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How to Identify Wild Mushrooms
Which Mushrooms to start with?
The best advice I can give anyone who has a fascination for fungus and wild mushrooms as I have is to start off by selecting no more than five species to get to know inside-out.
There are so many variations in many species of wild mushrooms that it is really good advice to start off by understanding all the variations you can expect to see, also, it is posisble to get slight regional variations depending on your soil type etc although you should be reasonably safe to with the most common features.
It is a truly wonderful feeling to go out collecting mushrooms for yourself on a sunny morning and collect fresh, delicious mushrooms (ideally after a period of rain) before the slugs and flies have had chance to wreak havoc. Then cook them simply in butter for lunch (I personally like to build a small camp fire and have lunch outdoors. I tend to treat my mushrooming expeditions as a foraging day out and take a hamper and bottle of wine as well as other food I can cook on the fire (always being careful where you have a fire - if allowed at all)
So, as said above, choose just a few species first, the ones I would suggest are below although I would also recommend the field mushroom as well. (this one is quite common)
As said, these are considered reasonably obvious and some people call them the foolproof five however is should be noted that the Morel, Chanterelle and Porcini have poisonous relatives that look a bit similar so always make sure you have consukled a book with both the poisonous and edible features listed so you can check.
Others are quite difficult. Some species have poisonous look-alikes, others are quite distinct and have no poisonous relatives. Learn a small number of the most unmistakable species at first, and check with an expert before you eat any wild mushrooms.
If you don't know any local experts who can teach you about your regional mushrooms, you should do what I have done and surround yourself with books on the subject. I have lots of books and my advice is to try to buy books that feature actual photos as opposed to drawings(although drawing bookas can be useful as well, it is just personal preference). Also - you really should aim to have atleast two books that cover the same mushrooms that you plan to get to know so you can see a variety of views as to how to identify them.
I have done my best on this site to give you a combined view although even I would not eat any wild mushrooms before cross checking from my two favourite books.
Here are some good books to buy for indentification and also cooking (it may take 20 seconds to load):
Below are the main identification criteria to look for in the field and back at base to make sure you get to know what you have before you even think about eating it.
In The Field
Cap type - is it smooth, slimey, cracked, warty
Gills or sponge type - all Porcini (Cep) have a spong base, most are edible and only a few very poisonous. It is a good fungus to specialise in
Gills colour and closeness
Smell, Most fungus smell as you would expect (even the poisonous ones) however, if you smell almonds, it is poisonous
Stem, does it have a bulbous base(did it grow from a sack, many poisonous types have a bulbous base)
Stem colour when cut Slice the stem lengthways - does it change colour?
Back at Home
Spore prints: - see below as thsi is a key factor to test. Once you get expert you do not need to do thsi all the time, it is really a good starting point to get clear on as a beginner and it is fun to do as well. Here is what you do:
You can see the colour of a mushroom's microscopic spores by making a spore print. Cut off and discard the stem if the mushroom has one. Place the cap on heavy white or black paper (or a glass slide if you're going to use a microscope) with the gills or pores (or other spore-producing surface) facing downward. Cover with a bowl or cup to block air currents, and leave 6 hours to overnight.
Remove the bowl or cup and the mushroom. If the mushroom was fresh, and mature enough to be making spores, you should see a radial pattern of powder on the paper (you can preserve the spore print with fixative spray from an art store, or hair spray).
If you have children and want to teach them about fungus, this a great family activity. Make sure they know not to eat anything.