How to Identify Wild Mushrooms
Part One: Initiating Mushroom Hunters
Identifying Wild Mushrooms might not seem very exciting – until you know that mushrooms are extraordinary beings that provide us with many uses that adorn our favorite dishes, color our clothing, restore devastated lands and provide bountiful health benefits. Still, these mycological creatures cause many to pause when harvesting them from the wild. With the proper tools and support for mushroom identification, you can open your horizons (and fridges) to the many wonders of our genetically closely related friend-the mushroom.
Firstly, I would like to paint you a picture of the Pacific Northwest in fall, during the first whispers of the Chanterelle harvest. You may overhear secretive conversations of local Mushroom Hunters, vaguely alluding to the location of personal harvesting grounds. If you dare to approach one of these individuals, you may receive a welcome invitation (especially if you’re from out of town) or a non committal reply about the whereabouts of these golden beauties. If you are dedicated you may find a willing local teacher to guide you. Yet, you, a rebel, are inspired to the point of Mushroom Identification Liberation (M.I.L) and aspire to become one of those secretive, wise and loving individuals I call-The Mushroom Hunters. If you smell the mycelium in your nostrils and envision your skillet full, your dye pot radiant or your vitality increased-you must start with a few simple guidelines.
What is a Mushroom?
A mushroom is essentially the fruiting body or the reproductive structure part of a fungus. In fact, it can be a very small part of the entire ‘body’ of that fungus. The body or vegetative (non reproductive) part of a fungus is called the mycelium. The mycelium is responsible for decomposing material into food and gaining mass to create the reproductive structure. Essentially, what we usually see, harvest, eat, use for dyes or medicine is only this reproductive structure-the mushroom.
There are other fungi (that we despise) called molds that do not produce fruiting bodies, and are not worthy of our mushroom identification skills. Examples of these are our deeply adored foot fungus, bread molds, water molds, and mildews (Mushrooms Demystified, Aurora, 1986, pg.4).
Mushrooms emit spores that are the means for their reproduction. This is very important to understand in terms of mushroom identification. Making spore prints (which we will discuss in Part Two) are one of the key tools in confirming mysterious mushrooms. Spores are held on gills, cups, pores and other structure on mushrooms until they are released into the environment.
With this very brief introduction to fungal physiology, let’s look at a diagram below to help ground you in mycological anatomy. I want you to take time and study this lovely drawing from our local specialist and mushroom extraordinaire, David Aurora (yes, this is your first assignment).
I equate David’s book, Mushrooms Demystified as the essential key to identifying wild mushrooms in the Pacific Northwest! (In other words if you live in the Pacific Northwest, get this book!). Between my college courses, the backwoodsmen of the Upper Skagit and Mr. Aurora’s book, my education and adoration of the Kingdom Fungi has been thoroughly satisfying.
Between Now and Part Two:
1. Study the drawing above
2. Purchase/or rent (library) a dichotomous key to mushrooms:
- Pacific Northwest: Mushroom Demystified by David Aurora
- Mushrooms of Northeastern North America by Alan Bessette, Arlene Bessette, and David Fischer;
Mushrooms of the Southeastern United Statesby Alan Bessette, William Roody, Arlene Bessette, and Dail L. Dunaway;Mushrooms and other Fungi of the Midcontinental United States by D.M. Huffman, L.H. Tiffany, G. Knapus, and R.A. Healy
3. Observe mushrooms in the wild and identify parts!
Tools: Camera, tape measure
This is an opportunity to simply inspire you to employ your innate observation skills, and ultimately serve your goal of identifying wild mushrooms. Go out and see what you can find-no pressure! Let your time in the woodlands, side streets and old growth forests be a treat for you. In the midst of your enjoyment, turn on your awareness and see how many new mushrooms appear before you. You can also take pictures and record measurements of stalks and caps in your journal…your what?? See below!
4. Journal what you see:
Tools: Drawing Type, Write in the Rain Journal (or any type), pencil AND eraser
Essential tools for Mushroom Hunters! Here are some things to write down to help you in the days and years to come:
Date & Weather: Both date and weather will be key in your finding mushrooms in the future!
Location: (You can do this in hieroglyphics to be mysterious if necessary!)
- What is the mushroom growing out of? The ground A log-what species? Your foot?
- What is the habitat? What tree and shrub species are growing within a 50 foot radius of your mushroom?
Ok, until next time mushroom hunters I encourage you to take delight and joy in this journey, no matter your knowledge base! Be outside with friends and family regardless of the weather and use your curiosity about mushrooms and mushroom identification as a catalyst for your outdoor adventures!
In Identifying Wild Mushrooms – Part Two, we will discuss finding a local teacher (whether or not you live in the Pacific Northwest), harvesting techniques and making spore prints. Good luck on your initiation in the world of the Mushroom Hunter-the journey has just begun!