Mushrooms have always been an important part of human cultures spanning the globe. The Aztecs and many Southern American communities had extensive medicinal and entheogenic uses for them while numerous tales from European nations revolve around this mysterious and alluring fungi. Today, Mushrooms have a more practical use, many species (like the shiitake, common oyster, or enokitake mushrooms) have become staples of our culinary palette. Furthermore, mushrooms continue opening doors to new discoveries in fields of both medicine and biology. However, the essence of mycology still resides in the thrill of the hunt; Mycologists continue to discover new species of mushrooms every year during communal forages across the globe. But be careful! Despite their draws and many benefits, mushrooms can be exceedingly dangerous; there are a number of species whose adverse symptoms following ingestion include states of coma or even death. As of such it is exceedingly important to have a thorough understanding of what you are dealing with if you ever decide to forage for any fungi. This guide will give you the fundamentals needed to get started, but it is highly reccomended that you use the sources linked to give you a more detailed understanding of specific mushrooms you might find yourself looking for.
What are Mushrooms?
Mushrooms are the fruiting body of a fungus that contains the plants reproductive spores. In other words, they are the fruit of fungus that facility the organisms ability to reproduce. The actual fungus resides under the ground as a network of threads known as hyphae. When two compatible hyphae meet, they can form a mycelium, which allows for the fruiting of a mushroom. Although they are characterized as members of the plant kingdom, they lack chlorophyll, and subsequently cannot photosynthesize. They rely on organic matter as their food source and are divided into three separate groups on the basis of how they get their nutrition.
- Saprophytes: Live on dead plant matter, or the feces of some animals.
- Parasites: Latch on to living plants or animals.
- Mycorrhizal: These types of mushrooms have a symbiotic relationship with a plant, whereby its Mycelium (underground vegetative part of a mushroom) links with the root system of a tree or a shrub, giving the tree extra water and nutrients. In return, after the tree has photosynthesized, it passes carbohydrates to the fungi.
Cap (Pileus): The cap is the uppermost part of the mushroom and provides support for the pore bearing surface. The cap of a mushroom can vary wildly between species. The shape, texture, moisture level, color, and smell can all help distinguish mushrooms on account of their cap. The surface layer of a cap is known as the cuticle, and the mushroom’s flesh lies underneath.
Ascus: The spore-bearing cell produced in Ascomycetes which normally consists of 8 individual spores, although the number (and shape) of the Ascus and respective ascospores can vary.
Basidium: The spore-bearing cells produced in Basidiomycetes (these cells prdouce Basidiospores). Once again, the number of Basidiospores can range anywhere from 2 – 8.
Gills (Lamella): Gills are home to the spore-bearing Ascus for some mushrooms.. Gills radiate out from the stalk either at direct 90-degree angles (adnate) or obliquely at 45-degree angles (adnexed). Not all mushrooms have Gills! Mushrooms classified as Basidiomycetes, like Boletes and Polypores, are unique for their lack of Gills, and have a “tube layer” of vertical fleshy columns under their cap. The Basidia (the microscopic spore-producing agent) are located within the walls of the tubes.
Stalk: The stalk usually stems from the center of the cap of a mushroom, but they can also be located off to the side (lateral), or nonexistent, which normally means they are growing on wood where the spores have adequate elevation to fall.
Veils: A membrane that protects fledgling parts of a mushroom (specifically the gills or the entire mushroom in an immature state) The veil is ruptured as the mushroom grows. A veil which covers the entire mushroom is known as universal, whereas it is partial if it only covers the gills of the mushroom. When veils are broken, the leftover portion near the top of the stem is known as a ring. The leftover portion of a universal veil which looks like a cup at the bottom of the stem is known as a volva.
Hiearchical Classifcations of Mushrooms:
Bolded Orders or Families can commonly be found in Missouri according to findings determined by the Missouri Mycological society.
