Best way to Identify Edible Mushrooms

There is no way to quickly identify edible mushrooms except to follow a best practices protocol to identify all mushrooms that you are considering for consumption. There are thousands of mushrooms each with their own characteristics and attributes. Edible mushrooms can only be determined by strict adherance to a high standard of identification and verification through the use of specific rules and tests. There are volumes of books written to guide the mushroom hunter in the identification of mushrooms and some excellent online keys and tools.

Parts commonly involved in identification:

• Cap – the top of the mushroom

• Gills or Tubes – the underside of the mushroom

• Stalk – the stem

• Veil – the thin outer layer of tissue

• Volva – cup at the base or bottom of the stalk

• Annulus (ring) – ring around the stalk below the cap, a remnant of the veil 

In addition to the parts of the mushroom you will also need to look at the color, smell, bruising, spore stain, the surface texture and where and how it is growing.

Keep a mushroom journal

When hunting mushrooms and learning identification procedures you should keep a detailed journal. When identifying mushrooms, details are important.

Write down where you found it and make notes concerning other vegetation in the area and what the soil and moisture conditions were. Pay attention to things like whether it was growing in pine needles or leaves or in a grassy area. Details like this will help you identify the mushroom. Include the state and date. You may think you will remember where you were but years down the road you will want to have your notes for future reference material.

Take a photo of the mushroom close up and also of any clusters of mushrooms along with surrounding environmental features that might be pertinent. You can print these out later to include in your journal.

Collect a specimen

Dig the mushroom up (don’t pull it) and place it in a loose wrapping of wax paper or aluminum foil. Don’t put it in a zip-loc bag as it will soon turn to a sticky mess and identifying characteristics will be lost. The idea is to allow the mushroom to breath. Put each type of mushroom in a separate package so that you are not mingling spores or odors as these will be important identifiers later.

Once you have collected your specimen and made your field notes and taken photos you are ready to reference the various field guides and keys.

Field guides and keys

The Peterson Field Guide to Mushrooms has been a standard well accepted reference book for more than two decades. It is a handy pocket guide that is easily carried into the field. This guide will walk you through all the steps of identification. You will learn how to take a spore print as well as learn to examine each element of the mushroom for accuracy.

The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms is another pocket sized guide with over 750 species. It has lots of pictures and detailed descriptions.

Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora is an excellent field guide with over 2000 species that is also a great book for beginners.

Guides to edibles

• Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America by Fischer and Bessette

• Start Mushrooming, by Tekela and Shanberg

Both books focus on finding edible mushrooms and cooking them. Recipes and preparation instructions are featured in both books.

Online keys and resources for identification

An excellent online resource for mushroom identification is Mushroom The Journal of Wild Mushrooming. This site provides a key that walks you through a series of question regarding the different attributes of your mushroom in order to identify your specimen. It is based on the principal of the dichotomous key; If the answer is x then go to number 1 if the answer is y then go to number 2 and as you get deeper in to the identification key you move closer to the answer.

Eating wild mushrooms can be dangerous and even deadly. There are many local mushrooming clubs that you can join for outings. These are usually attended by long time mushroom hunters and even may include professional mycologists. Newcomers are always welcome and the old pro’s are happy to take you under their wing.