"Fungi are the original angels. Angel in its oldest root of the word: messenger from the Hebrew mal'akh and Old English aerendgast. Root messengers. Weavers. Communicators. They sew soil to plants, trees to trees. They hold ecosystems together like conversations, making sure each questioning chemical threads into its vegetal receptor. Like angels are said to courier messages from a higher realm, fungi connect us into messages from an even older pre-human paradise: the mythic underworld." - Sophie Strand
Rain, and then the cool pursed lips of the wind draw them out of the ground - red and yellow skulls pummeling upward through leaves, through grasses, through sand; astonishing in their suddenness, their quietude, their wetness, they appear on fall mornings, some balancing in the earth on one hoof packed with poison, others billowing chunkily, and delicious - those who know walk out to gather, choosing the benign from flocks of glitterers, sorcerers, russulas, panther caps, shark-white death angels in their town veils looking innocent as sugar but full of paralysis: to eat is to stagger down fast as mushrooms themselves when they are done being perfect and overnight slide back under the shining fields of rain. - Mary Oliver
Mushrooms sure are magical aren't they? A walk in the woods becomes a fantastic adventure when I'm following the sightings of mushrooms. I lose track of time, and if I'm lucky I might even lose track of where I am altogether. Mushrooms do that - they put a spell on you, transport you to other realms and ways of knowing if you open yourself up to it. I think it's the spores, aka. fairy dust. But first, you must find yourself at the edge of the forest, and then be willing to go.
Following the scent trails of mushrooms is really about following your intuition... you go where you feel guided, following those inner promptings that cannot be rationalized. When wandering through the pathless woods, you lean on something much more ancient and animal within you - your instinct. It's only a matter of time and patience that you'll find yourself face-to-face with the most beautiful white oysters pouring forth from a decomposing tree, or you'll notice a scattering of small red Cinnabar Chanterelle's peaking out from the mossy forest floor, you might even hit gold when you make a turn and walk into a clump of my favorite, Chicken of the Woods.
Mushrooms do a good job of luring me off my well-worn paths and habitual ways of being by leading me straight into the heart of the forest where I come into contact with the pulsing presence of the wild within and around me. A day foraging for mushrooms is always a day that feels like I've stepped out of linear time and entered into mythic time, where I remember who I am as just one part, one strand, within an intricate tapestry of life weaving itself awake. Mushrooms in all of their glorious shapes, sizes, colors and personalities are awe-inspiring, the way they seem to pop up out of nowhere, like little fairies making themselves known as if asking to be following into the darkness, into the depths. as to be followed.
For our love of all things mushrooms, here we provide you with Part 1 of our basic Mushroom Identification Guide to get you started on your adventures in the woods. Below we share a little bit about mushrooms, their anatomy, some common types of mushrooms, as well as some tips when collecting. If you are new to mushroom foraging, we advise you not to ingest anything without the presence of a mycologist who can confirm your identification. Mushrooms can be lethal if you mis-identify, and many edible mushrooms have poisonous look alikes, so please be careful and take care as a beginner on this path.
What ARE Mushrooms?
Mushrooms the reproductive organs (also known as fruit bodies or flowers) produced by fungi that spend most of their lives below ground in the form of microscopic filaments called hyphae. These tiny threads do not reproduce through sexual reproduction, seed, or photosynthesis, but rather through spores. When the spores of a mushroom are released, they can travel a considerable distance before they land. Upon landing, this single cell (spore) sends out 'hyphae' or fibers that as a collective we refer to as 'mycelium.' Mycelium's job is to help gather food and materialize the fungus. According to Nicholas P Money, "Mycelia spread out in three dimensions within soil and leaf litter, absorbing water and feeding on roots, wood, and the bodies of dead insects and other animals."
Mushrooms belong to a fungi group of decomposers. Some of their immediate relatives include snails, earthworms, bacteria, and beetles. Essentially their ecological role is to break down dead plant and animal matter into more soluble forms of simple sugars, nitrates, and phosphates that are used by other decomposers or for food by plants.
