Last weekend, I had the privilege of leading a mushroom walk at Pickards Mountain Eco-Institute. As I have come to expect, the class was filled with curious, enthusiastic students, a good number of whom self-identified as novice mushroom hunters, and I shared with them my strongest opinion about wild mushroom hunting: you should not eat a wild mushroom unless you’re totally positive that you know what that mushroom is.
There are two reasons for this. First and most obvious, you don’t want to go eating a mushroom you do not know, just in case it’s a toxic species. Second, the anxiety of eating an unknown species can throw both a novice mushroom hunter and a seasoned forager for a loop, giving rise to much worry and unnecessary pacing around the house wondering if you’ve made a terrible mistake. This post outlines the first 4 edible mushrooms you should learn if you’re a novice mushroom hunter, plus a couple tips on which genera/species groups you should become familiar with so that you can avoid accidentally eating a disagreeable species.
Yours In Fungal Fancy,
A Novice Mushroom Hunter’s Top 4 Hitlist
If you’re an experienced mushroom identifier, you probably know that it’s not always easy to get each and every mushroom you find into a tidy genus/species box. The fact that field identification is sometimes impossible, coupled with the large number of fungal species that are unnamed, can make this task quite challenging. If you’re just starting out, this reality can almost feel chilling, but rest assured, there are plenty of mushrooms that we’re familiar with to a degree that they can be considered “safe bets.” Here are the top 4 you should learn.
Chicken of the Woods, Laetiporus Species
There are a few species in the genus Laetiporus that are commonly called chicken of the woods or sulfur shelf, and this should be one of the first species groups you ever learn if you’re a novice mushroom hunter seeking to find gourmet wild species.
These are large polypore mushrooms, meaning that the bottom of the cap is covered in a huge number of little pores that produce spores. Chicken of the woods mushrooms grow both on wood and on the ground, and they are characterized by a yellow or white porous fertile surface and a brightly colored, shelving fruiting body that is orange to orange-pink. The top of specimens have distinctive concentric growth zones, which gives them a banded look. The mushrooms are smooth (not slimy or sticky), although sometimes you will find lumps and bumps on the surface of the cap.
Chicken of the woods is a delicious edible when it’s in prime condition, but it does cause allergic reactions in some people, so if you’re a novice mushroomer, take care only to eat a small portion of the mushroom when you try it for the first time.
For a full examination of the different Laetiporus mushrooms in North America, I wrote about it in some detail a few months ago. Rest assured, there are chickens of the woods out there in the forest as we speak, so if you’re a beginner wondering if there are good species afoot, get out there and examine some fallen oak trees and stumps!
Oyster Mushrooms, Pleurotus Species
Although oyster mushrooms, upon looking at photographs and studying their growing habits, might seem a little challenging for beginners, rest assured they are among the most simple mushrooms to find and identify. The main thing to look for are mushrooms that grow on wood (either living or dead) that have an off-center or rudimentary stem, usually a somewhat oval or “oyster-type” shape, white gills (never brown or grey) that are blade-like and reasonably widely spaced. The gills descend down the stem, and the fruiting body is made up of thick white flesh that has a pleasant aroma that’s somewhat sweet and, in age, faintly like seafood.
Oyster mushrooms can be mistaken for species in the Panellus genus, but these are easy to tell apart if you know that Panellus mushrooms are small and flimsy (mostly gill and no flesh), brown or orange gilled, and often a little hairy or felty on the top of the cap.
Although there are some species of oyster mushrooms that are a little more difficult to tell apart from other wood-inhabiting species, such as the veiled oyster mushroom Pleurotus dryinus or its cousin Pleurotus levis, there are several species of oyster mushrooms that are distinctive enough to be easily recognized, including Pleurotus pulmonarius and Pleurotus ostreatus, both of which are common in North Carolina’s forests.
If you’re in doubt about your ability to recognize a Pleurotus mushroom, here’s a suggestion: go to an Asian or upscale grocery and take a look at their oyster mushrooms. If you find a specimen that you think is an oyster mushroom but you’re not sure, there are plenty of good websites and Facebook communities (like Mushroom Observer and the FB Mushroom Identification Forum) where you can get a second opinion, and these species are common and gregarious enough that you’re likely to become very familiar with them if you stick with foraging for any length of time.
