Mushroom fungus on trees

How to Tell the Difference Between Poisonous and Edible Mushrooms

29th April 2014

By Eric Biggane

The simple answer to this is that you can’t tell the difference without identifying the individual mushroom you have found. Some poisonous mushrooms can kill, so you must be able to accurately name the fungus and be 100% sure of what it is before consumption.

There are some apparent rules for picking safe mushrooms but these are just fanciful if not downright dangerous;

  1. ‘It’s ok if you can peel the cap.’ It is easy to peel a Death Cap.
  2. ‘Mushrooms growing on wood are safe.’ No not all of them are and some are deadly, like the Funeral Bell.
  3. ‘If you see other animals eating them they are ok.’ This rule is not true, many animals can eat poisonous fungi with no ill effects.

Some good rules apply for avoiding poisonous mushrooms if you are a novice;

  1. Avoid mushrooms with white gills, a skirt or ring on the stem and a bulbous or sack like base called a volva. You may be missing out on some good edible fungi but it means you will be avoiding the deadly members of the Amanita family.
  2. Avoid mushrooms with red on the cap or stem. Again you will be missing out on some good mushrooms but more importantly you won’t be picking poisonous ones.
  3. Finally don’t consume any mushrooms unless you are 100% sure of what they are. I know I have already mentioned this but it is by far the most important rule.

These rules don’t mean all other mushrooms are safe but help rule out some of the nastier types.

Some UK mushrooms are easy to identify so quite safe to eat, the Giant Puffball, Beefsteak Fungus, Porcelain Fungus, Cauliflower Fungus, Dryads Saddle, the Hedgehog Fungus, if you are very lucky the Truffle, Wood Ears (as long as they are growing on elder) and Chicken of the Woods (as long as it is not growing on a Yew tree). So for the novice forager these are the ones to go for, there are no dangerous lookalikes, so just learn what these mushrooms look like and you should be able to forage for them safely.

Mushrooms for Beginners

A good way to help identify mushrooms is by learning which family the fungus belongs to.

The edible members of the Agaric family all have pink to brown/black gills, a white cap and usually a stout stem with a skirt. There are however toxic members of this family that look very similar. Once you have established that you have an Agaric bruise the cap, if it stains bright chrome yellow it is probably poisonous, if it stains pale yellow, pink or red it is probably edible but there is a further test to establish toxicity. You must smell the mushroom, edible Agarics smell pleasantly of mushroom, some with hints of aniseed or almond, the toxic mushrooms smell of Indian ink or iodine or just chemically and unpleasant.

Identifying Agarics

For example the Boletus, Suillus and Leccinum families are easy to identify as they don’t have gills but sponge like pores and generally stout stems.
There are two checks to make once you have identified a mushroom as a Bolete to determine its edibility. First, is there any red anywhere on the mushroom including the cap, stem or pores. If there is treat the mushroom as poisonous. Secondly cut the mushroom in half vertically, if the flesh immediately or rapidly stains blue, again treat it as poisonous. If the Bolete in question passes the above tests it isn’t a toxic mushroom. Sticking to the above rules means you will be missing out on some good edible mushrooms but more importantly avoiding any poisonous Boletes.

Identifying Boletes

Milkcaps are from the Lactarius family and they mostly exude a milky substance from the gills when touched or damaged. This milk can be very acrid and/or hot so should not be tasted unless you know your Milkcaps or can eat hot chillies raw.
Most of the Milkcaps are toxic so until you learn to recognise individual members of this family, stay away from any fungi that ‘lactates’ from the gills. Unfortunately older Milkcaps tend not to lactate so younger mushrooms usually need to be found to aid identification.

