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A Beginners Guide to Wild Mushroom Foraging
Wild mushrooms are delicious. But everyone knows that there are also some deadly poisonous ones too. If you're a bit baffled as to where to start with mushroom ID then read these useful tips.
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Wild mushrooms grow all year round but most people’s interest is in the autumn. This is when some of the tastiest species are around, while the temperature and humidity lead to an exuberant abundance of edible mushrooms. I can always tell when we’re getting to the end of the summer by the amount of people messaging me with a photo and a note that starts “I found this mushroom and would like to know what it’s called and can I eat it?” or “I’d like to know where to look for xxx mushroom”. So I thought it would be useful to give you a quick run down on the main steps you need to take in identifying wild mushrooms to eat. This is a simple guide to a complex subject but it will at least give you a few tips on how to go about starting!
1. Decide what you are looking for
There are anywhere between 8,000 to 10,000 fungi species in the U.K. There are probably about 400 good edible species however, the most common eaten probably number around 40. So deciding in advance what you are looking for will hugely help you to decide where to look. Even if you just learn a dozen species thoroughly you will dine like a king and not have to worry about the other 9,988! In September and October you will probably be looking for (in no particular order) any of the following edibles:
Penny Bun (Boletus edulis) aka Cep, Porcini, Stein Pilz
similar/closely related Summer Bolete (Boletus reticulatus), Pine Bolete (Boletus pini)
Chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius ) aka Girolle or Golden Trumpet
similar/closely related Horn of Plenty or Trompette de Mort (Craterellus cornucopiae), Winter Chanterelle (Craterellus tubaeformis)
Giant Puffball (Langermania gigantean)
similar/closely related Pestle Puffball (Lycoperdon exipuliforme), Common Puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum), Stump Puffball (Lycoperdon pyriforme), Mosaic Puffball (Lycoperdon utriforme)
Field Mushroom (Agaricus arvensis)
similar/closely related Blushing Wood Mushroom (A. sylvaticus), Pavement Mushroom (A. bitorquis), Scaly Wood Mushroom ( A.langei)
Horse Mushroom (Agaricus arvensis)
similar/closely related Wood Mushroom (A. silvicola), (A. nivescens), (A. macrospora), The Prince (A. augustus)
Parasol (Macrolepiota procera)
similar/closely related Shaggy Parasol (Chlorophytum rhacodes), Slender Parasol (Macrolepiota mammiforme)
Oyster Mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus) aka Grey Oyster or Blue Oyster
similar/closely related Summer Oyster or Brown Oyster (Pleurotus pulmonarius), Branched Oyster (Pleurotus cornucopioides)
Charcoal Burner (Russula cyanoxantha)
similar/closely related The Flirt (R. vesca) Powdery Brittlegill (R. parazura), Green Cracked Brittlegill (R. cutefracta/ R. virescens)
Hedgehog mushroom (Hydnum repandum)
similar/closely related Terracota Hedgehog (Hydnum rufescens)
Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus)
Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa)
similar/closely related Giant Polypore (Meripilus giganteus)
Scarletina Bolete (Neoboletus luridiformis)
similar/closely related Bruising Bolete (Boletus pulverulentus)
Beefsteak (Fistulina hepatica) aka Langue de Boeuf or Ox-tongue
Wood Ear (Auricularia auricula-judae) aka Jelly Ear
similar/closely related Tripe Fungus (Auricularia mesenterica)
Slippery Jack (Suillus luteus)
similar/closely related Larch Bolete (S. grevillei), Weeping Bolete (S. colinitus), Cow Bolete (S. bovinus)
Saffron Milkcap (Lactarius deliciosus)
similar/closely related False Saffron Milkcap (L. deterrimus)
Aniseed Toadstool (Clitocybe odora)
Honey Fungus (Armillaria mellea)
similar/closely related Ringless Honey Fungus (A. tabescens) or (A. ostoyae)
Porcelain Fungus (Oudimansiella mucida)
Fairy Ring Mushroom (Marasmius oreades)
Amethyst Deceiver (Laccaria amethystina)
similar/closely related Deceiver (L. laccata), Scurfy Deceiver (L. torminosus), Bicoloured Deceiver (L. bicolor)
There is a very good fungi website called First Nature where you can look each of these up and learn about their characteristics.
2. Habitat - think location, location, location…
Once you know what mushrooms you want to pick, you need to think about where to look for them. This step can also be reversed as sometimes you already have a certain location in mind and wonder what mushrooms might be there. The important thing to realise is that there is a direct relationship between the fungus and the habitat that will give you many clues as to what you have found and where to look.
The first big divide is that some edible mushrooms will be found in grasslands and some (the larger amount) in woodlands. So Field Mushrooms are found in fields and Brown Birch Boletes are found in birch woodlands. These are obvious from their names so some of them you have to just learn for it you want to find a Field Blewit there is no point looking in the middle of a wood as they are a grassland species.
Then what do they eat and who do they like to hang out with? There are mushrooms that are saprophytic – in other words they eat decaying wood, twigs, pine needles and leaf litter, returning the nutrients to the soil. Then there are mushrooms that are mycorrhizal – they form relationships with trees and plants.
Some are monogamous. If you find an Orange Birch Bolete under an oak tree then it is probably an Orange Oak Bolete – unless there is a birch tree growing right next to the oak tree.
Many are polygamous. Chanterelles (below) and Penny Buns, for example, grow with many trees such as oak, birch, beech and Scots pine but would never be found in the middle of a meadow. So you need to pay attention to where the mushroom is found and what plants are growing nearby.
If you’re looking for a likely location, look for woodlands that have lots of native species in them. If sycamore is dominant you will find few mushrooms as this is not a native tree.
