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The ABCs of Identifying Mushrooms

I love sharing my newfound knowledge of mushroom identification with others so that they can join in on the fun!

This article will provide beginners with a wide range of introductory information to the world of mushroom identification.

This article will provide beginners with a wide range of introductory information to the world of mushroom identification.

Mushrooms Are No Joke

I visit the forest on a regular basis, but I have to admit that I am usually looking straight ahead or looking up at the trees. Well, last summer I was inspired by a Netflix documentary titled Fantastic Fungi and, once I started looking around on the ground, I was surprised by how many mushrooms I discovered. I can't wait until next summer and fall to find more.

My job now is to identify them through careful research. As a beginner myself, the following is essentially a beginner's guide for all that I have since learned about the basics of mushroom identification. I wanted to make it easy to follow, organized and informative, accompanied by quality-defining photographs of some of my mushrooms finds.

Trametes veriscolor (Turkey Tail Shelf Mushroom)

Trametes veriscolor (Turkey Tail Shelf Mushroom)

A Basic Description of Mushrooms

Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies from the Kingdom of Fungi. There are over 1.5 million species of fungi, six more times than plants. Of the 1.5 million species, 20,000 produce mushrooms with an incredible diversity of shapes, sizes and lifestyles.

Mushrooms are not plants, because unlike plants, mushroom do not use sunlight to photosynthesize their food. More like animals, they break down what they consume using enzymes.

Drawing of Mushroom Characteristics and Terminology

Drawing of Mushroom Characteristics and Terminology

Be Extra Careful Before Ingesting

When identifying mushrooms, their sheer numbers make them a challenging subject to pin down and further challenging by the variety of characteristics and lookalikes among species.

If you desire to consume a certain mushroom for its deliciousness or highly nutritional and healing properties, it's important to familiarize yourself with mushroom characteristics and terminology. Misidentifying a wild species for consumption can damage your liver or kidneys and even take your life.

Before eating a wild mushroom: Obtain a positive ID through meticulous research. It's advisable to seek out assistance from an experienced forager, because there are lookalikes between edible and non-edible mushrooms.

Otherwise, try seeking out or joining a local mycological society to assist you with identifying your mushroom finds. And it's always best to eat only a small portion of a wild mushroom for the first time to assess your body's tolerance; even the well-known edible morel mushrooms can give some people a tummy ache.

Get to know your trees, habitat and weather conditions for mushroom identification.

Get to know your trees, habitat and weather conditions for mushroom identification.

Assess Your Surroundings

When you discover a mushroom, always look around you. What type of terrain is there? Is your mushroom growing from the soil, a piece of wood or an underground tree root? What other plants or trees are nearby? Is it growing in your lawn? Location matters.

Also, getting to know your trees is a good way to look for certain mushroom species because of the symbiotic beneficial relationships called “mycorrhizal” some mushrooms have with only certain species.

Weather and seasons also determine when to look for certain species.

Observing a cap's size, shape, colors, patterns and textures are good starting points for identification.

Observing a cap's size, shape, colors, patterns and textures are good starting points for identification.

Caps Are Initial Identifiers

Beginning with "cap and stem" mushrooms, the cap is generally the first thing that catches your eye, so observing its size, shape, colors, patterns and textures are good starting points for identification.

Size is a factor when identifying mushrooms.

Size is a factor when identifying mushrooms.

Analyze Size and the Recent Weather

Mushroom size is an important identifying factor, but be aware at different stages of growth—some mushrooms are smaller versions of the same species. Some mushroom caps, however, change quite drastically as they grow through stages.

In addition, weather plays a huge role on the growth, development and size of a mushroom. So it's important to look at not only the entire mushroom, but also multiple specimens when possible.

Mushroom Cap Shapes

Mushroom Cap Shapes

Shape and Texture Are Important

Various mushroom cap shapes are demonstrated in the photos above and below, but it's also important to consider the various cap textures.