The Brittlegills or Russulas have very brittle gills and stems.
There are many different members of this family, some poisonous some delicious and some that just don’t taste very nice.
It is difficult to identify individual Russulas without studying them in depth. A good test for edibility however is the taste test, if a tiny amount is placed on the tongue and chewed a burn like chilli means the mushroom is poisonous, a pleasant mushroomy taste means it is edible and an unpleasant taste means you wouldn’t want to eat the mushroom anyway. This test should only be attempted when you are certain you have a mushroom from the Russula family.

Identifying Russulas

The Amanita family all have white gills and spores and more importantly most grow from a sack like or bulbous structure called a volva which can be hidden by leaf litter or under the soil surface so it is vital to check the base of any mushroom you are trying to identify.
There are a few edible Amanitas but the most poisonous mushrooms in the UK are in this family, the Destroying Angel and the Death Cap, so this family should definitely be avoided by the novice forager.

Identifying Amanitas

There are many different ways to identify a mushroom and all should be employed when out foraging.

  1. Where is the mushroom growing, in grassland or woods and what kind of tree they are growing on or under?
  2. Are the mushrooms growing singley or in a ring, troop or tuft?
  3. Do the mushrooms have a distinct smell?
  4. Does the mushroom change colour when cut or bruised?
  5. What is the size, shape, texture and colour of the cap?
  6. What is the size, shape and texture of the stem? Does it have a ring/skirt and are there any markings on it? Is the base bulbous or sack like or narrow and rooting?
  7. Does the mushroom have gills, pores or spikes under the cap? If it has gills how close are they? Do they fork? Are they attached to the stem? Are they brittle or soft and pliable?
  8. What texture is the flesh?
  9. What time of year is it?

Always check with a few different guides/pictures as mushrooms can look very different depending on where they are growing, their age and what the weather has thrown at them.

Field Mushroom Spore Print

Knowing the colour of the spore print can be very helpful as it helps narrow down your search by telling you what the mushroom isn’t. A spore print can be obtained simply by removing the stem and placing the mushroom gills down on a piece of clear glass or paper for a few hours, preferably overnight.

The colour of the spore print can be very useful to start following ‘keys’ in a mushroom guide.

It may seem like a long list of things to look out for but it soon becomes second nature to check these and be able to safely identify mushrooms in the field.

Finally, don’t be too upset if you can’t always identify a mushroom, I’ve been picking wild mushrooms all my life and still find the odd mushroom I can’t be 100% sure of.

Posted in Tips and Things We Like

Shelf Fungi

Woody Shelves

Woody shelves may be several years old. They add a new layer of spore tissue every growing season. The old layer is covered by the new one. These layers look like growth rings in a tree. One author reported counting 37 rings. Ten layers may mean the shelf is 10 years-old if there is only one growing season (spring). If there are two growing seasons per year (spring and fall), it may only be 5 years-old.
One of the largest shelves weighs 300 pounds. Unfortunately, it isn’t known how many growth layers it contains. Woody shelves are a micro (small) habitat. They provide a unique place for animals to live. Spiders, mites, and insects live in large shelves. A few of the insects are specialized and only found in shelf fungi. Some beetles are very slim so they can fit inside a pore. They hide in a pore and eat spores. There are enough insects and other animals that a food web is created. The spiders and some insects are predators that feed on other insects. Their prey include fly larvae and small insects.
Woody shelves are impossible to break with your hands and difficult to cut. This toughness results from the kinds of hyphae (filaments) that are used to construct the shelf. Easily crushed mushrooms are made of thin-walled hyphae. Some of the hyphae in woody shelves are thick-walled and the hyphae are interwoven making them tougher. They resist tearing or splitting because there are no planes to split along in the tissue.

Botanical Name: Ganoderma applanatum

Common Names: Artist’s Conk, Shelf Fungus, White Mottled Rot Mushroom, Bear Bread, Powder Coated Monkey’s Bench

Family: Ganodermataceae

Parts Used: Fruiting Body of the Fungus

Related Species: There are many species of Ganoderma and a number of them have uses as medicinal mushrooms. The most well known and researched is Ganoderma lucidum (Reishi mushroom) which grows on hardwood trees. Another is G.tsugae (Hemlock Varnish Shelf) which grows on conifers especially the Hemlock Spruce (Tsuga spp.). These two and the Artist’s Bracket are all collectively sold together as ‘ling zhi’ in Asia and considered to have similar properties though Reishi is commercially the preferred species.

