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Edible Mushrooms Identification

By Frank Whittemore ; Updated September 21, 2017
Know about the wild mushrooms you collect.

Many people love the taste of wild mushrooms, often choosing them over those that are store-bought. Chanterelles, morels, boletus and other wild mushrooms literally can be picked from the wild in the morning and enjoyed that same evening. It's no simple task to select wild mushrooms for eating, however. Of the thousands of varieties of mushrooms, some are edible and delicious, and some will kill you from a tiny bite. Understanding the difference could save your life.

Understand Risks

There is no definitive field test to determine if a mushroom is poisonous. While some mushrooms can be identified relatively easily by observation, many poisonous mushrooms closely resemble edible ones and can grow in the same habitat. So it's absolutely essential that you be extremely knowledgeable about the difference before entering the forest to collect mushrooms for the dinner table. When in doubt, don't eat them.

Study Guides

Numerous field guides and textbooks offer help in studying mushrooms. "Smithsonian Handbooks: Mushrooms," "The Audubon Field Guide to North American Mushrooms" and "The Mushroom Hunter's Field Guide" are popular choices for beginning your studies. There are also excellent online sources available. Start with Mushroomexpert.com and Rogersmushrooms.com for a comprehensive online examination of mushrooms. Familiarize yourself with these resources and keep them handy when mushroom hunting, especially if you are a beginner. Even experienced hunters rely on reference publications for specific identification.

Examine Structure

The specific structure of a mushroom will often indicate what species it is. Look for things like cap size, shape, color and texture. Examine the gills to see if they are attached or detached from the stem. Other characteristics, including the size, weight, shape and even smell of mushrooms, can provide valuable clues. These can then be compared with the information in guides and textbooks to help identity a mushroom species.

Do Gill Print

Mushrooms are actually the fruiting body of the fungus, releasing spores from segmented gills under the mushroom's cap. This substance will fall from the gills as a fine powder. When you place the cap on a sheet of white paper and leave it for a given time, depending of the mushroom, the spore powder will fall onto the paper, forming a pattern called a gill print. You can compare gill prints to those in reference publications to help make a more definitive identification.

Consider Environment

The area of the country can also help identify the species. Also, check the substrate the mushrooms are growing on and the general environmental conditions. Some mushrooms grow in soil, while others prefer rotting wood and still other grow best in leaf litter. Some tend to grow in certain seasons.

Join Club

Many people have been collecting and eating wild mushrooms for years and are members of collecting clubs throughout the United States. The combined knowledge of an experienced group of hunters can improve the chances of finding choice edible mushrooms and avoiding the risks associated with the hobby. Beginners, in particular, can benefit from the wealth of knowledge and experience that club members can share.


About the Author


In Jacksonville, Fla., Frank Whittemore is a content strategist with over a decade of experience as a hospital corpsman in the U.S. Navy and a licensed paramedic. He has over 15 years experience writing for several Fortune 500 companies. Whittemore writes on topics in medicine, nature, science, technology, the arts, cuisine, travel and sports.