What on earth (or wood) is this..?
I hate to start things off on a negative point – but – alas, there is no ‘golden rule’ solution when it comes to identifying unfamiliar mushrooms – edible or otherwise. Do not listen to any ‘old wives tales’ you may have heard or even read about. Deadly poisonous toadstools can share the same characteristics as many edible ones. This is a mistake you don’t want to make. Some people also mention ‘taste’ as a good pointer, but this is not highly recommended unless you know what species you are dealing with. A nibble on a Death Cap could possibly turn out to be very unpleasant!
Of course, many genera of mushrooms have familiar and reliable traits, but it’s always best to know ALL of their specific features. Some species are ridiculously obvious to recognise, like the Giant Puffball, but ‘sore thumbs’ like these are few and far between. If there was to be a steadfast rule to follow, it would be this: ‘If you don’t know it’s name or have any doubt to it’s Identity, then do not eat it’. Simple.
But don’t be put off by all this negative scare-mongering, it’s there for purely for safety reasons. Enjoying wild mushrooms for food or as a casual interest can be very rewarding. But as a basic rule to oneself it’s smart to employ a sensible attitude when dealing with new discoveries. Play by these rules and you’ll be OK. The following may all look very in depth and over the top, but once you’re used to the process it can help you overcome basic ID obstacles. It’s all part of the fun!
So, where do you start? What can I do?
To help break things down and help as a ‘process of elimination’ from the facts, I have categorised these ID tips into 3 sections.
1. Anatomy of a mushroom – (including smell and taste)
2. Habitat, substrate & time of year
3. Taking a Spore print – The fungal footprint!
My aim here is to cover all bases and include helpful tips to remember when out in the field (or when back at home with samples). I’ll also explain the terminology used (usually bracketed like so) when describing the more common ‘mushroom shaped’ species with a typical ‘cap’ and ‘stem’. Gathering information in this way will undoubtedly help you get closer to identifying your find. Use this new found knowledge to check with books and online sources etc. (including my blog of course!)
So, to begin…
1. Anatomy of a Mushroom
Note: All parts shown here are not necessarily those featured on all mushrooms (ie. some have no scales on the cap or rings on the stem etc.)
Identification tips from the bits!
Useful details featured on different parts of a mushroom (which can be often missed) can help considerably in identification of an unknown or unfamiliar species.
If possible, try to make notes of most (if not all) of the following:
Size and Shape: What are it’s dimensions (width & depth)? Is it flat, round, domed? etc.
The following illustration is featuring cap morphology (great name eh?). It will give you an idea of all the different cap shapes out there.
Note: Sometimes one or more features are present on the same mushroom – ie. some funnel mushrooms have a slight bump (umbo) in the centre.
Colour(s): What colour or colours does it show? Does it also change colour when bruised or handled. Cut into the cap to see the flesh. Does it change colour when exposed to the air?
Texture/Markings: Is it smooth, sticky (especially noticeable in wet or moist weather), shaggy, scaly, velvety? etc.
The Margin (the edge of the cap)
The Gills, pores or spikes
The underside of your typical mushroom (with cap and stem) disperse their spores from here. They can have gills (blade like flesh), pores (small holes from the end of tubes which are hidden within the cap) or even spines (hanging spikes or teeth) from which the spores will drop.
Gill attachment: Gills sometimes attach themselves to the stem and sometimes not. This is an important feature to take note of. The ‘cross-section’ diagram below illustrates the different ways gills are attached in relation to the stem:
Colour(s): What colour are the gills. This can be sometimes tricky, as colours can change duringing stages of growth (ie. young, mature, old). Look around for younger or very old (dying) examples for comparison.
Does the gill colour change when marked (with a knife or finger)? Is it blotchy or speckled?
Spacing: They may be crowded and fine or thicker and spaced out.
Thickness/consistency: Are the gills thick or thin? Are they fragile, strong, flexible or brittle?
Other: Note any extra features. For example:
• They may be forked (gill ends fork out) closer to the margin.
• They may produce a ‘milk-like’ substance when handled
• Water droplets may be trapped between gills
• Some gills attach to a circular ‘collar’ around the stem
• Can they be easily peeled/removed from the stem?
Pores: All of the Boletes and Polypores (bracket fungi) have pores instead of gills. These appear as small holes on the underside of the cap. Small tubes run through the cap from the felsh.