Lion’s Mane/Bear’s Head Mushrooms, Hericium Species
Few mushrooms in this world are as distinctive as those in the Hericium genus, and these are delightful edibles that you should definitely get to know right off the bat if you’re getting started with mushroom hunting. Hericium mushrooms are wood-decomposers and can be found on logs, stumps, and in gashes on living trees. They can get to be terrific size, sometimes on par with volleyballs or pom poms (hence one of the common names for Hericium erinaceus, the “pom pom mushroom”).
From an edibility perspective, Hericium species are among my favorites: they have to be cooked very thoroughly because they can otherwise be tough and chewy (not in a good way), but when they are treated with medium or low-medium heat and some butter, oil, stock, or white wine, they’re an absolute delight.
Hericium mushrooms are snowy-white when young and are adorned with a profusion of little teeth, and as they age, the edges and ends of the teeth become yellowed as the mushroom dries out. The lion’s mane, Hericium erinaceus, looks much like its common namesake, and the Bear’s Head (which is a name applied to Hericium coralloides, Hericium abietis, and Hericium americanum) has a branched and forked fruiting body that looks a lot like coral.
If you’re trying to figure out what trees to look in, here’s a suggestion: go for groves of mature black oak. These mushrooms grow on practically any hardwood trees, but in the NC Piedmont I most frequently see them growing on black oak, pin oak, white oak, and red oak. For more information, here’s a more complete description of Hericium species that should satisfy the curiosity of those who’ve not ever found this mushroom.
As with oyster mushrooms, if you’re not sure of your identification, post pictures online and solicit feedback. Also, you can occasionally find these mushrooms for sale if you want to get a bite out of a Hericium before you invest in making a specialized mushroom grappling hook to get them out of trees (as I have done).
Hericium species are easy to cultivate and are gaining popularity as commercially cultivated mushrooms, in part because of their medicinal and neurological benefits, so you may have luck hunting for them in your local grocery store as well as in the woods!
Hedgehog Mushrooms, Hydnum rapandum and Other Hydnums
The hedgehog mushroom does quite well in the summer in North Carolina, but it’s sort of on the tail-end of its season now that we’re officially into the autumn. Nonetheless, the hedgehog mushroom is still kicking about a good bit and should definitely be on your fall mushroom hunting to-do list. This is a mycorrhizal species (meaning that it grows symbiotically with a tree or plant that it shares resources with), and it favors hardwood trees as partners. It is particularly affiliated with beech trees, although you can also find it under oak, poplar, hickory, and other trees.
This mushroom is super-distinctive and I think it’s pretty much the safest wild mushroom out there for novice mushroom identifiers (here’s a longer post about this species for more on Hydnum rapandum) . The fruiting body is a pleasing white-cream color and it typically has a small cap and stem; in the NC Piedmont it rarely is more than a few inches in diameter. This is not the case with Hydnums found in other locations, and the largest hedgehog bloom I ever found was well over 5 pounds! The hedgehog has a ton of little delicate white teeth on the underside of the cap that easily crumble off, so handle this one with care, lest you lose track of all those lovely little dentines!
Hydnum rapandum is a delicious edible mushroom that has a nutty, mild flavor. For best results, cook it thoroughly on medium-high heat; this mushroom can take some serious cooking so don’t be shy about cranking up the volume so you can get a good sear on it! I find this mushroom’s texture to be particularly winsome; it’s pleasantly chewy and crisps up extremely well if you’re into that kind of thing.
Many and More Easy Mushrooms Await You…This is Just a Little Starter Pack
I have not taken the time to describe some of the other amazing edible mushrooms that can readily be found during the fall around North Carolina, but these are certainly a few to get you started. There are loads of other wonderful species just waiting for you to discover them! If you want to peek at my top 10 North Carolina species, I wrote that up a while back and most of those mushrooms are easy enough to learn with confidence after finding each of them a time or two!
Now, onto the grim part: what specimens should novice mushroom hunters avoid? Well, here’s my opinion.
Mushrooms to Avoid as a Beginner
Here are a few mushrooms you should not eat if you’re just beginning your mycophilic adventures. I will note that there is nothing wrong with collecting these mushrooms and identifying them, and I actually think it’s tremendously helpful to look the devil in the eye so to speak. This is not to impugn the reputation of the beautiful mushrooms that happen to be poisonous to us talking monkeys.