- Class: Discomycetes (Disc Fungi)
- Order: Pezizales (Cup Fungi and Allies)
- Helotiales (Earth Tongues)
- Tuberales (Truffles)
- Pyrenomycetes (Flask Fungi)
- Sphaeriales (Ostiole Flasks)
- Hymenomycetes (Exposed Hymenium Fungi)
- Tremellales (Jelly Fungi)
- Aphyllophorales (Coral and Pore Fungi)
- Family: Cantharellaceae (Chanterelles)
- Clavariaceae (Coral Fungus)
- Coniophoraceae (Dry Rot)
- Corticiaceae (Crust Fungus)
- Hydnaceae (Tooth Fungus)
- Hymenochaetaceae (Hymenochaete)
- Polyporaceae (Polypore)
- Schizophyllaceae (Schizophyllum)
- Stereaceae (Parchment Fungus)
- Agaricales (Agarics and Boletes)
- Agaricaceae (Agaricus and Lepiota)
- Amanitaceae (Amanita)
- Bolbitiaceae (Bolbitius)
- Boletaceae (Bolete)
- Coprinaceae (Inky Cap)
- Cortinariaceae (Cortinarius)
- Crepidotaceae (Crepidotus)
- Entolomataceae (Entoloma)
- Gomphidiaceae (Gomphidius)
- Hygrophoraceae (Hygrophorous)
- Paxillaceae (Paxillus)
- Pluteaceae (Pluteus)
- Russulaceae (Russula)
- Strophariaceae (Stropharia)
- Tricholomataceae (Tricholoma)
- Gasteromycetes (Stomach Fungi)
- Hymenogastrales (Gilled Puffballs)
- Podaxales (Desert Inky Cap Fungus)
- Gautieriales (Plated Puffballs)
- Lycoperdales (Puffballs)
- Nidulariales (Bird’s Nest Fungi)
- Phallales (Stinkhorns)
- Sclerodermatales (False Puffballs)
- Tulostomatales (Stalked Puffballs)
- Slime Molds
THIS IS JUST A PARTIAL TAXONOMIC RANKING OF ALL MUSHROOMS: If you are interested in a more comprehensive hiearchy refer to these sources:
Also Consider Field Guides:
Keep in mind that classifying mushrooms is exceedingly difficult and always subject to change (as a result of new methods of identification becoming standard in the mycological world), so most accounts will have some differences or discrepancies. Rest assured that these inaccuracies are largely within the species level, as of such, no mushrooms labelled as “edible” will in fact be poisonous! Below will be a generalized summation of the characteristics of the more popular types of mushrooms you might find foraging, the descriptions below are not complete.
Cup Fungi (Pezizales): This order of mushrooms, which broadly categorizes a number of species, is unique for its asci, which are cylindrical spore-bearing structures that generally contain 8 spores. Common early in spring, before most gilled mushrooms sprout, Pezizales can be found on rotting wood, or in damp areas, and can be easily spotted (most of them are quite colorful). Species in this group include Morels, False Morels, and of course, many types of cup-fungi.
Earthtongue (Helotiales): This is another broad order that contains a variety of mushrooms including earthtongues, fairy fans, jelly drops, and hairy fairy cups. Mostly small, these mushrooms grow on wet wood or plant stems, and are frequently quite colorful. No Helotiales have been classified as edible. They have club shapped asci.
Agaric (Agaricaceae): The Agaric family is home to most of the common mushrooms that we cultivate for culinary purposes.
Amanita (Amanitaceae): The Amanita family is home to the iconic “mushroom”, red with white flecks dotting the cap, however, Amanita’s have significant variance in their physical appearance. All Amanitas have a universal veil, frequently leaving the cup-like volva at the base of the mushroom once it has grown. Furthermore, Amanitas also have a partial veil which enclose the gills of the mushroom, and will leave a ring of tissue right under the cap. Normally, the gills are free from the stalk. A final important identifying factor is the universal white spore print that all Amanitas will have. It is exceedingly important to correctly identify an Amanita as they feature a broad range of highly poisonous mushrooms from the frequently lethal Death Cap to the delirium inducing Fly Agaric. The latter mushroom contains ibotenic acid, a neurotoxin, and muscimol the psychoactive agent within the mushroom, which can cause serious harm when ingested and should be diligently avoided. A mushroom like the Death Cap contains amatoxins which effectively stunts the creation of messenger RNA, and phallotoxins which are toxic to lvier cells. A more comprehensive understanding of the adverse chemical effects of Mushrooms can be found below.
