I’ve never been one to promote mushroom foraging even though I do it myself, and there are many relatively safe fungi out there. Too many poisonous lookalikes abound. I’ve taught long enough to know that no matter how concrete and specific I think my instructions are some people will misconstrue them.
Mushrooms have specific anatomical characteristics for identification just like green plants do. If you think you might like to learn about foraging mushrooms there is no substitute for practical assistance from an expert. That coupled with some formal training can get you started. Experience is as critical as it is in learning to drive or fly an airplane.
Some common anatomical features that should throw a flag are a ring (annulus)on the stem-like structure (stipe). A bulbous sac (volva) at the base of this stipe is usually problematic too. Unless you are positive of your identification, stay away from mushrooms with white spore prints. Spore dust emanates from undersides of the caps.
My first general rule of thumb is to learn a few species extremely well. Pick ones that are common and distinctive. Always verify your collection with an experienced mycologist. Never collect anything without supervision until you are absolutely sure of the species you have. Try to get every sample verified by a mushroom expert before proceeding further.
Another important consideration is to learn the typical characteristics of poisonous mushrooms. Amanitas are the most common group of poisonous mushrooms. They have white spore prints, a ring on the stipe, a cup at the base of the stipe, and a membrane called a veil that connects the ring to the edge of the cap.
A frequently encountered Amanita is called the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria). These fungi are usually orange to red and have a flaky crust on the upper surface of the cap. They are poisonous but not deadly so.
The problem is that there is a white-capped version of this fungus, and it looks like several edible species. That is until one notices the cupped base and the white spore print. It’s important to be very observant.
There are other Amanita species that are far more poisonous and just as easily confused with edible mushrooms. The destroying angel is often found growing among and edible species called the meadow mushroom. From a distance, they look nearly identical.
Upon closer inspection, the gills are a different color and the spore print is much different. Some people don’t have the patience to wait for a spore print. This is a mistake, especially for beginners. Simply handling poisonous fungi can make some people sick. Wearing rubber gloves is often a good idea for newbies.
Another important rule to remember about foraging mushrooms or green plants is to only consume a small quantity the first time. What might be perfectly agreeable to one person might make someone else very sick. Subsequent meals can be larger.
Folks who make a concerted effort to learn poisonous fungi will have more success as mushroom foragers. Amateur mycologists should remember that they are always in the learning stage.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.