These flowers require a specific detailed attention and interest in the hidden, unseen areas that may not be obvious. Mushroom defining features are in the cap’s shape, the fertile surface underneath the cap, the pores or teeth, and the stalk. These are areas we'll want to explore and so that when we come upon a mushroom in the wild we can better determine who we are meeting.
Fertile surface: gills, pores, or teeth
Stalk: with a ring and rhizomorphs
Cap or the Support Structure
The fertile surface of a mushroom is usually supported by a superstructure: a cap and stalk, bracket, cup, gelatinous glob, or branched clump of tissue. The shape, size, color, surface features and flesh characteristics of these fruit bodies are diverse.
The cap shapes can be bell-shaped, conical, convex, cylindrical, flat, depressed, or funnel shaped.
Caps also might feature specific characteristics like a central bump, known as an umbo or central umbilicate dimple. The edge of a cap may be tucked under or inrolled, scalloped, or decorated with hairs, veil fragments, or spoke-like ridal lines, known as striations.
The color of mushrooms are never exactly the same, even between the same species of mushroom. Mushroom colors invite new descriptive qualities that aren’t always recognized as colors, like pinkish-cinnamon, sunburn, or rusty brown.
Gills are an important detail in knowing what fruitbody you may have discovered. Gills are thin sheets of tissue suspended in a spokelike arrangement from the underside of many capped mushrooms.
They can be crowded, widely spaced, forked or have short gills unconnected to longer gills. They can be crinkled, crisped, sawtoothed, serrated, fringed, or ornamented with tiny bumps of droplets. The edges might be a different color than the faces; these are known as marginate gills. Small folds, “crossveins”, sometimes run across the underside of the cap, connecting adjacent gills.
The gills can vary in the way that they are attached to the stalk, which can also guide you to a more clear identification. For example, attached, notched, decurrent, strongly decurrent, and free.
Some mushrooms are tricksters. They look like they might have true gills, but they have ridges (false gills). For example, the Cinnabar Chanterelle.
Some mushrooms have gills that weep a milky liquid, known as latex like the Indigo Milky.
Two large groups of mushrooms, the polypores and the boletes, produce spores inside hollow tubes and expel them through openings called pores. Yes, similar to the tiny pores of your face! Pore diameter and shape are species specific. If you were to cut a mushroom with pores perpendicular, you could see the tubes. They are packed together like straws in a box. The inner lining of the tubes is the fertile surface.
When you lightly touch over the pore surface, especially on boltes, it may produce a bruising reaction.
Polypores usually grow on wood and may lack a stalk. There are perennial polypores, which are usually the ones you see on trees in the winter, which can live for years. They lay down a fresh layer of tubes and pores each season, like rings on a tree.
Other Spore Faces
Other mushrooms can have teeth hanging under the cap, or appear like branches. For instance the cauliflower mushroom. In cup fungi, the fertile surface is located on top or inside the disc or cup. There are also truffles, puffballs, and other introverted mushrooms that house their fertile treasures within.
The invisible, small, single-celled reproductive organisms are known as spores. The spore of a mushroom holds all of the genetic material required to form a new fungus. Mushrooms are actively ejecting spores all of time, even as you read this. Mycologists use spore size, shape and color to help identify an unknown species of mushroom. The best way to get to know these particles and to accurately identify a mushroom is to create a spore print. Spore prints are the powdery deposit obtained by allowing spores of a fungal fruit body to fall onto a surface underneath. Spore prints have their own color that may not match the color of the mushroom. Spores can be white, brown, pink, black, purple, yellow, etc. The best mushroom to get a spore print is one that isn’t too old, or dry, and the easiest mushrooms are gilled cap mushrooms.
You can make a spore print at home with just a few materials. You’ll need a sheet of white and black paper that overlaps each other, and a large bowl, preferably glass just so you can see through it. Now, take a capped mushroom that you’ve harvested that has a stalk and remove the stalk. Face the gills or fertile structure facing down. Place the bowl over your mushroom and check it in about 4 hours. Spores that are white will show up more on the black paper, and a darker spore print will be more visible on the white paper. Most spore prints typically take the shape, and gill structure of the mushroom.
