The BASICS of MUSHROOM IDENTIFICATION
This resource is posted without warranty as to absolute taxonomic determination. In other words, it is possible that I have mislabelled a mushroom here!
DO NOT use these photos as a tool for safe identification of edible wild mushrooms—use resources that are designed for that purpose:
Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America
America's Best, Safest Edible Wild Mushrooms
Take a good look at the mushrooms in the photo above, noting that each of the caps is about four inches wide and that they were found growing on the forest floor amidst Eastern hemlock, white oak, American beech, and yellow birch trees.
The cap color varies from pale yellow at the edge of the cap to yellowish tan at the center. The cap cuticle is distinctly wrinkled, and there's a white bloom over part of the cap cuticle, especially near the center of the cap. The cap isn't slimy or viscid, and has no scales or warts on it. The gills are finely attached to the top of the white stalk. There is a ring of white tissue around the stalk, and that ring has a yellowish or brownish upper edge.
If you had taken a spore print, you'd have learned that the spores are rust-colored. If you put your nose right near the gills and inhaled, you'd notice no particular odor, just a "mushroomy" smell. If you cut across the gills with a knife and watched closely, you wouldn't see any liquid (latex) oozing from the gills, and you wouldn't see any noteworthy color changes after damaging those tissues. If you had carefully examined the base of the stalk, using a pocket knife to pry away surrounding bits of soil, before even picking these specimens, you'd have found no evidence of any other little loose bits of mushroom tissue on or around the base of the stalk.
In assessing this mushroom's field characters, we've just written a decent description of Rozites caperata, more affectionately known to experienced mushroom hunters as the edible Gypsy Mushroom… and that's exactly what it is.
But if you didn't know what color the spore print is, didn't rule out the presence of latex by scratching the gills, or didn't notice that white bloom over parts of the cap cuticle, it wouldn't be possible to accurately identify this mushroom.
Here's another… The larger cap is a little more than three inches wide. The upper surface of the cap is yellowish to pinkish, and there are tiny scales on one of the caps. This one's not a gilled mushroom but a bolete, as evidenced by the spongelike, porous surface below the cap. That pore surface (the pores are actually the open ends of a layer of vertically oriented tubes) is pinkish yellow, and it stained a deeper pinkish where we bruised it near the stalk. When we broke the stalk, we noticed that the inner flesh of the stalk is yellow. The outer surface of the stalk is yellow with some pinkish areas. If we smelled it closely, we'd notice no peculiar odor, but if we tasted a tiny bit of the cap flesh (and then spat it out!), we'd find it to have a distinctly peppery-hot taste.
A close comparison of the above field characters to a description of Boletus piperatus (=Chalciporus piperatus) would convince us that this is, indeed, the Peppery Bolete.
Identifying mushrooms is, above all else, an exercise in paying attention to detail. Two mushrooms may appear indistinguishable unless you note that one of them exudes white latex from the gills, or that the other's cap is distinctly sunken at the center. You cannot differentiate between the delicious Golden Chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius) and its toxic look-alike species, the Jack O'Lantern mushroom (Omphalotus illudens) unless you closely examine the gills, note any odor, observe whether the mushrooms are growing in big bouquetlike clusters, and check to see whether the flesh inside the cap is yellow or white.
I get a lot of enjoyment from helping folks identify mushrooms they've found: They e-mail me a few photos and I look to see whether it's one I can identify on the basis of those photos. Often, one quick look is all it takes for me to recognize a distinctive species. Sometimes, no photo will facilitate positive identification, as many mushrooms require painstaking study, including microscopic examination of the spores and the spore-producing cells, to determine their identities.
There are even plenty of mushrooms out there that simply haven't been named yet! If you'd like to one day be credited as the discoverer of a 'new' species previously known to science, you really ought to study mushrooms, because even here in the U.S., there are still plenty of as-yet-unnamed species yet to be described for the first time. Of course, it does take a lot of study to get to the point where you can recognize something unusual when you find it. Most folks just want to know how to identify some good edible mushrooms, not see their name in a future issue of the journal Mycotaxon.
Either way, there ought never be such a book as "The Dummy's Guide to Edible Wild Mushrooms," because identifying edible wild mushrooms and eating them is sort of like packing a parachute: any one mistake can be your last.
So if you find a conspicuous mushroom in your garden mulch (or in your local woods, or wherever), post clear digital images at the AmericanMushrooms.com Facebook Page; I just might know the species at first look. But if you want to increase the chances that you, I, or anyone else can put the right name on a mushroom you've found, don't just take a picture: take a couple of good photos* (make sure the mushroom is in focus, not blurry!), make a spore print (if it's a gilled mushroom or bolete), smell it, and make notes about where you found it (i.e. 'growing on a mossy log in a spruce forest). If possible, dry the specimen thoroughly (an ordinary food dehydrator works very well) in case microscopic examination is necessary.
* - With gilled mushrooms and boletes, especially, photo(s) of the entire stalk are often vital!
Here are a bunch of "mushroom features" to give you a sense of the kind of details to look for.
Like many species of Amanita, Amanita flavoconia has warts (yellow ones, in this particular species) all over its cap. Warts are remnants of a universal veil that enclosed the entire mushroom when it was immature. Universal veils are found in all Amanita mushrooms, and a number of others as well.
Amanita farinosa also has warts, but they're gray and powdery or "mealy."
Macrolepiota rachodes has scales on its cap; unlike warts, scales are not distinct from the cap cuticle—rather, they are part of it.
Leucopholiota decorosa also has scales on its cap; in this species the scales are distinctly pointed.
Psathyrella delineata has a wrinkled or corrugate cap…
…as does the aptly named Cortinarius corrugatus.
The cap of this Russula has a striate (lined) margin (edge).
Cortinarius iodes has a cap that is viscid (slippery-wet) to glutinous…
…and so does this Suillus sp.
The cap of Phyllotopsis nidulans is distinctly velvety.
Amanita muscaria var. formosa has a stalk covered with warts (like the warts on its cap, they are remnants of its universal veil).
The lower stalk of Leucopholiota decorosa is as distinctly scaly as its cap.
This bolete has a reticulate stalk (that is, covered with a raised netlike pattern called a reticulum).
Boletus edulis has a clavate (club-shaped) stalk (much thickened toward the base).
Boletellus russellii has a very shaggy or scurfy stalk.
Amanita brunnescens has a bulbous stalk base that is always vertical clefted.
Amanita fulva has a whitish cuplike volva around the base of the stalk, though it's often buried in soil or decaying leaves etc. on the forest floor.
The gills of Leucoagaricus leucothites are free from the stalk (not attached to it).
The gills of Laccaria laccata are attached to the stalk.
The gills of Clitocybe gibba are not only attched to the stalk, but also descend it a bit.
Lactarius hygrophoroides has well-spaced or distant gills, and those gills exude a milky liquid called latex when scratched.
Lactarius piperatus features gills that are crowded together, and those gills also exude latex.
Lactarius vinaceorufescens also has gills that exude latex; in this case, the latex is white but changes to yellow within ten seconds after exposure to air.
CHECK BACK VERY SOON: This page is under construction May 28 2008.
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