I strongly encourage all beginners to get to know their poisonous mushrooms up close and personal right out of the gate. Also, this is NOT an exhaustive list of mushrooms that can be poisonous, so if you find a mushroom that doesn’t have these features, that DOES NOT mean it’s edible and safe! Whew, now that I’ve got that out of the way…
I would say that you should exercise reasonable caution when learning to identify poisonous mushroom species, but you need not treat them like venomous snakes that might strike you. Handling poisonous mushrooms (even deadly specimens) will not hurt you. The toxic action of poisonous species only happens if you ingest and at least partially digest the fungus, so feel free to pick, study, and get to know those species that you are skeptical of. Knowing what to avoid is in many ways just as important as learning what you want to collect and throw in a pan!
If you plan to collect toxic species or mushrooms you do not know well, keep them separate from your edible stash and do not allow your kids, pets, and loved ones to sneak behind your back and eat them.
First of all, if you’re just starting out, you should steer clear of mushrooms that have white gills (although in the case of the distinctive oyster mushroom, I give you carte blanche permission to ignore this suggestion). The reason for this is that Amanita mushrooms, most of which have white gills (note that I said most, not all) contains some very deadly species.
In addition, there are some members of the Lepiota genus, which includes choice edible mushrooms, mildly toxic mushrooms, and deadly poisonous species, that are simply beyond the pale for beginners, and in the interest of staying safe I suggest leaving them for a time when you’ve been hunting for a good long while and feel confident in your ability to tell them apart.
LBM is fancy mushroom-expert lingo for “Little Brown Mushroom,” and although many of them are likely harmless, it’s a good policy not to eat them. The problem here is that LBMs are notoriously difficult to identify without a microscope, and even then they can present challenges. Secondly, there are a lot of LBMs that no one has ever eaten. Thirdly, there are some LBMs that are very poisonous, for example the deadly galerina (Galerina marginata), which is a little wood-inhabiting jobber with a small ring on the stem that’s super-common in the forests of North Carolina.
Although LBMs are great for mushroom photography and many of them are just too stinkin’ cute, it’s best not to add them to your basket in the hopes of identifying them with confidence and gobbling them up!
The genus Cortinarius is typified by a classic cap-and-stem mushroom that has rusty-brown spores and thus usually has a rusty tinge to the gills. Although once considered a safe genus, Cortinarius contains some very toxic mushrooms that you should avoid. In addition to their spore and typical gill color, Cortinarius mushrooms have another very distinct feature.
The Latin name Cortinarius is derived from the word “cortina,” which is a cobwebby veil of tissue that covers the mushroom’s gills when it’s a baby. As the mushroom matures, this stringy, webby tissue leaves a ring on the stem that looks like a bunch of knotted up spider webs. Sadly, this ring is not always very apparent, especially if the mushroom has been rained on, but if you look closely there are usually bits of it that remain, even if the Cort in question has been battered about by the elements.
Red-Pored, Blue-Staining, Bitter, or Scabrous-Stalked Boletaceae
Boletaceae is a large family of mushrooms that have the classic cap-and-stem fruiting body form, and they grow on the ground. The thing that distinguishes them from many other mushrooms is their fertile tissue, which looks like a sponge made up of a multitude of little squishy tubes that produce spores as the mushroom matures.
There are many members of the family Boletaceae, and a great number of them are edible and safe. A few of them are edible and choice, including the stately reddish-brown porcini and the challenging and taxonomically bewildering Boletus bicolor. However, there are also a few species out there that cause people problems. Here are the main traits to keep an eye on if you’re looking out for poisonous boletes:
- Red pores. If the sponge of a bolete-type mushroom is red, there is a chance it could be a toxic species such as Boletus satanus or Boletus pulcherrimus. As with all things in mycology, there are exceptions; the so-called apple bolete, Boletus frostii, is edible and choice and it has delightfully vibrant red pores. However, unless you’re something of a boletus expert, it’s best to just avoid boletes with red sponges/pores.
- Blue-staining boletes. There are loads of species in Boletus and its allied genera that stain blue when they are damaged. Although many of them are completely harmless, for beginners it can be really difficult to tell one species from another, especially because boletes go through bewildering color changes during their growing cycle depending on weather conditions, surrounding habitat, and other environmental factors. If you’re not really good at boletes yet, don’t worry, it does take a while to wrap one’s head around them, and in the meantime, you can just go ahead and not eat the ones that stain blue.
