Identifying Wild Mushrooms
Identifying wild mushrooms is an amazing and practical skill set. Learn how to identify edible mushrooms, the benefits of befriending wild mushrooms, get resources for edible mushroom identification, and more! These amazing delicacies will rock your world!
What is a mushroom?
It could be easy to think of a mushroom as a vegetable since they're often cooked into classic dishes like stir-fry with other vegetables. In the process of identifying wild mushrooms it's important to know that a mushroom is actually a fungus which produces a fruit. The fruit is the main body of the mushroom. Let's take a closer look at the benefits that are waiting for us after learning how to identify edible mushrooms.
Benefits of befriending edible wild mushrooms
There are many gifts to making friends with wild mushrooms. Let's start with the immediate joy and pleasure of eating them. There are a variety of mushrooms all with different flavors and earthy aromas and every succulent bite tastes delish! This is just the start of an incredible life-long opportunity to connect with them.
The aspiration and enthusiasm of searching for mushrooms can be as deeply fulfilling as it was for King Arthur to quest after the Holy Grail. The satisfaction of discovery, the skillful finesse of using our senses to identify wild mushrooms, and the emotional connection we cultivate with nature is worth so much more than buying them at the store.
The health benefits of wild mushrooms are tremendous. They improve the health of your skin; they boost your energy levels, lower cholesterol and are packed with numerous vitamins and minerals. Some mushrooms are drunk as a tonic, some treat wounds, and many contain important enzymes and anti-oxidants that lend a helping hand to the overall health of your immune system. And if that weren't enough, there are some mushrooms that are used as a remedy to help with arthritis and inhibit diabetes and cancer. And the cherry on top is that wild mushrooms are free!
Identifying wild mushrooms - a primer
Identifying wild mushrooms requires awareness and understanding of their parts. There are many poisonous look-a-likes. Just like studying all the other aspects of nature, begin learning a handful of the most definitive mushrooms first. The "foolproof four" are some of the best species to start with for edible mushroom identification. These mushrooms are relatively easy to identify. They are the giant puffballs, morel mushrooms, chicken of the woods, and the chanterelles.
It's spring and you're excited for a mushroom foray! There you are walking in the woods after a spell of rain. Whoops! You've slipped on a nice damp matted pile of leaves and landed on the forest floor. You're perfectly poised for an encounter with a wild mushroom. There you are, nose-to-nose with the most beautiful gastronomic delights you've ever seen. Or so you think. In order to know if these mushrooms will be fit for a gourmet feast we need to look closely at these mushrooms and begin to identify their parts.
The "mushrooms" most people are familiar with are actually just the mushroom fruit body. The actual whole mushroom is the mycelium roots plus the fruit body.
There are four main body parts to most mushrooms:
- Cap: the "hat" or umbrella-shaped cap of the mushroom sitting on the stalk.
- Gills, tubes, spines, and ridges: what lives on the underside of the cap and releases spores.
- Stalk: what the mushroom cap stands on.
- Mycelium: the roots that push the mushroom up for spore dispersal and your foraging!
It really helps to have a basic primer on mushroom parts. It makes identifying wild mushrooms that much simpler when we are out in the field. In their own right, mushrooms contain a world of mysteries. There's a lot of action going on under the soil that we don't even see. By identifying them, we demystify them. This isn't to say we've taken away the air of mystery. That will always be present in these ethereal beings. By being able to easily distinguish their parts we break down the intimidation and hesitancy that can go along with the territory of edible mushrooms identification.
Another aspect of identifying wild mushrooms is to make spore prints of the mushrooms you find. Simply remove the stalk from the mushroom and place the cap and gills downward on a piece of white paper or glass. Place a large glass cup or jar upside down over the mushroom (to keep air from getting in).
Wait until the next day to remove the glass jar or cup. When you lift the mushroom cap from the paper or glass you'll find a print of the spores that fell. The various colors of mushroom spores are often listed in field guides. Adding to your primary mushroom identification process, this is another all-around fun way to learn how to identify edible mushrooms!
Beyond edible mushrooms identification
So you've been learning how to identify edible mushrooms. Besides the fact that eating them is at the top of the list there are a myriad of other interesting uses. Some of them make good fire starters and others are substitutes for coffee. Many are prized for making wine and are wonderful for dyeing with wool and other fibers. Mushrooms are used for creating art, helping other plants to grow, and restoring health to toxic environments. These versatile fungi are even used in our modern world today to make biodegradable packaging!
Top 10 edible mushroom groups in North America
There are thousands and thousands of mushroom species. Besides the foolproof four, learning the most common mushroom groups will accelerate your edible mushroom identification journey. So here's a list of the top 10 most common edible mushroom groups in North America. Go forth mushrooming!
- Teeth Fungi
- Coral Fungi
- Club Fungi
- Milk Caps
- Light-spored gilled mushrooms with a ring
- Light-spored gilled mushrooms without a ring
Resources for how to identify edible mushrooms
There are some great resources for identifying wild mushrooms. For more information on edible wild mushrooms go to our article Encountering Edible Wild Mushrooms. Here's a great list of books that will help you learn how to identify edible mushrooms as well!
- Peterson's Field Guide to Venomous Animals and Poisonous Plants by Steven Foster, Roger Caras and Roger Tory Peterson
- Start Mushrooming by Stan Tekiela and Karen Shanberg
- Treasures from the Kingdom of Fungi by Taylor Lockwood
- The Field Guide to Mushrooms by William Thomas and Marie Heerkens
- Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America by David Fischer and Alan Bessette
- Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora
As you continue to identify & learn about mushrooms and forage for these incredibly sumptuous foods, remember it's a life-long journey of discovery. The beauty of nature is that we get a cycle of seasons to explore and identify wild mushrooms and gather them. When we're not out in the fields and forests mushroom hunting we get the opportunity to assimilate and absorb our learning until the next cycle of harvest comes around once again! Embracing and appreciating this process will accelerate your learning.
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