How to Tell the Difference Between Edible and Poisonous Mushrooms
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Mushroom hunting can be a dangerous hobby. There are over 10,000 described species of mushrooms, many of which are edible. However, some species of mushrooms are poisonous or even deadly to humans. Before you eat foraged mushrooms, you must be completely sure that they are safe.
Unfortunately, mushroom identification is complicated. Many poisonous mushrooms look similar to edible mushrooms and can confuse even very experienced mushroom hunters. There is no easy way to be sure a mushroom is edible. However, you can follow these three steps to go mushroom hunting safely.
Learn About Your Area
Different types of mushrooms grow on different continents. You can significantly improve your chances of finding edible mushrooms by learning about types that commonly grow where you live. For example, morel mushrooms grow in temperate woodlands across North America and several countries in Asia.
In addition to studying edible mushrooms, you should also learn about poisonous look-a-likes that are common to your area. Some poisonous mushrooms may not grow where you live. You should also learn about the time of year and environmental conditions that foster both edible and poisonous mushrooms.
As people have traveled around the globe, mushroom spores have traveled with them. For example, the death cap mushroom originated in Norway but has spread to North America, North Africa and Australia, among other places. This mushroom looks very similar to edible varieties, but one bite can kill a grown adult.
Study Mushroom Anatomy
Mushrooms are the reproductive fruiting body of some fungi. The more you learn about their features and anatomy, the easier it will be to identify specific species. Here’s a quick run-down of each part of a mushroom, along with questions that can help you with identification.
- Cap + Veils
This is the round or flat top of a mushroom. Caps come in a variety of colors, shapes and textures. Some caps have vertical stripes called striations, while zonate caps have concentric rings. The edge of a cap is called the margin. Some caps have scales, or flaps of tissue on them. Other caps have warts, or separate tissue on top that you can rub off. Viscid caps are sticky to the touch.
Warts are caused when a mushroom grows with a universal veil. Universal veils protect young mushrooms but split open when they get larger. These veils can leave small cups of tissue at the base of the stem or pieces on top of the mushroom cap. The traditional Mario mushroom has white warts that are leftover tissue from a universal veil.
Mushrooms allow fungi to reproduce by spreading spores, or tiny reproductive cells. Spores are usually stored under a mushroom’s cap in gills, pores or spines. Gills look like the pages of a book and may be smooth or serrated. Marginate gills are darker at their edges. Although some gills attach to the stem, others solely attach to the cap.
Mycologists use the term “false gills” to refer to shallow, veiny gills that criss-cross instead of staying parallel to each other. Mushrooms with pores look like a sponge. They store spores in long, parallel tubes under the cap. Spines look like separate spikes under a mushroom cap and they aren’t as common.
Mushroom stems also have many distinct features. While some are the same size from the cap to the ground, others get narrow or very wide at the base. Mushroom stems also have varying textures, from dark spots to a finely netted pattern. Take note of texture and color changes and whether the stem shows any signs of a universal veil.
Some mushrooms also have a partial veil, or protective tissue that grows underneath the mushroom cap. After the mushroom matures, this veil will also break off and form a skirt or ring of tissue on the stem. Some skirts can be moved up and down, while others are firmly attached to the stem. If the partial veil is very thin, it won’t leave much evidence after it breaks off.
In mushroom identification, every detail matters. The more vocabulary you have and the more notes you take, the easier it will be to separate edible from poisonous mushrooms when you’re foraging. You can take a camera or notebook with you to keep track of the details on each mushroom you discover.
Get Outside and Practice
Once you’ve learned about your area and the basics of mushroom anatomy, it’s time to apply your knowledge with real-life practice. Take a few interested friends and go looking for mushrooms. Make sure you’re hunting at the right time of year and look for locations that are moist and cool.
Do not eat anything until you’re completely satisfied that it’s safe. Run through the details of each part of the mushroom and match it to species in a reference guide. Although some toxic mushrooms will just make you sick, others can kill you. It is never worth the risk to eat something you’re not sure is safe.
With enough practice, you’ll develop the skills and knowledge you need to become a successful and safe mushroom hunter. To learn more, sign up for a local class and connect with other mushroom enthusiasts. There are also many helpful books and field guides you can take along for easy reference while foraging.
Forage With Confidence
Looking for wild mushrooms is a lot like a treasure hunt – there’s adventure, excitement and a little bit of danger. Before you go, learn everything you can about mushroom anatomy and the species commonly found in your area. Carry a reference guide with you and don’t eat anything you find until you’re completely confident it’s not poisonous. Follow these steps to tell the difference between edible and poisonous mushrooms.
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About the author
Rachel serves as the Assistant Editor of Environment.co. A true foodie and activist at heart, she loves covering topics ranging from veganism to off grid living.