Mysterious Mushrooms: An Identification Primer

Mushrooms are mysterious.

The way they arise from the earth, as if by magic, after a rain storm, and often disappear only days later. We know that some mushrooms are edible, and of course that some other mushrooms are deadly poisonous. Some mushrooms are even potent medicines. The tricky part is knowing how to tell one from the other!

What even are mushrooms? Mushrooms are the fruiting body of a fungus. A fruiting body is a reproductive structure, designed to release spores. When you pick a mushroom, it is similar to picking an apple or an orange. You aren’t taking the whole organism when you pick a mushroom, because the main body of the mushroom is underground, forming a dense network of fibers called mycelium. When you pick a mushroom, and see fine white filaments underneath, that is a bit of the mycelium.

Do you think that mushrooms are more like plants, or more like animals? For a long time science thought that mushrooms were more like plants. They grow from the ground like plants do, and they can’t move around like animals. More recently it has been shown that mushrooms are more like animals: They breathe oxygen and release carbon dioxide, just like animals, and unlike plants they cannot photosynthesize. Genetically, mushrooms are more closely related to animals than they are to plants, although they are distinct enough that to make up their own kingdom, one of the five kingdoms of life on Earth. Mushrooms are the great decomposers and recyclers of our ecosystems, breaking down all kinds of waste and releasing nutrients and resources to other living organisms.

Does anything scare you about mushrooms? Two of the most common fears that we hear: Fear of eating a poisonous mushroom (risk of sudden death does tend to put a damper on our enthusiasm!), and relating to this many are uncertain on how to properly identify mushrooms. Some cultures are Mycophilic (mushroom loving, eastern Europeans come to mind), and in these cultures the gathering of mushrooms is a common practice passed down from generation to generation. Other cultures such as ours are Mycophobic (mushroom fearing), and most people in our culture are taught that mushrooms are dangerous, pestilent or even evil!

Mushroom Identification Primer:

When you go out in the woods and see mushrooms, use these simple guidelines to start your identification process!

~ Never eat a mushroom unless you are 100% sure of its identification! It is said that there are old mushroom pickers, and there are bold mushroom pickers, but there are no old, bold mushroom pickers.

~ All wild mushrooms should be cooked prior to consumption! Some delicious edible species can make you sick if you eat them raw.

Don’t just look at the top of the mushroom. Some of the most important features are underneath the cap! What does it look like when you turn it over?

  1. If your mushroom has GILLS (blades radiating from the stem, as you would see on a white button mushroom or a portabello at the grocery store), then it is called a gilled mushroom. This is the hardest group of mushrooms to identify, with the most number of different mushroom species. Most deadly poisonous mushrooms are gilled mushrooms, so you really want to be sure you have your identification right with these guys!
  2. If your mushroom has a PORE SURFACE (the openings of many small hollow tubes) resembling a sponge, then it is either a Bolete or a Polypore. Boletes typically grow from the ground, they are soft and spongy, and have a fleshy cap and central stalk. Many boletes are edible, a few are poisonous. Polypores typically grow in a shelf-like or bracket-like fashion from dead wood, they are tough and woody and either lack a stem, or have a small off centre stem. Many polypore mushrooms are medicinal, and they are some of the easiest and safest mushrooms to identify.
  3. There are many other oddball mushrooms out there. If your mushroom does not have the above features, consult a good field guide book and meet some local mycologists in your area!

To complete your identification, you will need to narrow down your mushroom to the exact species to know whether it is edible, medicinal or poisonous. There are a couple books that we have found very helpful for western North America:

All That the Rain Promises and More… by David Arora is by far the easiest to use pocket field guide to mushrooms. It has great pictures and lays out the identification features out in a clear and easy to follow manner. If you outgrow this book, his companion volume Mushrooms Demystified goes much deeper, though it is a fat and challenging book better left at camp, not the kind of thing you throw in your backpack.

Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest by Steve Trudell & Joe Ammirati is another good field guide book.

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