroom – Unlike edible mushrooms like a chanterelle, Jack o’lantern have true gills. These gills are forked and knife-like. You’ll easily be able to remove them without damaging the cap. Remember, the Jack o’lantern mushrooms are very toxic and unsafe to consume, so if you find true gills, never pick those mushrooms.
- Check the spore print to identify deadly Galerina – If you find what you think is a honey mushroom, create a spore print, If the spores are white, it is likely an edible honey mushroom. However, if the spore print is rusty brown, then most likely you have a deadly Galerina mushroom. Honey mushrooms and Galerina mushrooms look very similar, so it’s crucial to check every mushroom individually to ensure you’re not picking the toxic one.
Learn About Mushrooms In-Depth
- Learn to identify different mushroom types – You may consider joining a mycological group, attend meetings, and go foraging with mushroom experts. This will enable you to learn to differentiate and identify edible mushrooms from toxic ones.
- Get a local field guide – If you want to go foraging and gain confidence in picking the right mushrooms, consider getting a local field guide. They can explain all the mushroom varieties that you will see locally while you’re foraging.
What Are the Effects of Eating Poisonous Mushrooms?
If you have accidentally consumed poisonous mushrooms, you may experience the following after-effects:
- Hallucinations – Some toxic mushrooms cause hallucinations. Other than this, they may even cause muscle weakness, rapid heart rate, headache, and anxiety.
- Gastrointestinal Illness – You may experience nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramps after consuming poisonous mushrooms.
- Live Failure and Death – In the worst-case scenario, the consumption of toxic mushrooms can turn fatal while harming the kidneys and liver. Sometimes, it can even lead to death.
What To Do If You Accidentally Eat Poisonous Mushrooms?
If you suspect that you or someone you are with has consumed a toxic mushroom, call your doctor immediately. There is a chance you won’t feel the symptoms for up to one full day after you have accidentally consumed it. So, it’s best to hit the emergency room and take the required guidance, treatment, and medications.
Also, if possible, carry those toxic mushrooms with you to the doctor. This will help them confirm the mushroom type and identify the level of toxicity involved. Generally, doctors will give activated charcoal to induce vomiting. If you’ve thrown up, consider that the worst is probably over, and things will settle soon.
However, you’ll be closely monitored with temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure. If the doctor does not find any severe symptoms, it’s safe for you to go home.
In short, seeking medical attention becomes imperative when you accidentally consume toxic mushrooms. This will give you the required medication and treatment while saving you from any fatalities.
There are no set rules that will help you to distinguish poisonous mushrooms from edible ones. However, following the above guidelines while looking for their identity through their characteristics will enable you to differentiate them easily.
Remember that, while the purpose of this article is to provide you with an introduction to wild mushrooms, it is not complete. Make sure you run any mushroom finds by an experienced forager before you eat anything. Your life is too important to trust the internet or any mushroom identification apps.
If, despite taking precautions, you happen to consume a toxic mushroom, then seek medical care immediately. Doing so will greatly increase your chances of survival.