- Scabrous-stalked boletes. There is a genus in Boletaceae called Leccinum that contains some decent edible mushrooms, but also at least one species that makes people sick (not dead sick, just sick). For the sake of simplicity, many people encourage beginners not to consume Leccinums. Fortunately, this genus is easy to distinguish, because the mushrooms have “scabers” on their stalks that are made of up of tufty, scurfy, hairy material. If you’re concerned about eating bolete-type mushrooms, you might want to shelve this genus while you get more comfortable with easier wild mushroom species.
- Bitter boletes. There is a genus called Tylopilus that has a lot of species in it that are bitter as all get-out, and these mushrooms are simply not fit for the table. They are frequently beautiful, and several species sport colorful caps in the purple to lilac range, but they taste like utter crap. Also, the Boletus genus has a few extremely bitter species that, again, should not be eaten. Not to say that it would be easy to do so in any event; bitter Tylopilus mushrooms are profoundly hard to stomach. Even just chewing the corner of the cap will flood your mouth with bitterness in most instances, so you’re bloody unlikely to eat these mushrooms by accident and not know that something’s dreadfully wrong (from a culinary perspective).
Honorable Mentions: Jack o’ Lantern Mushrooms (Omphalotus illudens, Omphalotus olearis, Omphalotus olivascens), Green-Spored Parasol Mushrooms (Chlorophyllum molybdites), and Brain Fungus (Gyromitra species)
Two species cause more mushroom poisoning in North America than almost anything else: the eastern Jack o’ lantern mushroom (Omphalotus illudens) and the green-spored parasol mushroom (Chlorophyllum molybdites). Although neither is deadly, they can cause a lot of gastrointestinal upset, and these mushrooms could pose a grave risk to the young, elderly, and immune compromised.
For more information on the Jack o’ lantern, you may want to take a peek at this chanterelle lookalike post from a while back. In essence, the Jack is a wood-inhabiting, clustering, bright orange mushroom that has decurrent gills (gills running down the stem). The flesh inside is orange.
If you are unfamiliar with chanterelles, you might accidentally think that those decurrent gills indicate that you have a tasty edible in hand, which is why so many people end up accidentally ingesting the Jack o’ Lantern mushroom. Don’t be one of those people! If you see large, bright orange mushrooms growing out of a stump or buried wood in a cluster, there’s no way on earth they are chanterelles.
The green-spored parasol mushroom (Chlorophyllum molybdites) is a relatively large, whitish-buff mushroom with little peels of brown shaggy material on the cap, a prominent and felty ring on the stem, and greenish gills. The problem with this mushroom is that they look somewhat like edible and choice species like the shaggy parasol mushroom (Chlorophyllum rhacodes), and so people sometimes eat them and then have a very bad couple of days.
This mushroom is not considered deadly, but it’s a terrible experience (I’ve not had this experience myself, but all reports I’ve received place it in “TERRIBLE” territory). The problem is that when the mushrooms are young, their gills are white or cream-colored, which sometimes leads to misidentification. As they age, green-spored parasol gills turn an olive hue, and it’s really easy to identify them at that point.
This mushroom is one of the primary reasons that I recommend finding several specimens at different stages of development before eating a wild mushroom; they look harmless or even like a choice edible when they’re young, but as they get older, their true colors come through.
Mushrooms in the genus Gyromitra have varying levels of toxicity, and some people enjoy eating the so-called snowbank morel (Gyromitra gigas and Gyromitra montana). However, this genus contains a toxin called gyromitrin that can be deadly if consumed. The toxin does cook off, but if it’s eaten it forms a chemical compound called monomethylhydrazine, which is a component of rocket fuel and is potentially deadly.
The brain fungus, AKA Gyromitra esculenta is the one species that has been resoundingly classified as poisonous by the mycophile community, but other members of the genus (including Gyromitra caroliana, our local Carolina brain fungus) contain gyromitrin and are best left alone.
Fortunately, Gyromitra mushrooms are not hard to identify and they look nothing like true morel mushrooms. While Gyromitra species look like warped reddish clay with many chaotic lobes, ridges, and folds, the morel has a series of honeycombed pits and ridges on the cap that are often neatly arranged. Here’s a link to a rundown of the Gyromitra genus that might shed a little more light on the proper identification of the different types that we see in North America.
…This is Just the Beginning
Starting off with wild mushroom hunting is an thrilling experience for some folks, and the main thing to remember is that there is ALWAYS more to learn. Even though this is a short list indeed, I hope it sets you on a path of discovery that is fun and (if you’ll forgive the pun) fruitful.