• Note the pore size. Are they small and numerous in a small space of larger and wide spread.
• Note the colour and if they change colour on bruising (being touched or marked)
• Note if they appear as perfect circles, angular or maze-like
Spikes: A relatively small group of fungi have hanging spikes (also sometimes called teeth). This is a feature instantly recognisible and can greatly narrow down identification (ie. Hedgehog fungus etc.)
The Stem (stipe, shank or stalk)
Size and shape: Is the stem thick, thin, short or noticeably tall (long)?
Colour: Does it share the same colour (concolourous) as the cap or is it different? Are there coloured streaks? Does the colour differ at the base in relation nearer the apex (just before joining the cap)?
Consistency: Is it smooth, flaky etc? Is it brittle, fibrous and flexible etc?
Ring (Annulus): Is there a ring on the stem? Is it large, small, grooved, moveable? Does the stem have a different consistency above and below it?
Markings: Any distinct markings? Pitting, freckling etc.
Base: Is the base thicker where it joins the wood/soil? Does it have a sack or volva (remnants of the universal veil)? Does the stem appear to have an extension like a root below the soil etc?
Other: Cut the stem. Is it hollow or solid? Is it darker near the base? Does the flesh change colour and where? Is it clustered and/or joined with other mushrooms at the base?
Note: I would advise you only do this if you know the genus (taxonomic group) of mushroom you are dealing with.
Nibble and spit: On certain occasions a nibble of a mushroom to gauge the sensation or taste is advisable. But care must be taken in this. I only use this technique on Brittlegills or Milkcaps, and unless you know you’re definitely dealing with these, do not try it at all.
Taste sensations are usually in the form of unique sensations and flavours, ie. bitterness, hot and mild etc., which help in identification.
2. Habitat, substrate & time of year
A lot can be resolved simply by knowing where and when a mushroom is found.
Habitat: The two main habitats are Wood and Grassland, but also make note what types. ie. Is it in broadleaved, coniferous or mixed woodland? Is the grassland in an urban setting such as a garden or roadside? Is it in a meadow, pasture field or near a hedgerow?
Substrate: (the base on which an organism lives): This is also a very important identification feature. Note the following:
• Does it grow in soil/grass or on dung etc.?
• Does it grow on wood chippings, compost, sawdust etc?
In or near woodland:
• Is it growing nearby a tree(s) – What is the tree variety?
• Is it in a clearing (grass or leaf litter etc.)?
• Does it grow on a living tree?
• Is it on a dying or dead tree? Is it on a tree stump?
• Is it growing on dead wood, fallen branches or twigs etc.?
• Is it near dead wood? (some species feed off and are attached to dead wood buried underground and therefore not visible)
Time of year: The main mushroom season begins from late summer through to early winter, but many may grow earlier in the season, starting in the Spring/Summer. Others (especially bracket fungus) can last all year round and winter is host to a few exclusive (and edible) species.
3. Taking a spore print
Before you reach for the microscope, which, let’s be honest – most of us don’t have, taking spore prints can be the ‘make or break’ solution for any identification. All you need to see is the ‘colour’ of the spore deposit (reproductive spores dropped from the underside of the cap). If you have not done this before, it’s very easy to do.
Simple example: Once you have your mushroom back at home, simply cut off the stem as close the cap as you can. Place the cap (gills down) on a sheet of blank white paper or similar. Leave undisturbed for 3-4 hours or leave overnight for the best results.
When the time is ready, simply remove the cap from the paper to see the results.
This is a quick and simple method in creating a spore print. Check the colour results in daylight rather than under an electric source. You may have something similar to the following examples:
There are naturally many variations in colour, including white or pale pink. So it’s sometimes best to place the cap over both black and white coloured paper. The white spores will be more noticeable on a darker background.
If you do not wish to remove the stem, simply cut a hole in some cardboard (or heavier weight paper), slot the stem through the hole and place the card on the rim of a tall glass so the mushroom is gently suspended on the card.
It’s also best to make note of the sometimes subtle variations of the same colour produced by several species. ie. you will encounter many ‘brown’ shades, ranging from very light/pale, medium to strong or rust-like. There are also many white to cream colour variations too.
From all the information you have gathered you will have a much better idea of what you’re dealing with. I may not have covered all my finds within this blog for you to look at, but at least you will have a good collection of notes to cross reference with when checking other online sources and books etc. It’s all good.
Be safe out there kids!