Wild Mushroom Identification Tips Every Forager Needs to Know

wild mushroom

When you're out in the forest, it's easy to find one's self lost in the fantasy of foraging and becoming one with nature. So if you want to get easily lost in the idea of eating from the forest, you need to familiarize yourself with wild mushroom identification methods. But don't worry -- you'll have an easier time than you thought.

You may think, "Oh, well I can just Google what these mushrooms are!" But you can't rely on the internet for everything all the time. Do I sound like your mother? Yes, probably, but she's right in this case.

Having this knowledge on hand will come in handy later -- and it'll be cool to be able to display your wild mushroom identification skills without a phone in your hand.

Mushr-Whom?

red wild mushroom

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Now, you may ask yourself a somewhat silly question before continuing. And that is, what even is a mushroom? It's not a vegetable or a fruit -- and mushrooms technically aren't even plants. They're classified as fungi, and interestingly enough, while every mushroom is fungi, not every fungus is a mushroom.

Many mushrooms are important decomposers, meaning they eat and thrive on dead plants. Others can live on and with other plants, and co-exist.

If you're out on an expedition solely for wild mushrooms, it's best you go in fall. Most wild mushrooms thrive in the slight chill of fall, but not every mushroom is the same. You'll find different mushrooms year-round, depending on wherever you live.

Mushroomy Anatomy

But before we get into wild mushroom identification, it's always good to know what exactly it is you're looking for. The basic anatomy of a wild mushroom is pretty simple to memorize. Let's start at the very beginning because as one Ms. Julie Andrews once said, it's a very good place to start.

The first bit to study is the cap. The cap is the little hat, or top, of the mushroom. And the first thing you're bound to notice sitting on top of the stalk. The next are the gills, spines, ridges, and tubes. These are what you'll find underneath the cap, and these are what release spores.

The next is the stalk, which is pretty straightforward. It's what the cap sits on top of. And then finally, you have what is called the mycelium. Mycelium are roots that push the mushroom up from the ground!

Wild Mushroom Identification Tips

red wild mushroom

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Now, this may seem like a no-brainer, but don't eat any wild mushrooms unless you know for sure what they are. You may think that if you see a wild animal eating a certain plant or mushroom that it's safe for you to eat.

We hate to burst your bubble, but that's not a great idea. Again, we caution you not to eat anything unless you know, with 100 percent certainty exactly what it is.

Another important factor in wild mushroom identification is to remember that cooking doesn't make all wild mushrooms safe. Cooking some poisonous mushrooms can harm you simply from the fumes that cooking creates. So again, don't eat mystery mushrooms -- even if they're cooked.

What to Munch

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Now we get down the nitty-gritty of wild mushroom identification. We don't expect you to memorize every single edible wild mushroom out there, so a physical copy of a trusty field guide might come in handy. It's also a great way for beginners to learn, too.

Now, remember the basic anatomy of a mushroom, and don't forget to take into account your climate, the time of year, and habitat of the mushrooms you're seeking out.

And keep in mind that you should always check twice before eating once.

Chanterelles of the ball

These may sound like they could be a Disney princess, but we promise it's a mushroom. You can find chanterelle in western states, and even in Alaska during fall to early spring. You'll find them growing on the ground in open woods and forests, often under trees. And you can even find them in groups!

wild mushroom

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Their yellow spores and mix of yellow to white color are a dead giveaway and a huge factor in this wild mushroom identification process. Their caps are curled, and the underside has interconnecting veins that are either light orange to yellow.

Oysters without pearls

white mushroom

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These are common, edible fungi that typically grow in colder climates, but despite that, they grow all throughout the year. These are one of the important decomposers we discussed earlier, mainly growing on dead trees, such as oaks, dogwoods, and maples.

The color of the caps can be tan, dark brown, and even grey. The colors are complemented by the white or cream gills underneath the caps. Our handy tip for finding these is that they grow on dead trees after the first rain of the fall season.

What's a morel, and how to tell


wild red mushroom

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These next mushrooms are highly sought after due to their rich flavor. Their caps have a sort of wavy honeycomb-like pattern and no visible gills or spores. This mushroom is also hollow inside, and its tan stalk is barely visible.

Morel mushrooms can be found in the spring, growing in leaf litter, near rivers and streams, and sandy soils out in the forest. These mushrooms prefer damp and wet areas and can be found all throughout North America.

A nice ring to it

Fairy rings are circles of mushrooms that grow out in the wild -- or, more specifically, open meadows and grassy planes. But a specific type of fairy ring mushroom is edible! To make sure you're not picking any other mushrooms that grow in a circular pattern, keep your eyes peeled for smaller, brown caps, with a durable stem.

If it can bend every which way without breaking, there's a good chance it's the mushroom you're looking for.

The gills on the underside will fork, and might not meet the stems. And the final tell-tale sign is when you see them growing in rings. Although, if you're superstitious, we can't advise eating these, as not to anger the fairies.

