Identifying Mushrooms

Amanita Phalloides

Don't even think about eating this


In the US there is no magic place you can take a mushroom for a “positive” id, though universities and mushroom clubs can help. In Europe, some pharmacists will id mushrooms for their customers.  Whether the European id represents a “positive” id or not, I cannot say.    I’m feeling a bit conflicted here.  On my Hidden Villa walks I do talk about edible mushrooms and poisonous ones. I often comment that the idea that common poisonous and edible varieties look exactly alike and cannot be distinguished even by experts, is false. I talk about the US in general inheriting English fungophobia, while other cultures, the French, Italians and Slavs for instance, among the Europeans at least, have long histories of being fungophillic. I do try and counter an irrational fear of mushrooms.  On the other hand, and perhaps I don’t stress this enough, eating any wild food comes with hazards.  This is only counteracted by knowledge and experience.  This is why people with interests in mushrooms so often organize themselves into groups, like mushroom clubs, so they can interact with other like minded folk and compare notes.

Mushroomers are often famous for being secretive, but this usually applies only to their hunting spots.   Once mushrooms are collected, they are usually more than happy to pass them around to others for comments, either an OHH AHH!  for a nice collection, or “Are you sure you know what you are doing” ???  for a doubtful one. This is collective wisdom.

I first learned about mushrooms in the late 1970′s at UCSC.   However I failed my fungi course because I turned in a collection of mushroom photographs for the required mushroom collection.  My professor told me in no uncertain terms that you CANNOT id fungi from photographs!  We had keys and line drawings, that my camera, in the professor’s eyes, was no match for.   The curious thing in retrospect was, that David Arora, at that time, in the same town, unbeknownst to me, was working on the first edition of Mushrooms Demystified, published near the time I graduated.  Of course the book contained not only photographs but also detailed descriptions.

I joined the mushrooming community though both the MSSF and the Santa Cruz  Fungus Federation in the mid 1980′s.  I recall Dr Harry Thiers, mycology professor emeritus at SFSU saying in no uncertain terms that he never ever ate a wild mushroom.  He showed us slides of Amanita pantherina/muscaria collections and demonstrated how difficult it was to distinguish some of the specimens, while others had classic distinct appearances.  I met mushroomers who I respected, who told me their personal stories of confusing Omphalotus for the Chanterelle, and eating it, much to their temporary discomfort.  I recall the older crowd telling me how they would cook a pot of Agaricus and then smell it as their way of sorting out good Agaricus from poisonous ones.

In those days  David Arora’s book, “Mushrooms Demystified” was new and revolutionary.  It was not the first mushroom book with photos, but his photos were of good quality, the focus of the book was local, and Arora incorporated a great deal of the professional mycologist’s work (generally uncredited) in his book.  The professional mycologists at the time often resented Arora for this, but Arora had done the amateur community a big favor, as most of the professional monographs were locked away in university libraries, while Arora made them available to the amateur in a single published volume.

Other books followed, and in this process, mushroom identification got easier, and the popularity of the sport soared, resulting in new regulations and enforcement action by many land managers.   At Hidden Villa, my goal is to present folks, who are brand new to mushrooms, an overview.  I try to discuss the fungophobi/fungophilic continuum, and to dispel the fungophobic idea that it is impossible to identify mushrooms safely enough to eat them.   That said, my talk is only an introduction to the world of fungi.   I do not expect folks to walk away from one talk by me, or anyone else, and start collecting mushrooms for the table.   Learning to forage for the table is a gradual process of looking for your own mushrooms, listening to talks, reading books, joining a club, comparing notes, judging your own level of personal knowledge & experience, and choosing your own level of risk that you wish to accept.

Because the genus Amanita is fairly easy to identify to the genus level and because it contains the fatally poisonous mushrooms most commonly collected for the table, I was taught early on to learn to identify the Amanita genus early, but to leave them out of my culinary choices, until I felt I was well enough versed in other groups of edible fungi, where the consequences of a mistake would likely be less drastic.

My recommendation is for you and others, to follow a similar path.

Wade Leschyn, Founder PMC


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