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How to identify a mushroom

Identifying a mushroom is the most important part of foraging for wild fungi, so we at SuperShroom decided to make this guide to get you started. There are over 15,000 species in the UK alone, and not all of them are edible, in fact some are even deadly. It isn’t easy to identify certain types of fungi, and the reason its so tricky is that some infamously medicinal mushrooms look near identical to deadly ones, moreover, some can only be identified with a microscope and there are believed to be many that have yet to be discovered. It’s always best practice to get a trained mycologist to identify mushrooms for you before you consume them, especially fungi that is often mistaken for deadly mushrooms, and we would advise not to solely use this guide alone as a reference for mushroom foraging. It is always best to gather a range of different sources and undertake a multitude of research before you start. Of course, you do not always have to pick and consume mushrooms, sometimes it’s just as fun solely looking for them in the wild.

Things to note before you start picking

Before you start picking fungi, there are a few ground rules about picking mushrooms that you may or may not be aware of.

  • The Wild life and Countryside Act (1981) prohibits the picking of endangered mushrooms which include: Sandy Stilt Puffball (Battarrea phalloides), Royal Bolete (Boletus regius), Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus) and Oak Polypore (Hericium erinaceus).
  • The Drugs Act (2005) prohibits the picking of mushrooms that contain the hallucenogenic chemical psilocybin and psilocin, which includes; Wavy Caps (Psilocybe cyanescens), Liberty Caps (Psilocybe semilanceata), Gymnopilus junonius (Laughing Gym) and others.
  • The Wild Life and Countryside Act (1981) also prohibits the uprooting of any plants (including fungi) without the land owners permission.

How do you identify a mushroom properly?

“There are many methods to identify mushrooms, but not all are needed, they include; Checking how the gills attach to the stem, inspect for features such as warts or veils, smelling, feeling, identifying the shape of the cap and stem, checking the spore print, where the mushrooms are growing and whether they leak milk.”

Check how the gills attach to the stem

Not all mushrooms have gills, which in itself is a means of identifying a mushroom. The way in which the gills connect with the stem is a method you can use to identify a mushroom as there are 5 different gill characteristics. By slicing the mushroom in half you can easily see whether the gills are free, adnexed,sinuate,adnate or decurrent.

Inspect the mushroom for certain features

As we touched upon earlier, whether a mushroom has gills or not is a method in which you can identify the species of a mushroom, but this is just one of many features that can help you identify fungi. When you first encounter a mushroom, take a look at its shades, colours and patterns as this will help you identify them. There are many distinctively coloured mushrooms that are fairly easily to identify through their colour alone such as the Butter Waxcap and the Violet Webcap. Other features that will help you identify mushrooms include the stem (is it hollow or solid?), the volva (often present on poisonous species), a veil (in some species these cover the entire fruiting body), grooved margins and warts (which can be seen on the famous Fly-Agaric).

Smell and feel

Naturally, different mushrooms have different smells, but often it takes quite a bit of experience to really get the nose for identifying fungi. You can still get a wonderful array of aromas from mushrooms even as a beginner with some very distinctive smells. Mushrooms also have a variety of different textures, Waxcaps typically have a greasy texture but there are also mushrooms that have furry, slimy and scaly textures.

Identifying the shape of the cap and stem

Each cap and stem has a different shape, and on further examination of fungi, you will begin to notice these different shapes which help to identify each mushroom. Stems tend to come in around 5 different shapes including; club shaped, bulbous, equal, tapering towards base and with cup. The caps on the otherhand are very distinctive in their shapes which makes them a primary identifier. There are multiple cap shapes that include; Conical, Convex, Knobbed, Flat, Depressed, Infundibuliform, Cyllindrical and Bell Shaped.

Check the spore print

To take a spore print, all you will need is a mushroom with gills, a piece of white paper and a container. The spores of mushrooms are on the surface of the gill, so you’ll need to cut the stem off first, then once you’ve cut the stem off you will need to place the cap on the paper with the gills facing down. Once you’ve done this, sprinkle a drop or two of water onto the cap as this will encourage the spore release. Once this is done, place your container over the top of the mushroom and the paper to cover it. Usually a tupperware box without the lid will work well, this will protect the cap and also enclose the spores. Leave the cap for 24 hours and once you’re done, you can pick the cap up to see the beautiful spore pattern left on your piece of paper to identify the mushroom.

Check where the mushroom is growing

Checking where the mushroom is growing can help you to eliminate a lot of similarly looking fungi to the one you have picked. Mushrooms grow in all sorts of places with specific conditions. Some grow in grass and some grow in trees, some are even exclusive to certain types of trees such as coniferrous or broad leafed. Checking the environemnet of where the mushroom is growing is one of the first things you should do.

Check whether the mushroom releases milk

You may often come across cracked mushrooms that have a milk like fluid seaping from the gills. This is another way in which you can identify mushrooms. If the mushroom isn’t seaping any liquid, try cracking one and checking whether any liquid appears. These types of mushrooms are often members of the Mycena and lactarius (milkcap) genus.

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