Mycology & Identification: It grows on many species of dead or dying deciduous trees across temperate regions of the Northern hemisphere.

Growing & Harvesting: Artist’s Bracket is a perennial fungus which adds on a layer of growth to fruiting body each year, identifiable as a distinct ring of tissue. The medicinal part of the fungus is the fruiting body harvested when it is spore bearing, usually mid August to early September. The spores are released from the underside, and the top of the fungus has an opposite electrical charge to the spores, so some are attracted to the top and sit there as a dusty brown deposit that looks like cocoa which can be seen at the peak of its fertile period. Only harvest the fruiting body from individuals that are two years or older and still growing. You can tell if they are still growing from the white band along the outer edge. Only harvest this year and the previous year’s growth to allow the conk to continue growing in the following years.

You can also just harvest some of the spores by brushing them off with a small brush and preserving them as a nutritional powder to consume later.

Reishi Mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) Hemlock Varnish Shelf (Ganoderma tsugae)

Edibility & Nutrition: Inedible raw, but used as a flavour enhancer in Chinese cooking and as part of the base for soups

Qualities: Cooling, Neutral

Tastes: Meaty, Salty


Immune Support

  • The Ganoderma genus are powerful immune tonics: they generally increase the rate of action and efficiency of immune cells in the body, and balance the overall immune response. By normalising the immune response, they are specifics for reducing auto-immune excess and problematic allergies.
  • They are able to both alleviate symptoms of allergies as well as preventing their development by addresses the underlying immune imbalance that predisposes the body to overreact to pollen or other allergens, as well as reducing the histamine-mediated inflammatory responses that follows the body’s overreaction

Cancer Protective

  • Artists’ Conk reduces proliferation of tumour cells and inhibits tumour necrosis factor, slowing and reversing the spread of cancer.
  • One of the best herbs for restoring the function of the immune system following chemotherapy, and also for synergistically increasing the effectiveness of chemo while decreasing its side effects. Here it works well in combination with Inonotus obliquus and Piptoporus betulinus


  • Anti-bacterial against Staphylococci & Streptococci bacteria.
  • Anti-fungal against Candida species
  • Anti-viral -effective against HIV, herpes, hepatitis B, post viral fatigue

Adaptogen For Stress & Sleep

  • The Ganodermas are adaptogenic tonics for building up cold, deficient and exhausted states. Matthew Wood writes that Artist’s Bracket is a tonic to the parasympathetic side of the nervous system (responsible for rest, relax, eat, digest, sleep, dream)
  • Reduces stress & anxiety, improves adrenal function & sleep quality
  • Reishi Mushroom is known as ‘spirit mushroom’ relating to its sedative qualities. It is often prescribed to improve sleep patterns.
  • Excellent rejuvenative for elderly and during convalescence

Heart & Circulation

  • Supports heart function, increasing coronary circulation and protecting against damage to the heart muscle.
  • Relieves heart palpitations and disorders of heart rhythm

History & Folklore:

  • ‘Applanatum’ means Shelf, and ‘Ganoderma’ means Shiny Skin
  • The name Artist’s Bracket refers to the white underside of the mushroom’s fruiting body which can be marked to draw pictures onto
  • It is known as ‘ling zhi’ in China. This is derived from the pictographs for ‘shaman praying for rain’ (ling) and ‘tree fungus’ or ‘substance used to concoct an elixir of immortality’ (zhi).
  • Artists Bracket sister mushroom Reishi is known in China & Japan as the ‘Mushroom of Immortality’ and is used as a longevity and vitality tonic. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) it is considered warming, tonic, nourishing, antitoxic, astringing, and dispersing of accumulations
  • Artists Conk in Japanese is known as コフキサルノコシカケ – which means ‘Powder Coated Monkey’s Bench’
  • Anecdotes from zoologists working with gorillas tell stories of these primates self-medicating with Artists’ Bracket Fungi. They have been seen breaking them off trees and then carrying them far away from the group and jealously guarding them