Here are some questions you need to ask: Are there slightly raised patches or scales? Does it appear smooth, like the flat cap sample above, or does it have a scaly, highly textured surface? A smooth cap may feel dry, velvety or slimy, the best way to know is to touch the cap.

The universal veil is a thin cup-like membrane that completely surrounds an immature or developing mushroom. As the mushroom grows, it breaks the veil, sometimes leaving fragments (scales or warts) on the cap surface or surrounding edge. The orange spherical shaped cap below is a good example of this, plus it shows the remains of the universal veil at the base.

Mushroom Cap Shapes

Mushroom Cap Shapes

Look Closely at the Edges

The mushroom cap edges or margins also play an important part in identification, revealed in the next two photo demonstrations below.

The edge may have veil fragments that look like warts, or it may be wavy, smooth, or have tiny hairs. A hand lens is sometimes needed to observe whether there are fine hairs or teeth.

Cap and Stem Mushrooms Edging  Features

Cap and Stem Mushrooms Edging Features

The edge may be fairly smooth or turn upwards or have rather uniform ribbing; or it may be ragged and irregular, or it may even be scalloped—all seen above and below to be considered for identification.

Take Into Account Different Color Considerations

The color of the mushroom cap may be uniform over the entire surface, but it may also have variations and the center may be a different color than the outer edges.

As mushrooms age, they tend to fade or darken and also after being picked. Wet weather tends to darken the color. All these considerations need to be kept in mind for accurate identification.

Cap and Stem Mushrooms Edging Features

Cap and Stem Mushrooms Edging Features

Exercise Caution With the Stems and Mycelium

After you have examined the cap, take a close look at the stem. It's a good idea to study it before picking the mushroom, some careful digging may be necessary. There are several things you need to look for.

Does the base of the mushroom have mycelium, thin fungal roots that look like fine threads or a fuzzy covering? There are miles of fungi mycelium under our feet with every step in the forest, with trillions of pathways communicating information comparable to the neurons of the brain.

The mycelium can inhabit an entire tree. They communicate and mitigate nutrients throughout their networks to plants and trees such as hemlock, birch, cedar or Douglas firs.

Observe the shape, length and thickness of the stem. Is it thicker at the top or bottom or fairly equal from top to bottom? Does it bulge more abruptly at the base? Is it fairly straight or does it curve?

Mushroom Stem Characteristics

Mushroom Stem Characteristics

Be on the Lookout for a Volva

Does it have a volva, a fragile, cup-like structure (remains of the universal veil) that surrounds the stem base on Volvariella and toxic Amanitas mushrooms?

Since very few types of mushrooms have this structure (as seen in the terminology drawing of the first mushroom and the orange spherical-cap example above), you have already narrowed down your search if a volva is present.

Mushroom Stems

Mushroom Stems

Partial Veils Offer Clues

You may notice a ring on the upper part of the stem. This is a remnant of the partial veil, a thin tissue that covers the developing gills or pores on some mushroom species (this is not the same as the universal veil shown in the drawing with terminology).

As the mushroom grows, it tears away at the veil, allowing the spores to disperse from the gills or pores. The veil may remain attached to the stem leaving a ring zone or simple ring, and some species even have a well-defined skirt-like ring.

The stem texture may be fairly featureless or scaly or have deeply grooved or slightly grooved patterns like the above "reticulated" example. It may feel velvety, slimy or dry. All part of the process of identifying your mushroom finds.

Mushroom Gills (Free Gills) Unattached

Mushroom Gills (Free Gills) Unattached

The Spacing, Shape and Attachment of Gills Aid Identification

Observe underneath the cap. Many mushrooms have gills, thin blade-like structures referred to as "lamellae" by mycologists. They kind of look like the spokes on a bicycle.

Shown in the the photos above and below, the spacing of the gills is an important identification point, ranging from tight to loose. And their shapes may be straight, jagged or wavy or have cross-veins (I have no photo examples of cross-veins as of yet, but you can imagine).

