Collect and Identify

How to Identify Mushrooms

Many people safely enjoy eating wild mushrooms, but mycologiests are occassionally asked by doctors to identify mushrooms suspected in cases of posoning. The following guidelines and instructions are intended to help mushroom collectors have safe and profitable forays. The best way to learn how to identify mushrooms is to take a class. Mushroom clubs often offer classes and their members are willing to help beginners. Botanical gardens, biological stations, or universities may also offer extension courses on mushroom identification. Only good training and collecting practices produce correct identifications. Never eat any mushroom unless you are sure of its identification! A number of field guides or mushroom books are available that can help, but you will need to study and compare different mushrooms. You will need to learn to use keys that will ask about the following:

  • Appearance: General shape, color and structure
  • Habitat and/or substrate: coniferous forest, lawns, etc.
  • Color of spore print


Many mushrooms bear a superficial resemblance to one another. Through education and careful observation, collectors learn to distinguish species. You may need to collect both young and old mushrooms from a cluster or group to identify a species. Some important feature may only be present at one stage of development.

Habitat and Substrate

Mushrooms are found almost everywhere, but not all mushrooms are found in all kinds of habitat. Where they grow, such as coniferous forest, oak forest, etc., is the mushrooms' habitat. Some mushrooms develop in only one kind of habitat, such as a bog, a forest, or an open lawn or meadow. What they actually emerge from, such as peat, a log, or soil, is the mushrooms' substrate.

Spore Prints

Information about he structure and color of a mushroom's spore deposit helps in identification. Most spores are too small to be examined without the help of a microscope. Collectors can discover the spores' color by making a spore print. Cut the stem off the cap and place the cap gill side down on a piece of white paper. If the gills are light-colored, placing a wedge of dark paper under part of the cap will show the print of the light-colored spores. The cap must remain moist.

Store the mounted cap in a plastic sandwich bag or a container with a lid. After four to eight hours, remove the cap from the paper and allow the print to dry for ten minutes. A pattern of white or colored spores should be seen on the paper under the cap. If no spores can be seen, your cap may be from an immature or sterile specimen. Dried spore prints can be preserved with the acrylic spray coating sold in art supply stores, and displayed at pictures. Spore deposits can sometimes be seen in nature. Loof for them on the stem, or on the ground beneath the cap. In a cluster, shorter mushrooms may be dusted with their taller neighbors' spores.

Gathering Mushrooms

You will need:

  • A clean cloth or soft brush, to clean the mushrooms
  • Wax paper or small paper bags, to keep collections separate
  • A basket or a large paper bag, to transport collections
  • A sharp knife

Mushrooms should not be stored in plastic bags because they will rot. Select a plump mushroom and cut it off at ground level. Clean off any old leaves or other debris. Look carefully for fly larvae or worm holes. If you collect a group of one kind of mushroom, slice on open for a closer inspection. Discard any mushrooms that contain insects or worm holes. If you decide to keep the mushrooms, write down the laction, habitat or substrate, and fresh color on a paper label. Place the mushrooms and label in a small paper bag or tube of wax paper. Twist the ends of the tube to keep the collection together. You do not want to risk mixing safe and poisonous species together.

Most mushrooms are edible, in the sense that eating them will not harm you. Not all of them taste good, and good taste is no guarentee of safety. People die every year from eating tasty but poisonous mushrooms. There are no so-called tests for telling a poisonous mushroom from a non-poisonous one. The tarnishing of silver coins cooked with mushrooms is not proof they are poisonous. Seeing an animal eat a mushroom is no guarentee of its safety. Animals' degestive systems and metabolisms are not identical to ours. Until you have some experience, be very careful.


Mushrooms contain many chemical compounds. The mushrooms on sale at the supermarket are species that are not only non-poisonous, but cause no irritating or allergic reaction for most people. The reaction from eating wild mushrooms is less predictable. If this is your first time eating a wild mushroom, even if others have safely eaten it before, or a book says it is safe, you must still be careful. You may be allergic or more sensitive than others.

Use the following precautions when eating wild mushrooms:

  • Cook them
  • Keep species separate. Do not cook mixed collections.
  • Always taste a small sample first, then wait before eating the rest to make sure you are not allergic. Some possible negative side effects take 3 to six hours to occur.
  • Make your first meal a small one. Some problems only occur when large amounts of a mushroom are eaten at one meal, or are eaten for two or more days in a row.

If you have trouble, call your local physician, poison control center, or emergency room. When you call, be prepared to give them a description of the mushroom and have a mushroom ready for identification. If the victim has thrown up (either on their own or because of the directions from a medical source) and that's the only piece of the fungus you have, you must save them. Wrap up the sample loosely in waxed paper, do not seal it in plastic wrap. If the victim is seen by a physician, bring the mushroom sample with you. It may be necessary to take the mushroom to a local specialist for identification. More

Bucket of white mushrooms
Two little girls looking at a mushroom through a magnifying glass
Tiny mushrooms on a log