Michael's Extras

Mushroom Collecting and Identification Guide

Preparing for the hunt. I recommend a broad bottom container like a five-gallon bucket (with drain holes drilled in the bottom) or a basket. Include a knife and a brush (You can make a great combination by taping a ½” disposable paint brush to an old steak knife). A small trowel can also be useful. Add a powerful whistle (or even an air horn), a compass, and small paper bags (waxed paper sandwich bags work well). One or two larger bags (I carry two light-weight cloth bags) are useful for edibles or for larger specimens. Alternatively, a roll of aluminum foil works well. The idea is to keep each species separate and protected from damage in your basket. Plastic bags are problematic. Fungal fruitbodies are still alive and respiring even after harvest. In a plastic bag, they sweat and decompose quickly.

Ideally include a small notebook to record the date, location, and habitat where the mushroom was harvested. The habitat is often useful for telling one species from another. Including a location and date will help you remember when and where that species might be found in the future. Consider using a cell phone camera or other camera (ideally equipped with a macro lens or close-up adaptor) so that you can make a photographic record of your finds. Bring a map of the area where you plan to hunt and study it carefully before heading into the woods.

Staying safe. It is not unusual for mushrooms hunters to get lost. As an extra measure, I use Gaia GPS on my smartphone. I preload maps of the areas where I plan to hunt and then drop a waypoint before heading into the woods. Once in the woods, Gaia GPS can track my route and point me the way back to my car. However, be aware that your smartphone batteries can die, or you might lose satellite coverage, so always have a compass and back-up plan. I like to do my hunting within sight of established trails or within earshot of travelled roads. Go with a companion and stick within earshot, checking in regularly if collecting apart from your companion. Use whistle signals: one blast means “where are you”, two blasts is to reply, “I am here”, three blasts is the international call for help. Be aware that in the woods even a strong whistle blast does not carry a great distance.

Making your collection. For mushrooms you know are edible and you are planning to eat, simply cut the mushroom off at ground level, carefully brush off all dirt and debris and place in your edibles bag. Collecting nice clean material will make preparing the mushrooms for the table much easier. Exception, when I am collecting edible boletes or matsutake, I use my knife blade to pry the entire mushroom from the ground since I will want to immediately trim off the dirt and later eat every bit of these mushrooms. However, do not use a rake to rake for young boletes, matsutake, or truffles. Doing so will destroy some of the mycelial network (the mushroom organism itself) and thus greatly decrease future harvests.

For mushrooms you will need to identify later, use your knife to carefully pry out the entire mushroom, being careful not to rub off any veils or loose material on the stipe (= stem) or cap. For mushrooms with white gills, that you suspect may be an Amanita, be certain to collect any underground remains of the volva. Also be aware that rarely, the mushroom will have a very long underground portion or will be growing from a sclerotium (a dense tuber-like mass of mycelial tissue). Try to collect these underground portions if present. Also try to collect at least three specimens of each species, ideally representing young, maturing, and mature material.

If it is something that you want to spore print, tear off a small sheet of paper, place the paper under the cap of the mushroom, wrap both paper and mushroom inside a paper bag and place in your container with the gills or other spore-bearing surface pointing down. Often by the time you are home, your mushroom will have deposited enough spores to determine their color. Even white spores will show clearly on white paper (and to be certain, can be rubbed off, leaving a white deposit on your finger). Often, simply by looking at the vegetation (or another mushroom cap) immediately under the mushroom you are about to harvest, you will see a spore deposit (a mature mushroom produces millions to trillions of spores), and you will not need to start a spore print in the field.

