You’ll find me, on any given day when I can get away,
stalking the deep woods, stumbling down soggy banks into
dark streambeds, peering into hollow moss-covered logs,
craning my neck toward the highest branches of dying trees,
dropping to my knees to sift through leaf litter, rising
and walking in one direction, then another, crisscrossing,
circling, crisscrossing again, with no apparent aim. Seeing
me, only a fellow mycophile would know that I am neither
drunk nor addled nor lost, but simply following my
obsession. I am hunting for mushrooms.
My fascination for fungi started because wherever I walked
in the woods, there they were — big ones, little
ones, flat ones, conical ones; red, white, brown, orange;
speckled, smooth, ragged, ruffled — poking up out of
leaf litter, jutting from tree trunks, standing singly on
the ground like lone sentinels, huddled in little groups
like close-lipped conspirators.
The trouble was, I had no idea beyond the word mushroom
just what they were. What was that lovely ivory one with
the lacy collar? How about those purplish pixie parasols?
Those wrinkled rust-hued vases?
In the face of such frequent reminders, I could ignore my
ignorance for only so long. On every hike, I could almost
hear them taunting me: You don’t know anything
about us. Not even our names.
Well, OK, we’ll just see about that.
Armed with field guides, I set about learning how to put
mushrooms in their places, taxonomically speaking. Soon I
could distinguish broad families — the fringed-tooth
mushrooms, the spongy-bottomed boletes, the self-describing
coral fungi, the puffballs blowing spore smoke. I also
began mentally sorting the baffling variety of gilled
mushrooms into manageable categories: the bulb-footed
amanitas, the dunce-hatted inky caps, the colorfully capped
russulas, the shell-shaped oysters.
Meanwhile, of course, I was mentally evaluating every
fungus I found for its potential place in either of two
especially noteworthy groups: the edibles and the killers.
Never mind whether you’re a foraging gourmand or just
looking, part of every wild mushroom’s mystique is
the question: Which group is it? The answer in most cases
is neither; not particularly edible, not particularly
poisonous, but somewhere in between. The majority of
mushrooms are harmless, but also bland or distasteful or
otherwise unappetizing. Some others will make you sick or
send you into hallucinations. About a dozen can kill you.
Dozens more are safe and delicious.
A decade-plus has passed since I first started putting
names to mushrooms and, frankly, I’m still not all
that good at distinguishing between many look-alikes, or at
placing species names on most mushrooms I find. There are,
after all, more than 10,000 different kinds in North
But here’s what I have learned: There’s magic
in mushrooms, not of the sort that makes things disappear,
but instead the kind that opens your eyes to worlds you
once missed. Looking for mushrooms draws you into life
beyond eye level; it compels you to look, and look closely.
It pulls you off trail — what are those red-capped
things over there; is that a glint of white on that tree
trunk? — and into wilder territory. It slows your
pace from hiking speed to one more in tune with the forest
entire. It adds another dimension to your awareness and
enjoyment of the outdoors — another ingredient to be
savored along with the birds and wildlife, the flowering
plants and towering trees, the being there.
Oh, and by the way, it also sometimes yields food that is
fit for the gods.
I recommend the mushroom hunting hobby, in other words, and
hope you’ll give it a try. Here are some suggestions:
Get a Good Field Guide. I especially
favor, as a first guide, The National Audubon Society Field
Guide to North American Mushrooms by Gary A. Lincoff.
Nearly half the book is photographs, hundreds of them,
arranged by overall mushroom shape. In one fell swoop, you
get both the big picture — the surprising diversity
of fungi — and an easy way to narrow the
possibilities when trying to match a real-world
’shroom to one in the book. (Be aware, however,
that many mushrooms cannot be told by appearance alone;
certain IDs must rely on microscopic views of spores. That
big, fresh, colorful mushroom in a field-guide photo may
bear only slight resemblance to the kin you find, or may
look very much like a number of entirely different
Later, you may want a more technical guide keyed to the
many, often fine distinctions that separate species. My
pick in that category is Orson K. Miller’s Mushrooms
of North America. I particularly like it because, in
addition to good photos and identification keys, it
includes an illustrated glossary to the terminology used in
those keys. Keep your eye out, too, for regional guides
that focus solely on the species that occur in your area,
thus narrowing the guide’s field.
Look Where the Sun Doesn’t Shine.
One nice thing about hunting for mushrooms is that
you’re almost certain to bag something —
wherever you are, they are too. Hardly a breeze blows
that’s not laden with spores. Mushrooms have even
been known to push through city sidewalks. Suburban lawns,
Alaskan tundra and desert chaparral all harbor fungi.
Some common species favor open, sunny habitat. But for the
greatest variety (and quantity), head for the shaded woods.
Unlike plants, mushrooms and all other fungi — molds,
yeasts and mildews — don’t produce their food
from sunlight. Instead, they feed off the nutrients in
other organisms. Fungi release enzymes that break down
material, then they consume the nutrition. Most mushrooms
live on dead organic matter — and that’s a good
thing, too, or we’d be up to our ears in detritus.
Others draw their sustenance from living plants.
