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How to Identify Edible Wild Mushrooms

Identifying and collecting wild mushrooms can be fun for people of all ages, but it can also be daunting. If you’re looking for edible wild mushrooms, your ability to properly identify the mushrooms is crucial--and can mean life or death. Quite a few species of wild mushrooms are perfectly safe and edible, some of which are easier to identify than others. The most important part of identifying edible wild mushrooms is taking your time and double-checking all the characteristics.

Look for pear-shaped or round, whitish mushrooms in lawns, pastures, barren areas, or open woods, on soil or dead wood. These edible wild mushrooms are called “puffballs” (Lycoperdon spp. and Calvatia spp.) and they can range in diameter from just 1 inch to 12 inches or larger. Slice the puffball from top to bottom, ensuring that the inside is completely white and solid, with no signs of a stalk, gills and cap.

Identify the edible shaggy mane (Coprinus comatus) by its cap of brownish, shaggy, upturned scales. The shaggy mane mushroom can grow 4 to 6 inches tall and has a long, cylinder shape to its cap with whitish gills on a white stalk. The cap and gills dissolve into a black, inky fluid as the shaggy mane mushroom matures. This fragile and easily-crumbled mushroom grows in the spring, summer and fall in grass, soil or wood chips, usually in lawns or pastures.

Look on the ground or dead logs in the summer and fall for coral fungi (Clavariaceae), which indeed does resemble coral. Coral fungi look like clumps of upward-pointing stems that are whitish, yellowish or tan in color and can grow up to 8 inches tall.

Recognize morels (Morchella spp.) by their pitted and ridged surfaces. Morels are also called sponge, pinecone and honeycomb mushrooms. Morels can grow 2 to 12 inches tall and their caps are attached directly to the stems. They grow from early spring to early summer.

Identify bearded tooth (Hericium erinaceus) by its clumps of white “fur,” making it resemble a polar bear’s paw. Bearded tooth fungi grow only on trees, logs and stumps in the summer and fall. The fungus can measure up to 12 inches across and is pure white, turning slightly yellowish as it ages.

Look for oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) growing on trees and logs during spring, summer, fall and winter warm spells. This mushroom is whitish or tan with long white gills running between the oyster shell-shaped cap and the off-center stem. Oyster mushrooms are 2 to 8 inches wide and usually grow in overlapping clusters.

Look for trumpet- or funnel-shaped mushrooms with a fruity odor to find chanterelles (Cantharellaceae). One species of chanterelles is brownish-black, but most are bright yellowish-orange and 1 to 6 inches tall. You’ll find these edible mushrooms on the ground, in scattered groups, growing in hardwood forests during summer and fall. Check the underside of the cap to ensure that they’re smooth underneath or have a network of blunt-edged ridges or wrinkles, not gills.

Recognize boletes (Boletaceae) by their brownish or reddish-brown caps and spongy layer of pores on the underside of the cap instead of gills. Boletes resemble a hamburger bun on a thick stalk and can grow up to 10 inches tall and 1 to 10 inches wide. You can find these mushrooms in the summer and fall on the ground under trees, often pine trees.

Identify sulfur shelf mushrooms (Laetiporus sulphureus) by their bright orange-red caps and pale yellow pore surfaces. Sulfur shelf mushrooms grow on trees or dead wood in the summer and fall, emerging in overlapping clusters with their caps attached directly to the wood without stems. These mushrooms can be 2 inches to 12 inches wide.

Look for a cluster of fan-shaped, grayish-brown caps that overlap one another and connected to off-center white stalks that grow from a single thick stem. This mushroom is hen-of-the-woods (Grifola frondosa) and can resemble a large, ruffled chicken. Hen-of-the-woods can grow in extremely large clumps on the ground underneath trees or on stumps. Look for this mushroom in summer and fall.


When collecting wild mushrooms, take only 1/4 or 1/2 of the mushrooms in an area. This will leave adequate food for other animals. Always bring along a mushroom-identification reference book when you’re searching for and collecting mushrooms. Compare the descriptions and pictures carefully with the mushroom specimens you find.


Don’t assume that a wild mushroom is edible just because another animal can eat it. Also, don’t eat a wild mushroom if you’re at all uncertain about whether it’s edible. Beware of confusing morels with false morels, because false morels can be poisonous. False morels have folds, wrinkles and lobes instead of pits and ridges like morels, and their caps hang around the stems like a skirt. Don’t eat boletes that have orange or red spores, because these varieties of boletes are poisonous.

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