Preparations & Dosages: Fresh or dried tincture, infusion, poultice, ointment, compress, powder, soup base. Its immuno-modulating polysaccharides are water soluble and can be decocted and drunk as a tea. Extraction into alcohol will release the ganodermic acids.

Tincture Dose is 10-20ml, up to three times a day.

Powder Dose is 3-6g a day in chronic disease, and 9-15g in acute conditions

Cautions & Contraindications: Not recommended in pregnancy, lactation or concurrently with immunosuppressants. Avoid in Mushroom Allergies. May cause diarrhoea in large doses. The Reishi Mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) is considered synergistic with the following medications and it can be assumed that Artist’s Bracket will be similarly so: Cefazolin (antibiotic), Interferon-Alpha & Interferon-Gamma, Acyclovir (Anti-Fungal).

Harrod-Buhner Stephen (2012) Herbal Antibiotics, 2nd Edition

McIntyre, Anne (2010) The Complete Herbal Tutor

Powell, Martin (2013) ‘Medicinal Mushrooms: The Essential Guide’, Mycology Press

Wood, Matthew (2008) The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants

The Bracket Fungi

A small, polyporous fungus related to conks. Like the conks, the fruiting body is tough and woody. The underside is composed of numerous spore-bearing tubes or canals. This particular fungus was growing on a 2 x 8 ft. board of an outdoor patio in San Diego County, California. The mycelium permeated the hollow dead cells of the board, extracting nutrients from the cell walls. Fungi that digest the cellulose and leave the lignin behind are called “carbonizing decays” or “brown rots” because they make the wood dry, brittle and darker than the original wood. Fungi that digest cellulose and lignin are called “delignifying decays” or “white rots” because they make the wood soft, spongy and whiter than the original wood. In this case, the board contained hollowed out pockets lined with mycelial threads. Fungal infections such as this are often called “dry rots,” and together with termites, cause considerable damage to houses in southern California. Boards infested with dry rot need to be replaced because they have lost their structural integrity.

Tree Bracket Fungus – Learn About Prevention And Removal Of Bracket Fungus

Tree bracket fungus is the fruiting body of certain fungi that attack the wood of living trees. They are of the mushroom family and have been used in folk medicines for centuries. Bracket fungus info tells us that their hard woody bodies were ground to powder and used in teas. Unlike many of their mushroom cousins, most are inedible and of the few that can be eaten, most are poisonous.

Anyone who has tried to remove one of these brackets will tell you that they are rock hard; so hard, in fact, that they can be carved into works of art and beautiful jewelry.

Bracket Fungus Info

Tree bracket fungus is often referred to as shelf fungus because of the way it sticks out from the infected tree. They are called polypores. Instead of having spore producing gills, they have many pores lined with spore producing cells called basidia. These basidia form woody tubes through which the spores are released into the air. A new layer of spore tissue is added each season on top of the old; and as time passes, these layers grow into the large and familiar bracket.

Fungus info can be taken from these growths. They are used to determine how long does bracket fungus live. The rings can give clues to the age of the growth because each ring represents one growing season, but before that can be determined, one needs to know if there is only one growing season per year in the spring or two seasons, one in spring and one in fall. Depending on the number of seasons, a tree bracket fungus with twenty rings may be twenty years old or only ten. There have been reports of shelves with forty rings and weights up to three hundred pounds.

As long as the host plant survives, the shelf will continue to grow, so the simplest answer to how long does bracket fungus live is — as long as the tree it infects.