Back home. For edibles, get them into a refrigerator to keep them fresh until time for cooking. For serious study of any unknown species start a spore print on white paper. If you plan to do microscopy, place a glass slide on the white paper and under the spore bearing surface because accurate measurement of the size and ornamentation of mature spores can only be done with a fresh spore print. Protect mushrooms you are spore printing from drying out by covering with an inverted cup or bowel. When you open each bag of mushrooms at home, smell and record the odor (in the woods it is usually cold and hard to accurately determine the odor). Next taste the mushroom by taking a small nibble from the cap, chew and spit out the mushroom fragments (DO NOT SWALLOW THEM). Record the taste. This is safe to do even with deadly poisonous mushrooms. Exceptions. Do not taste large, red-pored boletes (the reaction can be most unpleasant). Also, if you believe that your mushrooms to be a Russula, or a Lactarius (both are unusually brittle and their flesh breaks like chalk), taste the stipe first and only taste the cap if the stipe is not peppery hot (testing the cap of exceptionally hot species can blister your tongue and may cause GI distress if eaten). Next record the dimensions as well as record colors of cap surface, cap flesh, stipe colors and stipe flesh colors. Some mushrooms, especially coral mushrooms, soon change color and accurate identification requires noting fresh colors soon after harvest. Do any chemical tests on small pieces of mushroom that you cut off, and do any microscopy. The chemical tests and microscopy are optional but sometimes essential for a positive identification.

Basic microscopy. When I do microscopy, I first examine the spore print on the glass slide. I add either a drop of water or a drop of Lugol’s when studying an ascomycete. For basidiomycetes, I add a drop of water, 3% KOH (or other base like NaOH or ammonia) or Melzer’s. I then cover with a cover slip. I am not good at doing thin sections, but I also study a squash mount of a section of the mushroom (place as thin a slice as possible of a section through the cap and fertile surface on a glass slide, add a drop of water or Lugol’s solution for ascomycetes (for basidiomycetes, add a drop of water, KOH, or Melzer’s), cover with a cover slip and tap as flat as possible with a rubber pencil erasure or similar).

Useful chemical tests. Use of chemical tests is not needed for edible mushrooms (so long as you stick to the many distinctive edibles identified here and in field guides) but can be helpful for scientific study. KOH is useful in mounting dried mushrooms on a glass slide for microscopic study, plus some fresh mushrooms turn distinctive colors in KOH that aid in their identification. Lugol’s solution (0.25% iodine and 0.5% potassium iodide in distilled water) is needed for study of ascomycetes and can also be useful for basidiomycetes if you cannot obtain Melzer’s reagent. Melzer’s reagent is just Lugol’s solution plus some chloral hydrate. Unfortunately, chloral hydrate (knock-out drops) is a controlled substance and so Melzer’s reagent can be hard to obtain. Free starch (and starch-like substances in some mushrooms) causes a blue reaction with either Lugol’s or Melzer’s. Other chemicals in mushrooms can cause a red-brown reaction with these reagents. A vial with ferrous sulfate crystals is also useful at times (or you can make a 10% solution of ferrous sulfate in distilled water). Ferrous sulfate is available in many garden stores as a fertilizer. I rarely use any other chemicals in my scientific studies.

Identifying your find. Start with the picture key in this book and see if you can make a tentative identification. To keep this book of manageable size (and cost), I have included distinctive features but not full descriptions of each species. That has allowed me to include pictures of far more of our mushrooms than otherwise would be possible. My hope is that you will use this book in conjunction with a free downloadable mushroom program called MycoMatch. That program has far more detailed descriptions than you will find in any mushroom field guide. In cases of well-known mushrooms, there are multiple images of each species. Most importantly, MycoMatch is constantly being updated, with free new editions every year or two. MycoMatch also contains extensive references to the mycological literature. The picture key in Mushrooms of Cascadia also is of significant benefit when you are returning home to identify your mushrooms with a field guide like Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast, Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest, or Mushrooms of British Columbia since it contains both more species and many different species than other field guides. Field guides will have detailed descriptions not found in my picture key and can be easier to use than MycoMatch. For that reason, I have and use all three of the field guides just mentioned and will purchase new ones as they appear – since each field guide has some species that no other field guide contains. Finally, a good mushroom field guide is great when you are just starting out. There you will generally also learn about mushroom life cycles and fungal ecology.

Consider joining a mushroom club near where you live so that you can learn from experienced foragers and get help confirming identifications. The North American Mycological Association (NAMA, www//namyco.org) has lists of clubs by city and state and itself is a good organization to consider joining. Also consider posting photographs and details of your finds to either the “iNaturalist” (https://inaturalist.org) or “Mushroom Observer” (https://mushroomobserever.org) websites (see citizen science section).