The more you forage the more you will start to notice other associations. Wood Blewits love holly trees. Chicken of the Woods fruits earliest on willow, then on cherry and oak. Chanterelles and Winter Chanterelles are especially fond of old growth with lots of moss around the base of the trees. The Miller, Penny Bun and Fly Agaric toadstool tend to grow together. The preferences of each fungus takes a while to learn so it helps to be aware and looking for these relationships from the start.
3. Weather - or not…
Mushrooms are not like plants which stay in situ most of the time. This is because a mushroom is not actually an organism. The organism is the fungus under the ground or inside a tree. The mushroom is merely its reproductive organ. And like reproductive organs that evolved later in mammals, many of them come up overnight, release their spores, and quickly disappear again. Thankfully for the hungry forager fungi don’t just have one organ! Most mycorrhizal fungi can produce hundreds of mushrooms over the course of several months. Obviously this depends on the size of the fungus – some may just be a few feet wide, others cover hundreds of acres! So how do we predict exactly when that mushroom will appear?
Mushrooms like humidity. It makes sense that if you are going to release spores that they land on soil that’s a little damp. Not so wet that the spores will drown and not so dry that germination can’t happen. So if you’ve had a hot week and then a day or two of rain, as soon as the sun comes out again the mushrooms will be preparing to come up. As the earth dries out again the humidity at the soil and grass level increases making the conditions right. If you’re looking for grassland species in a park, the worst thing that can happen is to find some keen groundsman mowing the grass! That destroys the microclimate and the mushrooms won’t come up. As a general rule of thumb, if you wait until day 2 or 3 after the rain has stopped, you will often find mushrooms.
Well perhaps! If the moon is right. I’m not joking – lunar cycles can also influence the fruiting of many mushrooms.
Fungi also respond to sudden drops in temperature. Warm sunny days that give way to cold spells remind the fungus that winter is coming, and it better get a move on if it’s to reproduce before the frosts. So a nip in the air will often trigger a flush of mushrooms.
4. Form and Smell
Once you have found your mushroom you need to look at it really closely. This may seem obvious but I’m often surprised that people don’t notice whether their mushroom has gills or pores underneath. Are the gills flaky and brittle or are they supple and bendy? Does it have ring or veil around the stem? Does it have a net-like pattern overlaid onto another colour? Do any scales on the cap move or are they firmly fixed in place? Do the gills curl up when they meet the stem or do they run down it? These are all important little details and there is also a whole new vocabulary that describes all of these states if you care to learn it.
Don’t just snap your mushroom off at ground level. Dig it out. What is happening below the ground? If it has a swollen bulb or sits in a sac it probably belong to the Amanita family wherein are some pretty nasty relatives: the Death Cap, the Destroying Angel, the Panther Cap… no one you’d like to eat on a dark night! What is it attached to? A little brown mushroom clearly attached to decaying leaf litter could be a Deceiver. If it’s growing out of a log it’s definitely not a Deceiver!
What does it smell like? Mushrooms can have very distinctive smells, such as apricots, aniseed, nitric acid, flour, semen, almonds, sulphur gas, rotting flesh, fenugreek, honey, curry or coconut, and much more - but thankfully not all at once.
Some mushrooms bruise or change colour. One of the few edible Amanitas, the Blusher, blushes pink where it is damaged. If it’s not blushing it could be a Grey Spotted Amanita or a Panther Cap. The alarming looking Scarletina Bolete with its brown moleskin cap, orange spores and red stem has bright yellow flesh but when you cut it open it immediately changes to blue. When you cook it it turns yellow again.
Taste is also a clue but if you’re a beginner don’t taste anything until you know more about the subject.
Get into the habit of using a notebook and writing down all the features that you notice.
5. Spore print
If you can’t tell by the mushroom’s form, smell and location, or have found one that could either be an edible one or a poisonous one judging by the picture in your guidebook or app - (remember that apps are only a guide) – then it is time to do a spore print.
Cut off the stem and put the mushroom on a clean piece of paper with the gills or pores facing downwards. Cover it with a glass to stop the wind blowing it away and leave it for a few hours or overnight. If the mushroom was fresh and fully open then it will have laid down spores making a beautiful print.
The spore colour can really help to narrow down identification. The colours include black, white, cream, pink, purple and many shades of brown from chocolate to rust.
For more obscure fungi only a high powered microscope will do as the only thing that differentiates two species might be the shape of the spore!
For the real boffins there are also chemical tests that can be the deciding factor and a range of keys - these are written pathways that help you to narrow down the fungi by a process of elimination.
6. Given up?
If you can tell the difference between an avocado and a pear you have the mental power to tell the difference between one mushroom and another. Trust me. It just takes close study, a bit of practice and a willingness to always be cautious. No mushroom should ever be eaten unless you are 110% positive that you know what it is. Accidents, and sometimes fatal accidents, happen when people are careless. This is a brief article and there are lots of things I haven’t mentioned, but I wanted to give you an overview of some of the key points to encourage you to make a start.
There are lots of good mushroom guide books available by knowledgeable authors like Roger Phillips and John Wright, and lots of people nowadays teach foraging and lead forays. Find one in your area via The Association of Foragers directory.
If you do give in and are tempted to send someone a picture via social media, then explain what information you already know about it - where you found it, what tree it was under, etc. Have a guess at the family if not the actual species. People will be far happier to help you out if you show that you’ve had a go. Photograph it from the top, the bottom, the side, and include the base. And above all - get a good camera and make sure that’s the picture is in focus when you zoom in!
Learning about wild mushrooms will give you hours of pleasure and some very memorable meals.