Learn About Prevention and Removal of Bracket Fungus

Tree bracket fungus is a disease of the tree’s heartwood. As stated before, the shelves are the fruiting bodies and by the time they appear, there is usually a significant amount of interior damage. The fungi that cause bracket fungus — and there are many — attack the hardwood interior, and therefore, the structural integrity of the tree and are the cause of white or brown rot.

If the rot occurs in a branch, it will weaken and eventually drop. If the disease attacks the trunk, the tree can fall. In wooded areas, this is merely inconvenient. In the home garden, it can cause great harm to property and people. In older trees with massive trunks, this decay can take years, but in younger trees, the threat is very real.

Unfortunately, there is no treatment for the removal of bracket fungus. Info from expert arborists recommends removal of infected branches to prevent further spread, but beyond that, there is little you can do. Prevention rather than removal of bracket fungus is the best that can be done.

Like all fungi, bracket fungus likes a damp environment. Make sure the bases of trees don’t stand in water. As soon as the infection is noted, removal of the bracket fungus shelves will at least prevent the spore release that may infect other trees. The good news is that these fungi attack the old and the weak and often occur after a tree is damaged by man or nature.

Strong, healthy trees respond with a natural chemical defense when damage occurs, which helps fight off fungal disease. Because of this, experts frown on the use of tree wound sealers and research supports their claim that these wound sealers can sometimes make matters worse. Cut ragged, damaged limbs off cleanly and let nature take its course.

Losing a favorite tree to tree bracket fungus is heartbreaking, but it is also important to remember that these fungi also serve a purpose in the natural world. Their consumption of dead and dying wood is part of the cycle of life.

Low bandwidth video / High bandwidth video

Description, Habitat, Ecology, & Distribution:
The bracket fungi (or shelf fungi) comprise numerous species of the Polypore Family (Polyporaceae). Technically, these are not plants, gaining their sustenance through the decomposition of dead and dying plant matter. In our area there are numerous types of bracket fungi-also widely known as conks-including species of the fungal genera listed above as well as many others. The visible portion of a bracket fungus consists of the fruiting, or reproductive, body. Such structures may be an extremely long-lived and woody, adding a new layer of living fungal matter at the base of the structure each year. The vegetative portion of the fungus resides within the body of the tree (or dead stump), where it consists of an extensive network of filamentous fungal threads. Bracket fungi are widely distributed throughout the province where they occur upon a variety of host species.

Upriver Halkomelem Cultural Role(s):
Unidentified fungi (possibly some type of bracket fungi) obtained from red alder trees or stumps were considered edible. This unidentified fungus was said by some to cause rain if one turned it upside down after picking it or if one scratched it.

Downriver Halkomelem Cultural Role(s):
Island Halkomelem Cultural Role(s):
Some types of bracket fungi have been used for medicine or kept for good luck.

In the world of foraging, few organisms conjure up fear and mystery more than mushrooms. Tell someone you harvest wild berries, and he thinks to himself what a great hobby. Tell another person you hunt wild mushrooms, and she fears for your life.

“Aren’t you scared?”

“What if it’s poisonous?”

“I could never pick wild mushrooms, they’re much too dangerous.”

The fungal kingdom, it seems, is a bit of an enigma. In 1991, a paper was published suggesting that, although 1.5 million fungi were thought to have inhabited the earth, only about 70,000, or 4.7%, of fungal organisms were identified at that time (1). Today, it is estimated that there are 5.1 million fungal species in existence, and the number of identified species is still quite small in comparison.

It’s true, out of 5.1 million fungal species, some of them are quite toxic. Destroying Angel, Deadly Galerina, and Death Cap aren’t just fancy names, though they may or may not be hit singles from late 80’s heavy metal bands…

Amatoxin, forever popularized by their hit single, “Destroying Angel”

It’s easy to focus all our attention on the dangers of wild mushroom hunting, and of course the risks are valid concerns. One must absolutely know what he or she has in hand before even thinking about pulling out the butter, salt, and frying pan.