Also, examine how the gills are attached to the cap and stem. Do they run down the stem slightly or for a fair distance? Mycologists refer this feature as decurrent gills, otherwise attached gills. Or do the gills stop short of the stem, called free gills?

Mycologists use numerous terms to describe a wide variety of attachment methods, but the differences can be too difficult for the layperson to detect. It can be helpful to cut the mushroom in half from top to bottom to get a clearer view of the attachment.

Mushroom Gills

Mushroom Gills

Try Making a Spore Print

Mushroom spores (microscopic particles that act like seeds) are produced on the flat face of the gills and can affect the gill colors, especially over time as spores collect on them. Mature spores often turn chocolate-brown.

Sometimes a dusting of spores may have already spread on a leaf or wood that is within close proximity to your mushroom find where you can observe the spore color.

At home, it's a good idea to make a spore print of your mushroom find by placing a mature mushroom cap, gill side down, on a sheet of paper, half black and half white. Cover with a bowl and let it sit overnight. If the spores are light colored, they will show up on the black portion and reverse for the darker colored spores. Spore color is another key to properly identifying your find.

Mushroom Pores

Mushroom Pores

Some Even Have Pores

Rather than gills, some mushrooms have pores under the cap, created by a sponge-like layer of very thin tubes attached to the underside of the cap. Spores develop inside the tubes, then drop down through the open ends when they mature.

Bolete mushrooms are the most well-known of the cap and stem mushrooms that bear pores. As with the gills and the caps, pore surfaces have various colors and textures as demonstrated in the photo above. Many species have pores that bruise or change color when handled or damaged.

Hericium, coralloides (Lion's Mane Mushroom)

Hericium, coralloides (Lion's Mane Mushroom)

Teeth and Spines Are Other Possibilities

Some mushrooms have teeth or spines rather than gills or pores that bear the spores.

The Hericium, or lion's mane shelf-mushroom, is a good example of this, but members of the genus Hydnellum are "cap and stem" mushrooms with this defining feature as well.

Top: Spiny Puffball Mushrooms  Bottom: Crown-Tipped Coral Mushrooms

Top: Spiny Puffball Mushrooms Bottom: Crown-Tipped Coral Mushrooms

Other Spore-Bearing Structures

The world of mushrooms is exciting and complex, and the above examples only tell part of the story of how mushrooms are shaped or spread their spores.

Morel mushrooms, for example, carry their spores in pits between external ridges. Puffball mushrooms produce spores within their interiors. When the spores ripen, the mushroom loses its spherical shape, shrinking from the top and, when lightly touched, bursts open scattering its spores. Other mushrooms are shaped like cups or like coral that are too numerous to list here.

Chanterelle mushrooms have spore-bearing folds that look like gills at a quick glance, but are merely thin, raised veins. They also do not have a distinct cap and separate stem, but rather a single trumpet-shaped structure.

At any rate, each shape of mushroom has its own unique way of dispersing its spores.

"Getting to know your trees is a good way to look for certain mushroom species because of the symbiotic beneficial relationships called 'mycorrhizal' some mushrooms have with only certain species."

Common Mushrooms in Michigan

Now that I've reviewed key factors to help you be like a detective when trying to identify mushrooms, I will portray three examples of common mushrooms that grow in my locality of Michigan to demonstrate the process of determining their identities.

I'll begin first with the "cap and stem" mushroom, Amanita, citrina (False Death Cap).