Just like the variety of caps, fertile surface, and spores, the stalks are also diverse in their features. A stalk can be smooth, hairy, spotted, scurfy and then sticky, dry, or slimy. They can also be hollow, solid, and stuffed. Stalks sometimes have their own color that varies from the mushroom cap as well.
Some important features of the stalk are their characteristics. The shape of stalks can be club-shaped, straight, and can include a universal veil, partial veil, or ring which is an encased membrane, like for Amanita. The stalk base can also have scales, a volva or something called basal bulbs.
Common Types of Mushrooms
There are so many varieties of gilled mushrooms but essentially they are like papery ribbed wings that run vertically under the cap.
Fleshy mushrooms that consist of a spongy undersurface.
Tough and leathery to woody mushrooms that usually grow on wood. You’ll also see them in complex overlapping clusters.
These are branched like mushrooms with flexible, brittle fruitbodies. They grow on the ground and at the base of trees.
these are gelatinous, soft, rubbery, slimy mushrooms that are often found on wood, some on the ground.
Puffballs and similar fungi:
these are often pear-shaped, irregularly round that are soft, powdery, and usually stalkless.
these appear like a cup or saucer. The flesh is usually thin and rubbery. They lack gills, pores, tubes, or teeth.
Morels and similar mushrooms:
These fertile structures are bell-shaped with pits and ridges, brain-like, irregularly lobed, and wrinkled mushrooms. They also normally have a partially hollow stalk.
Mushroom Gear & Tips on Collecting
You don’t need a whole lot to go out in the woods and explore the fruitbodies of the forest but y you will want to make sure you’re properly clothed with protective layers to keep your skin free from poison ivy or ticks.
The other items you'll want to have with you include a flat-bottomed basket, paper bags and a knife. Cardboard boxes, small plastic containers and waxed paper are useful for protecting small or fragile specimens. When collecting a species of mushroom it's best to pick several specimens, some young, some mature, so the different stages of development can be observed. The whole specimen should be collected by digging out the entire foot so its macroscopic characteristic can be studied.
Mushrooms should never be put in plastic bags because it causes rapid deterioration. When collecting, it's best to select several species and wrap them separately in paper bags or waxed paper twists. Specimens will break up if piled on top of one another, which makes later identification very difficult.
Finally, I like to bring my favorite field guide, A Field Guide to Mushroom of the Carolinas because it is specific to our bioregion. If you can find one that is more oriented to your ecoregion that is a bonus in specificity. Other than that, you just need patience, an observer's eye and an interest in exploration.
The world of fungi is truly extraordinary. Taking the time to learn about the mushrooms in your area over the course of the seasons is an amazing way to connect with your local bioregion and the particularities of the place you call home. It's also a fantastic way to get out of the house and into the expansive world of nature, and is also good for your body, mind and soul. Being in nature and learning about our more-than-human-kin who make up the places we call home strengthens our sense of belonging and overall wellbeing and is good for the health of the planet.
Modeling this kind of relationship to our children is so important, especially given the technologically oriented world in which we live. Learning about mushrooms is a fascinating study for both children and parents and offers a unique way for families to form bonds with earth, together.
There is so much more that we are eager to share with you about mushrooms, especially when it comes to their evolutionary history, the importance of their role in ecosystems, as well as the significance they carry across human cultures and civilizations from mythology and folklore to modern day science and consciousness.
We hope you now feel excited to go out into the world to make friends with Fungi!
Rich Hamilton, "How Mushrooms And The Mycelium Network Are Healing The World," Garden Culture Magazine, January 15, 2020.
A Field Guide to the Mushrooms of the Carolinas, Alan E. Bessette, Arleen R. Bessette, and Michael W. Hopping
Nicholas P Money, "The fungal mind: on the evidence for mushroom intelligence", Psyche, Sept. 1, 2021.