Citizen science. Currently, there is a nationwide multi-year effort underway to develop a mycoflora of North America. While we have a pretty good idea of the plants, animals and birds present on our continent, much remains to be known about our fungi. Mycologists, scientists who study mushrooms, are few. If you want to participate, take a photograph or photographs of each of your finds. Be sure to include a view of the top, side, and underside of your mushroom. It also can be helpful to cut one specimen in half from top to bottom so that the interior of the mushroom can be seen. Then post these images along with your habitat notes, etc. to “iNaturalist” or the “Mushroom Observer” website. With either site, other users can respond with suggested identifications and scientists can see what is being found and where. However, be aware that anyone can suggest a name for a mushroom that you have found and that the names people assign to your posted finds may or may not be reliable.

Mushroom Identification Resources – My Favorite Books

Out of curiosity, I measured the bookshelf space that I have devoted to my mushroom books. It is just over 16 lineal feet. I have over 200 different books (published from the late 1800s until today). My collection is only a fraction of mushroom books now available. Most of my books are about mushroom identification. I have several multi-volume sets of books about European mushrooms. Books on mushroom cultivation, medicinal mushrooms, mushroom poisoning, cookbooks, art books, children’s books, mycology textbooks and monographs are all included in my collection, but I will leave discussion of these to others. I am out to build an appreciation of the natural world and thereby hopefully slow global climate change, counter habitat fragmentation, and slow the loss of species and so my focus here is on mushroom identification books.

Getting Started. I immediately fell in love with The Kingdom of Fungi by Jens H. Peterson ($29.95 at Princeton University Press) Do buy it and all your books direct from the publisher, author, or your local bookstore. The book is a pure visual treat filled with full page fungal photos. The photography is glorious with just enough text to guide one through the kingdom of fungi, and what a magnificent kingdom it is. The preface opens with “Fungi are everywhere: in forests and fields, in soil, in our buildings, and in biotech corporations who try to transform straw into biofuels. Fungi are a source of food and fascination to people around the world, but they are also a mystery, living a hidden life, appearing, and disappearing in strange and unpredictable ways.” Near the end we learn that it is estimated that only one of every fourteen species has yet been described. Even after over 50 years learning about fungi, I still find something new to me nearly every time I go out.

The Outer Spores: Mushrooms of Haida Gwaii by Paul Kroeger, Bryce Kendrick, Oluna Ceska, and Christine Roberts (Mycologue Publications, 2012) is a little known and very different inspiring book about a land, its people, and its mushrooms. It is a great read. If interested, contact Bryce at mycolog.com.

Field Guides. The first consideration is regional versus North American coverage. In general, you want a regional guide. However, I will start a description of the one North American guide I use, and you should consider (when money is not tight). Here it is (with an explanation of how it came to be. I call it my symphony and I was merely a conductor:

Ascomycete Fungi of North America by Michael W. Beug, Alan E. Bessette and Arleen R. Bessette University of Texas Press, 2014, list $85, (on sale until the end of June 2022 at the publisher for 40% off, code UTXSPRING). Especially in the spring when the morels and their relatives are fruiting, I am constantly reaching for a book about the Ascomycota (fungi that bear their spores in sacks) versus the Basidiomycota (fungi that bear their spores named on club-like structures). Writing any book was something I never would have considered had not Alan Bessette called me and asked me to join the Ascomycete writing team. I knew little about ascos, but I was curious and there was no recent North American book on this huge and diverse world. None of my existing asco books were in color. I agreed to be foray mycologist for the South Idaho Mycological Society spring foray in McCall, Idaho. I arrived early to spend a few days at the home of Hope Miller. She gave me Orson Miller’s vast Ascomycete reprint collection and I purchased all his books on the Ascomycota. My next idea was to write to every good photographer I knew of in North America and asked them to send me asco photographs from their collections. No one turned me down. I soon had several thousand photos. The species total was just over 500. However, the book contract only allowed a total of 320 photos, maps, and artwork. I wanted to illustrate every asco that I had an image for. I created a draft picture key entry with just a small photo, the region where it could be found and a page number. It had about 9 images on the page, and I asked my wonderful editor if he could count each page of the picture key as one image. He agreed – and I then knew that I could include every asco for which I could obtain a publishable image. Next I wrote a draft of each proposed chapter using the vast library of references that had been Orson Miller’s. The leading world expert(s) for each chapter agreed to review what I had written. All the time the Bessettes kept me on task of creating a book that beginners could use with ease while filling it with resources critical to professionals. Thus, my symphony of many voices. The book was nominated for a Prose Award in the category best single volume science book of 2014.