Amanita citrina (False Death Cap)

  • Distribution: Widespread east of the Rocky Mountains
  • Environment: Micorrhizal, (beneficial relationship) with hardwoods or conifers growing from the ground singly, scattered or in loose groups, summer and fall.
  • Cap: 2.5–8 cm (1–2 in) wide; depending on stage, grows from egg shape to round/dome shape to nearly flat with maturity; is lemon-yellow to greenish-yellow, but fading to yellow-tan to almost white past maturity; adorned with soft, grayish to whitish, brownish or purplish patches or warts when young (but these sometimes fade or disappear by maturity).
  • Note: The lemon yellow cap with patches help distinguish it from Amanita phalloides (death cap) which is more bald and duller greenish-yellow colored.
  • Cap Edges: Not ribbed when young, but sometimes becoming very slightly lined at maturity.
  • Stem: 4–9 cm (1.5–3.5 in) long, fairly equal slender width along length except abrupt bulbous base with a whitish volva that adheres tightly and features a rim on the upper edge; lemon yellow to tanish with snake-like chiseled pattern or fine hairs on the lower portion; fairly persistent skirt-like ring towards the top of stem, but can diminish to just a ring zone.
  • Gills: Free from the stem; close or crowded sometimes with some shorter gills frequent; creamy or sometimes yellowish in age.
  • Spore Print: White

Note: It has a raw potato smell as an identifying feature. It's toxic, but not deadly; not recommended for consumption.

Hemileccium subglabripes (Yellow Pored Bolete)

  • Distribution: Is widely spread in northern and eastern North America; also appearing in the northern Rocky Mountains.
  • Environment: Mycorrhizal (symbiotic relationship with the tiny rootlets of plants, usually trees); is associated with hardwoods, including birch, aspen, oaks and hickories; appears alone or in loose groups during summer and fall.
  • Cap: Rounded/dome shape 3–10 cm (1–4 in) wide; smooth, barely wrinkled texture; occasionally very slight velvety when young; medium brown, paler olive brown, reddish-brown, orangish-brown, or tan color.
  • Cap Edge/Margin: Smooth, slightly darker line, somewhat turned up in places.
  • Pore Surface: Bright yellow when young, becoming olive-yellow to dirty green with age; medium size angular pores, may blue, but rarely.
  • Stem: 4.5–10 cm (1.5–4 in) long; fairly equal width along length; often a little curved tapering somewhat at the base; no rings; subtle scabers (raised scales) that are initially yellow but mature to faint reddish from the base upwards; very rarely bruising a little bluish; basal mycelium is white.
  • Spore Print: Olive-brown
  • Edible: If eaten fresh, it may cause upset stomach, but after drying is reportedly safe.

Note: DNA testing moved the genus from Boletus to Hemileccium.

Laetiporus sulphureus (Chicken of the Woods)

  • Distribution: Commonly referred to as chicken of the woods, Laetiporus sulphureus is widely distributed east of the Rocky Mountains.
  • Environment: Parasitic and saprobic (decomposes dead organic material); hardwood forests on living or dying trees, particularly oaks, appearing high above ground; is a sign the tree is being attacked by parasitic mycelium, causing heart rot.
  • Cap: Fan shaped with several thick overlapping shelves 5–25 cm (2–10 in) across, but sometimes forming rosettes on top of fallen trees; conspicuous yellow-orange colors fading to dull yellow with age and eventually almost dull white; texture is smooth to wrinkled; soft at first, turning leathery with age.
  • Edges: Smooth, thick, typically yellow.
  • Stem: None
  • Pore Surface: Bright yellow to similar color as cap; small circular to angular pores, non bruising.
  • Spore Print: White
  • Edible: Has meaty texture and reportedly tastes like chicken, but can cause a little upset stomach in some people.

Note: L. sulphureus is also called sulphur shelf and Polyporus sulphureus. Other similar forms grow on hemlocks and other conifers, or grow from the ground with white pore surface.

Research References

  • Mushrooms of the Upper Midwest, A Simple Guide to Common Mushroom by Teresa Marrone and Kathy Yerich
  • Some Common Mushrooms of Michigan's Parks and Recreation Areas by Alexander H. Smith and Helen V. Smith
  • Field Guide to Common Macrofungi in Eastern Forests and Their Ecosystem Functions by Michael E. Ostry, Neil A. Anderson and Joseph G. O’Brien
  • Mushroom Expert
  • Mushroom Oberver
  • iNaturalist

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Kathi Mirto