Safe Mushroom Hunting

Each Spring and Fall, when the weather is warm and rainy and the biggest mushroom flushes of the year occur, my desk at the conservation department overflows with wild mushrooms to be identified.

Most of the people who bring in these mushrooms want to make sure that the tasty-looking morsels they have collected are in fact edible and won’t send them racing to the emergency room a few hours after supper. Often they are interested in collecting other wild mushrooms for the table but are aware of the dangers and don’t know quite where to start.

I certainly appreciate their caution. Because a few wild mushrooms are deadly and many more are mildly poisonous, mushroom hunting is not a hobby for the careless or uninformed. On the other hand, neither is it necessarily the death-defying feat that many people imagine. There are a number of good edible mushrooms that are easy to recognize and hard to confuse with anything dangerously poisonous. […]

The purpose of this article is twofold: to help you identify a number of safe, edible wild mushrooms […] and to introduce you to the gentle sport of mushroom hunting, which among other things is a fine excuse to walk in the woods.

More about Mushrooms

What is a mushroom? Mushrooms are actually the fruits of fungus. The fungus itself is simply a net of threadlike fibers, called a mycelium, growing in soil, wood or decaying matter. Mushrooms on a mycelium are like apples on an apple tree.

The function of a mushroom is to produce spores, which are the “seeds” of the fungus. Some kinds of mushrooms produce their spores on gills (the gilled fungi);some in pores (the pore fungi); some on teeth (the tooth fungi); some inside a leathery pouch (the puffballs); some on the inside of shallow cups ( the cup fungi, including the morels); and some simply on the surface of the mushroom (coral fungi and others). The spores form on these various structures, then fall off to blow away on the wind or be carried by animals, water or insects. If a spore lands in a suitable spot, it germinates and grows into a new mycelium.

The mushrooms most people recognize are the gilled fungi. These typical parasol-shaped mushrooms have caps with bladelike gills on the underside and stems with or without rings. The pore fungi are similar in appearance but have a spongy layer of tubes of pores on the underside of the cap instead of gills.

Collecting Mushrooms

Mushroom collecting requires only the simplest of equipment: a flat-bottomed basket or box, a roll of waxed paper, a digging tool and a pencil and paper for notes.

Be sure to collect the entire mushroom, including the base. Take only fresh, young specimens that are free of insect damage. Each type of mushroom should be wrapped separately in waxed paper (not plastic wrap, which hastens decay), along with any notes you might want to make about the habitat and appearance of the mushroom. It’s a good idea to note where the mushroom is growing (on wood, soil, moss); whether it is single or in clusters’ the colors of the caps, gills and stem; and any other distinctive features. The more you can observe about the mushroom in the field, the easier it will be to identify at home.

Making a Spore Print

Individual spores are too small to be seen with the naked eye, but you can make a spore print that will show the color of the spores in mass. This color is an important identifying characteristic for many mushrooms, especially the gilled fungi.

To make a spore print, cut the stem off the mushroom and place the cap gill-side or pore-side down on a piece of white paper. To best see the spore color, use on sheet of black paper and one of white, taped together side-by-side. Cover with a bowl or jar. If the mushroom is at the right stage-not too young, too old or deteriorated-the spores will slowly collect on the paper. A spore print will be visible in one to 12 hours.

drawing of making a mushroom spore print

Books about Mushrooms

  • The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms by Gary H Lincoff. Alfred A Knopf, 1981.
  • Mushrooms of North America by Orson K Miller, Jr. E. P. Dutton, 1977 (paperback edition).
  • The Mushroom Trail Guide by Phyllis G Glik. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979.
  • The Mushroom Hunter’s Field Guide by Alexander H Smith and Nancy Smith Weber. University of Michigan Press, 1980.

*Available by order at bookstores.

By Barbara Bassett; edited by C.Martin

Copyright 1983 by the Conservation Commission of the State of Missouri reprinted from the Missouri Conservationist.

Ms. Bassett is a Naturalist in Jefferson City, MO



About Jerome the Gnome

Hi, there! I'm the chief garden gnome and live in and manage the mushroom patch at where all the little garden gnomes work tirelessly to assemble our mushroom grow kits for your home and garden.
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