Not a place for knick-knacks


colorful kinds of mushroom

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This next mushroom is said to taste like chicken, oddly enough. The sulfur shelf, also known as the chicken of the woods, grows throughout North America growing on the sides of trees. Take a look around for these from late summer to fall, on trees such as oak, chestnut, cherry, willow, yew, and beech.

Their caps range from bright orange all the way to yellow, growing in a shelf formation. If you're brave enough to wonder about the texture, ripe mushrooms are rubbery and damp. And the older the mushroom, the more hardened it will be.

Mush-dooms

Now that you know when to look for, you can take a look at what to avoid. Poisonous mushrooms could be lurking around any corner, and they may closely resemble edible mushrooms.

Even a slight slip-up can lead even the most advanced foragers down a bad path with a simple case of mistaken wild mushroom identification. Here are a few mushrooms you'll want to keep a watchful eye out for -- it just might save someone.

That's a cap

wild mushroom on the green bark of the tree

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The first mushroom we'll be taking a close look at is the death cap. Death caps are, if you couldn't tell by the name, highly poisonous. The poison, amanitin, does damage to the liver and kidneys, and symptoms take from 8 to 48 hours to make themselves known after ingestion.

Those who eat death caps will experience nausea, fatigue, headaches, and dizziness. After a while, the nausea gets worse, along with other symptoms. After that, the patient will become dehydrated, which will lead to circulatory failure.

If those affected survive the first phase, the second, where the kidneys fail, will be a lot tougher to survive. Death usually occurs in 4 to 12 days, depending on the person's age, size, and resistance to the toxin.

But despite the horrors that this mushroom has wrought, any food prepared with the death cap is extremely delicious. But, well, it's not worth dying for, we're sure. 

Keep an eye out for a grayish-green colored cap, with gills and a ring in white. This horrid fungus grows from summer through fall in mixed forests.

Surfing the webcaps

This next mushroom is one you won't find in your backyard woods or at your campground -- this one's across the pond. Webcaps are another kind of deadly poisonous mushroom that grows through late summer to early fall.

The active poison in the Fool's webcap is pyridine alkaloid orellanine, which leads us over to what this tiny thing does. This mushroom attacks the kidneys, and may even result in death.

These tiny mushrooms have an irregularly growing, wavy cap, and come in yellow, orange, orange-brown, and brown. Their smooth stem is stringy with a slight shine and narrows toward the bottom. They also have sparse gills on the underside of the caps.

We'll throw you a bone

mushroom on bark of the tree

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Autumn skullcaps are more common throughout the northern hemisphere and found on rotting wood. These are another highly poisonous mushroom that you should avoid at all costs.

With symptoms becoming apparent as soon as 6 to 24 hours after ingestion, you should seek immediate medical attention after eating. These can affect the liver, cause gastrointestinal bleeding, cause kidney failure, coma, and even death as little as seven days after ingesting.

It has a somewhat smaller cap, which is dark brown to yellowish-brown, depending on whether it's wet or not. Its gills attach to the top of its stalk, with a rusty brown spore print.

Its stalk is hollow, and a tan-ish color. It's also worth noting that they're sticky when wet. Although we don't recommend touching potentially poisonous mushrooms.

Not sharply dressed

variety kinds of mushroom

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The deadly dapperling, also called simply a dapperling, is another highly poisonous mushroom that goes after the liver. Although it's a rare find in Europe and western Asia, it's still a good mushroom to be able to identify and avoid.

The cap is occasionally flat, with a pinkish-brown surface that isn't completely smooth. It seems to have scales of some sort, which form rings. Its gills on the underside are white, as is the stem.

The stem also has a slight pink flush. You'll have to keep an eye out for them from late summer to early winter.

Morel danger

These are highly dangerous due to their close resemblance to morels, which are a rich, delicious mushroom. But these, despite being a morel's near twin, are highly toxic.

False morels grow in the spring and summer, growing directly on the ground. The reddish-brown to brown caps are accompanied by stems of a lighter color, feeding off of dead (or decaying) organic matter.

But how can you tell them apart from their true counterparts? One way is to take note of whether the cap is hanging freely or not. True morels will have a cap that's attached to the stem. False morels will hang freely.

You can also check the inside of the mushrooms after you cut them open. Edible morels are hollow, while false morels are filled with chunks of either tissue or cotton-like matter.

Now Zoom to Mushrooms

Now that you know your mushrooms from your elbow, you're ready to head out and try your hand at wild mushroom identification! But we wouldn't advise eating any of the mushrooms you've found just yet -- wait until you have a little experience under your belt.

While it may be fun to wander the woods and pick your own berries and mushrooms, remember to stay safe and keep your wits about you.

And with that, we wish you the best of luck on your mushroom-picking adventures. Now go grab your guides and get out there!

How did your wild mushroom identification journey go? Do you have any favorite wild mushrooms? Tell us about it in the comments below!

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