There is another side to wild mushroom hunting, however. The medicinal side. The healing side. The delicious side.

Obviously, several mushrooms are edible. A quick trip to the grocery store confirms this. Many individuals are interested in going one step further by foraging edible mushrooms, yet have no idea where to start. It can all appear quite daunting at first, especially after realizing you’re dealing with 5.1 million potential species (okay, this is an exaggeration; much of this large number does not pertain to mushrooms in their fruiting body stages, but rather to microscopic fungi, such as yeasts and molds).

So where do we start?

Well, why don’t we begin with the most easily identifiable wild edible mushrooms? You know, the ones that when you see them you think, “Yep, that’s exactly it!”

In this post, I have put together a list of 5 easy-to-identify edible mushrooms. These mushrooms are fairly conspicuous, they’re delicious, and they require a hefty stretch of the imagination to misidentify as toxic look-alikes.

Note: I live in western Pennsylvania. This list, therefore, is based on my experiences with the organisms in this area.

1. Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus)

Not all mushrooms look like the portobellos and the shiitakes found in the grocery store. Lion’s Mane, for one, certainly does not. It is one of the most unique-looking mushrooms, with its unbranched body of icicle-like spines and soft white tissue. Accordingly, Lion’s Mane is a great mushroom for beginning mushroom hunters.

The fruiting body of Lion’s Mane consists of an unbranched, cushiony, water-rich mass that is between 3-10” wide and typically the same size tall. Lion’s Mane is the only Hericium species in eastern North America that is unbranched. The fruiting body of Lion’s Mane consists of numerous, icicle-like spines (“teeth”) that point downward and taper to a point. Each spine is soft and typically half-an-inch to 2 inches in length. These spines are white when young and yellowish when older.

The spore color produced by Lion’s Mane is white.

Very few mushrooms resemble Lion’s Mane, and the ones that do are taxonomically placed in the same genus (Hericium). These include Bear’s Head (H. abietis), Coral Tooth (H. coralloides), and Bear’s Head Tooth (H. americanum), among others. What distinguishes Lion’s Mane from its relatives are its long spines (1-4 cm long) and unbranched fruiting body. All species of Hericium are considered to be edible.

Also known as the Pom-Pom mushroom, Lion’s Mane is one of the most delectable mushrooms in the fungal kingdom, resembling crab meat in taste and texture. Additionally, Lion’s Mane has been well researched for its role in improving cognitive health, producing neuro-regenerative effects in numerous studies (2, 3, 4).

Look for Lion’s Mane on the wounds of living hardwood trees, such as oaks and maples, as well as on recently felled trees. It can be found in the summer months through autumn.

2. Chicken Of The Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus)

While Lion’s Mane is one of the easiest mushrooms to identify, its presence is a bit more rare than some of the other choice edibles. Take Chicken Of The Woods, for example. Once you develop a search image for this fungus, you’ll start seeing it everywhere (okay, maybe not on Mount Kilimanjaro, but you get my point).

Chicken Of The Woods (also known as the Chicken Mushroom or Sulphur Shelf) grows in clusters on both standing and downed trees, emerging as knob-like growths and soon developing into numerous shelves.

Each individual cap can be up to 12” wide, though oftentimes you’ll find individual caps that are much larger than this. The top of the mushroom is typically smooth and faintly wrinkled, and when fresh, its color is bright orange to yellowish orange (sometimes with a bright yellow margin).

With age, the caps of this mushroom will fade and turn whitish and become very crumbly. However, if you find Chicken Of The Woods at this stage, check that spot again in a few months or next year, because this mushroom tends to fruit multiple times on the same log or tree.

Chicken Of The Woods is a polypore mushroom because its fertile surface (underside) contains numerous pores from where the spores are dispersed. This means that there are no gills on the underside of Chicken Of the Woods, and there will never be gills on the underside. This mushroom always contains a pore surface with very tiny pores.