In any case, because they generally don’t need sun
and do need moisture, mushrooms are in greatest abundance
in the nooks and crannies of the forest, where the sun
doesn’t shine full bore. Leaf litter is a favorite
refuge for black trumpets; pear-shaped puffballs emerge on
rotting logs; oyster mushrooms climb tree trunks. To find
them, look around, in and under, up and down.
Remember the Iceberg Principle. Because of
their beauty and diversity, it’s tempting to view
mushrooms much like wildflowers, which are plants growing
mostly above ground. But a mushroom is only the fruit, or
more precisely the fruiting body, of a fungus growing
underground or within wood. Dig beneath a specimen and
you’ll find the main part, a mass of white threads
called a mycelium. The white threads themselves are called
hyphae. Each hypha grows from the tip much like a
plant’s roots, releasing enzymes and absorbing
moisture and nutrients.
This is significant stuff to mushroom hunters for two
reasons. First, it’s reassuring to know that
harvesting mushrooms is more akin to plucking berries from
an underground vine than yanking wildflowers by their
roots. Although it’s always wise to pick only a few
mushrooms from any given spot — particularly if
you’re in an area where others also forage —
you can rest assured the “plant” itself will
live to produce more fruit.
Also, you can use your awareness of hyphae habits to help
you locate or identify mushrooms. Many species grow only in
mutually beneficial relationships with certain kinds of
trees. Their hyphae attach themselves to and spread from
the tree’s roots, drawing distant soil nutrients into
the tree while gaining necessary food from it. Slippery
jacks, for example, live only under pines or spruce. To
look for the mushroom, look for its host trees.
Details, Details. The real business of
mushrooming is telling one from the other. Some are so
distinctive they can’t be mistaken. Most are not.
Because there are so many look-alikes, the devil is in the
details: What color, shape and texture are the
mushroom’s cap, gills and stem? Is the specimen
growing singly or in groups, in soil or in rotting or
living wood? Are the gills thick or thin, opaque or
translucent? Is the stem tapered or straight, hollow or
solid? Is there a bulbous sac at the base or a lacy veil at
To find all the answers, you must study your mushrooms
closely. Start in the field by taking notes, addressing as
many of the above questions as possible and more: What
trees are nearby? Does the specimen have a distinctive
odor? What’s the season, temperature? Jot everything
down on a small notepad. Then, using a trowel or a sturdy
knife, ease the mushroom from its place, taking care to get
the entire stalk out of the ground. A mushroom’s base
can be a vital clue. Wrap the specimen in waxed paper or
put it in a paper bag (not plastic, or your mushroom will
become only mush).
When you get home, examine each specimen even more closely
with a 10x hand lens. Compare your notes and observations
with field-guide descriptions. True, you’ll soon be
awash in terms like “squamules” and
“glabrous.” Don’t let them intimidate you
— persist, and use your guide’s glossary.
A mushroom’s spore color is an essential clue, too,
revealed by taking a spore print. Cut off the stem, put the
cap gill- or pore-side down on a piece of white paper, and
cover it with a bowl or jar larger than the mushroom. The
next day, lift the cap to reveal the print — often
lovely, and always worth saving with your notes for future
Identifying mushrooms can be frustrating, especially to a
beginner. Just keep at it. Soon enough you’ll get a
few positive IDs under your belt, and names to go with
them: “Ah, that’s a velvet foot, Flammulina
velutipes,” you’ll say. “Hmmm, a mica
inky cap, Coprinus micaceus.” Other times, your
specimen won’t seem to match anything in your guide.
No problem. Keep your notes, and give the darn thing your
own name for now. Among my favorite local mushrooms is a
small and delicate species I found and named some 10 years
“Edible” Doesn’t Mean
“Eat.” The bad news is, roughly a
dozen mushroom species are not just make-you-sick toxic but
are killers — and relatively common. The good news
is, you can easily avoid them. If you’re unsure of
any mushroom’s identity, just don’t eat it. For
a beginner, that means avoiding all wild mushrooms. Even
with experience, think twice before sampling any mushroom
with gills — particularly white gills. Among those
are the widespread and attractive but treacherous Amanitas,
including the aptly named death cap. Avoid LBMs, too, or
“little brown mushrooms.” Among those are the
Now more good news: While you’re honing your skills
for distinguishing confusing gilled mushrooms, you can add
easier-to-identify nongilled types to your edibles list,
one at a time. Virtually all morels, corals, boletes and
puffballs are safe; some are delicious, and even a novice
can learn to recognize and enjoy them, given reasonable
care. Do note the terms “virtually” and
“reasonable care,” however. Even among these
groups, potentially serious pitfalls exist. The best way to
learn edibles is to search with someone who knows them
well, or join an organized mushrooming group on field
And finally, don’t be surprised if one day you
realize, while crawling on your knees sifting through leaf
litter or peeking into hollow logs, that you don’t
particularly care whether a specimen is edible. It’s
the fungi themselves — their beauty, variety, mystery
— and the places they take you in finding them that
draw you to the woods.
Congratulations. You’ve just discovered the real
magic in mushrooms.