I would recommend a purchase of at least 2 of the below "localized" field guides that are available for the PNW.

Mushrooms of Cascadia: An Illustrated Key, Michael W. Beug, Fungi Perfecti, $29.95. My vision was that users would take this book with them into the field and the brief key entries coupled with photographs that show the critical features of the mushroom, users could quickly determine the genus and often the species of the mushrooms they find. Every included species is fully described in the free MycoMatch program. Even outside of Cascadia users can learn how to distinguish genera and subgenera of almost any fungus they find. Roughly 950 total species are illustrated with about 1,050 photographs, far more than in any single available field guide. I included the critical identifying characteristics, season, habitat, and potential uses. My book is also intended as a supplement to traditional field guides so that users are quickly guided to the right general area of their field guide rather than thumbing through the guide picture matching.

Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast: A Comprehensive Guide to the Fungi of Coastal Northern California Noah Siegel and Christian Schwarz, Ten Speed Press, 2016, $35. Do not let the focus on the Redwood Coast fool you, this large book covers 750 species, well over 500 of which occur in the Pacific Northwest, making it the most comprehensive field guide with detailed mushroom descriptions available for the Cascadia bioregion. A particular strength of this book is that every species is described from fresh material and is backed by DNA analysis. The book is a favorite of mine for use once I have returned from the field. In Fall 2013 Noah and Christian are scheduled to come out with Mushrooms of Cascadia: A Comprehensive Guide, which I plan to obtain as soon as it appears. It will be a great book for when you are back home finalizing your identifications. No longer available from the publisher, available on Amazon, or check your local bookstore.

Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest, Steve Trudell and Joe Ammirati, Timber Press 2009, $27.95. This medium-sized book covers more than 450 species and is illustrated with more than 500 color photographs. I regularly refer to this book as it contains some species not covered in other field guides. An enlarged Second Edition by Steve Trudell has 493 species and is now available for pre-order here. It will have larger mushroom images and many species that are different from the first edition.

Mushrooms of British Columbia, Andy MacKinnon and Kem Luther, Royal BC Museum, 2021, $29.95 US, $34.95 Canada. This book covers 350 common species of British Columbia. It is well written and informative, of interest to readers at all levels, particularly people new to fungal studies. The book has no keys and the authors both recommend Mushrooms of Cascadia: An Illustrated Key to fill that void. The usefulness of this beautiful book is not limited to Canada. I have found every single mushroom in their book in the Columbia River Gorge, the heart of Cascadia.

There are many other books on my bookshelf that I haul out for tough identifications, the number of mushroom books to choose from is huge.

My favorite free Pacific Northwest Mushroom Identification Tool

MycoMatch (www.mycomatch.com) is a free downloadable synoptic key produced by the Pacific Northwest Key Council and is the brainchild of Ian Gibson. MycoMatch includes detailed descriptions (far more detailed than any existing field guide). It currently covers 4,494 Pacific Northwest species and includes information on all states and provinces where a given species has been documented (making it of use throughout North America). It was written for Windows PC and would run on a Mac or an i-pad using the Windows simulator until Apple changed their operating system to one requiring purchase of an emulator program. The full program has 6,100 photographs by over 180 photographers of 2,300 species. A trimmed down version is now available (free) for mobile use. This program takes practice to use effectively but is extremely powerful. It is updated every few years.