In this particular species, Laetiporus sulphureus, the pore surface is bright yellow when fresh, though this color will fade with age.

Note: The closely related L. cincinnatus contains a peachish-orange cap and a whitish-peachish pore surface. It, too, is edible.

The spore print produced by Chicken Of The Woods is white.

The texture of cooked Chicken Of The Woods resembles… get this… chicken, and this mushroom is best collected when young. As it ages, this mushroom becomes too tough to eat, though the outer edges can still be salvaged and used in dishes. Like all wild mushrooms, it requires cooking before consumption.

Beyond edibility, Chicken Of The Woods is medicinal as well. Research has shown that an extract from this mushroom possesses antimicrobial activity against the pathogen, Aspergillus flavus (5). Chicken Of The Woods is also a great source of antioxidants, including quercetin, kaempferol, caffeic acid, and chlorogenic acid (6), and it contains lanostanoids – molecules that have the ability to inhibit cancerous growths (7). What more could you ask for from a humble saprophyte?

Look for Chicken Of The Woods in the summer months through autumn. To learn more about this fantastic fungus, I encourage you to check out a video I created on its identification, look-alikes, medicinal benefits, and more.

3. Hen Of The Woods / Maitake (Grifola frondosa)

The Maitake mushroom (also known as Sheep’s Head or Hen Of The Woods) is a choice edible and medicinal that always demands a good hunt. While it’s easy to identify and widely distributed, Maitake can be somewhat tricky to locate compared to the showy Chicken Of The Woods, as the former blends in well with the autumnal foliage.

Maitake contains overlapping gray to brown caps attached to a single base. Each cap is between 1-3” wide and typically fan-shaped and fleshy (not woody like you’ll see in other polypores).

Underneath each cap is a pore surface containing numerous tiny pores. There are no gills on the Maitake mushroom… just a pore surface. The pore surface is whitish or light gray in color, and these pores do not bruise when handled or scratched.

The spore print produced by the Maitake mushroom is white.

While not difficult to identify, Maitake may resemble other non-toxic polypores. The Black Staining Polypore (Meripilus sumstinei) bruises black and can be found growing on buried wood. Young specimens are edible, though they become too tough to consume with age. The Umbrella Polypore (Polyporus umbellatus) is another edible look-alike which contains white to grayish caps, though this mushroom is multi-branched and not as common.

Maitake compliments a variety of dishes, lending a hearty flavor and tender texture. In addition to its use as a food, Maitake has been researched extensively for its medicinal properties, specifically in the areas of cancer and diabetes.

Maitake, with few look-alikes, is certainly one of the safest mushrooms to harvest. Look for this gem under oak trees (and make sure you circle the tree … you may be pleasantly surprised to find a second or third), late summer through autumn.

To learn more about the Maitake mushroom, I encourage you to check out this video I created on its identification, health benefits, and more!

4. Oyster Mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus)

Oyster mushrooms are popular amongst both mushroom hunters and cultivators. To positively identify Oysters, one only needs to visit a grocery store and observe these mushrooms in bins or clamshells.

Still, many features ought to be noted before harvesting Oyster mushrooms in the wild, and once learned, you’ll have easy access to wild fare many months of the year.

Oyster mushrooms are edible fungi that grow in overlapping clusters on wood… usually on hardwood logs, stumps, and standing dead trees. Rarely will you see this particular species, Pleurotus ostreatus, decomposing conifer wood… though it is possible.

Each cap is typically between 3-8” wide and shaped like an oyster. While many Oyster mushroom species are white, Pleurotus ostreatus can be cream-colored and even grayish-brownish in color.

The underside contains whitish gills that become yellowish in age. A key feature of Pleurotus ostreatus is that its gills are decurrent; in other words, the gills run the complete length of the cap and down the stalk.

The spore print of Pleurotus ostreatus is pale-lilac to whitish.

Pleurotus ostreatus is unique in that it tends to grow in the colder months of the year — mid-autumn, all the way through winter, and even into early spring. If you’re finding an Oyster mushroom during these colder months, and its color is tannish, grayish, or brownish… there’s a good chance you’re looking at Pleurotus ostreatus.

To learn more about oyster mushrooms, check out this video in which I discuss identification, medicinal benefits, and more.

5. Morels (Morchella sp.)

Morels (genus Morchella) are among the most prized of all wild mushrooms. Every year, countless mycophiles scour the woods in search of these tasty, elusive fungi.

Mushrooms within the Morchella genus belong to one of 3 groups (“clades”):

  • Black clade (elata)
  • Yellow clade (esculenta)
  • Rufobrunnea clade (which currently contains the species Morchella rufobrunnea, a Morel that appears in woodchips and landscaping settings on the West Coast from California to Seattle.)

Black Morels (in the elata clade) typically appear first. Depending on where you live, you might see Black Morels in March. These mushrooms grow terestrially underneath a variety of trees, including ash, sycamore, aspen, and coniferous trees, and are most commonly found in Northern and Western North America (though they certainly do grow in Eastern North America). Disturbed areas are good places to look, including campgrounds, along roads, and in logged areas.

Black Morels can be found in burned areas as well, especially 1 to 2 years after the occurrence of a forest fire. Additionally, wetland areas can be conducive to Black Morel mushroom fruitings, especially in lowlands containing sycamore and cottonwood trees.

Yellow Morels (in the esculenta clade) are more common in Eastern North America and in the Midwest (though they do grow in Western North America). They grow near a variety of hardwood trees, including tulip poplar, ash, and dead or dying elm trees. Older apple orchards are also good places to look.

Of course, these are generalizations for both groups. Yellow Morels grow in burned areas, too. Black Morels may be found under tulip poplar trees. I have simply narrowed down the descriptions to what is most commonly observed. There will always be outliers.

Regardless of clade, Morels generally demonstrate these physical characteristics:

  • Honeycomb-pitted caps made up of a series of pits and ridges.
  • Entire mushroom (cap and stem) is hollow from top to bottom. This feature is easily observed when each mushroom is cut in half lengthwise.

These features, once learned, will help you clearly separate “true” Morels from their look-alikes, including false morels, thimble morels, and stinkhorns. False morels of the genus Gyromitra tend to retain a darker shade of red and have a wrinkled, brain-like, or convoluted cap. A few mushrooms in the Gyromitra genus are known to be toxic (to a degree). Thimble morels (Verpa spp.) have free, “skirt-like” sides, and stinkhorns (Phallus spp.) have a sack or volva at the base and are generally quite foul-smelling.

For more information on finding and identifying morel mushrooms, check out a very detailed article on this blog: How To Find And Identify Morel Mushrooms

If I had to include additional easy-to-identify mushrooms, I would extend this list to boletes, chanterelles, puffballs, and shaggy manes. The ones that made the final cut, however, are those that I have found to be the easiest to identify. I hardly need to think twice before bringing these delectable fungi home.

The mushrooms that earned their ranking are also the ones that, when taught to other beginning mushroom hunters, are identified with confidence and ease. If you are just starting on the road to becoming an ardent mushroom hunter, use this list as a guide for helping you along your journey. Remember, however, that the descriptions here are not complete and are only meant to briefly discern the listed mushrooms from their potential look-alikes.

A good habit (actually, an extremely wise habit) is to cross-reference your mushrooms with other resources, and always be absolutely positive with your identification before ingesting wild mushrooms in any form. Your safest bet is to have an expert identify, or confirm the identification of, your specimens. A quick online search will yield local mycologists as well as online forums to assist in the identification process.

There, that eases the fear of wild mushroom hunting just a little bit, wouldn’t ya say?

Thanks for reading, and as always … happy foraging!

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—Adam Haritan

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