Polypores (Polyporaceae): Like Boletes, Polypores have the same basidia-lined tube layer under their cap (turning the mushroom over is a good visual que as to why Polypore means “many-pored”). Polypores, many of which are perennial, are shelflike or lack a stalk and generally grow on wood. As for edibility, none are fatally poisonous, although some can incur some minor altercations. Generally, polypores are not delectable to eat, but are choice edible. Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish the rare stalked Polypore from a Bolete, a good field test is to check for whether or not the tube layer can easily detach from the flesh of the cap (this would indicate that you have a Bolete on your hands)!
Chantrelles (Cantharellaceae): Chantrelle’s are well known for being popular edible mushrooms . These mushrooms are generally orange or yellow and convex or vase-shaped. Their lack of gills can be slightly misleading, as the underside of the mushroom will feature gill-like ridges or folds where spores are produced.
Puffballs (Lycoperdales): Puffballs are iconic for their spherical cap and lack of a stalk (or pseudostalk in some cases), as well as the”puff” of spores that can jet from the top of the mushroom when they are touched. This “smoky” illusion manifests as the puffball’s spore mass (the gleba) transitions from a solid white to a powerdy mass. These Mushrooms are Choice Edible.
Stropharia (Strophariaceae): The Stropharia family is most sought after for its hallucenogenic psilocybin mushrooms, although this only accounts for a portion of the species within the family. Stropharias are decomposers, and normally grown on manure or decaying wood. It’s smart to delineate between Stropharias on account of their spore prints, as most other differences are on the microscopic level.
Boletes (Boletaceae): The Bolete family features around 200 species in North America, most of which are edible, although there are a handful of poisonous species (avoid any Boletes with orange to red pores, especially if they bruise blue). Boletes, stalked mushrooms, are defined by their characteristic lack of gills, where a thick “spongy” layer of tubes designed for dropping spores lies beneath the cap. Some genera of Boletes will feature a partial veil, and the residual ring near the cap and tube layer. It can be handy to check the bruising of Boletes, as an important identifying feature will be their tendency to bruise blue-green, blackish, or reddish when handled or cut.
Russulas (Russulaceae): Russulas generally have bright colors and large circular caps, however they are most notable for their flaky and fragile flesh (picking a Russula mushroom should result in the quaint braking of their gills). You can normally find these mushrooms on the ground growing off of the roots of trees (a Mycorrhizal relationship). The large majority of Russulas are edible, however a few poisonous species have been classified, the general rule of thumb is to stay away from any that have an acrid taste.
Pluteus (Pluteaceae): The Pluteus family features a number of mushrooms, many of which can be identified on account of their free gills and deep pink spore prints. Furthermore, most will grow on decaying sources of wood (including deposits of sawdust). Most are considered edible and none have been identified as poisonous although a few species contain psilocybin (however these will bruise bluish like most other psychoactive mushrooms).
Clavariaceae (Coral Fungus): These are some of the most unique mushrooms you might find out in the wild. Aptly named, Clavariaceae looks a lot like sea coral, and some species can be quite colorful. You’ll find most coral fungi growing off of sources of decaying wood generally in the late summer or beginning of fall. Most are edible and although no species are known to cause serious adverse symptoms, some have the propensity to cause diarrhea or other forms of discomfort in the bowel.
Cultivating and Harvesting Mushrooms
Process of Making a Spore Print:
Spore prints are useful for determining the color of a mushroom’s spores, a helpful metric for identification. An effective spore print consists of the following steps:
1) Take two pieces of paper, a black and a white piece, and tape them together so that it is half black and half white. (Aluminum foil also works)
2) Separate the cap from the stem and put the cap, spore surface facing down, in the middle of the two pieces of paper.
3) Put a drop of water on the cap to facilitate the release of spores and cover the entire function with a bowl and allow anywhere between 2-24 hours for the spores to settle.
4) If you are inclined to preserve the print, coating it with artist or hairspray will help conserve it.
Cultivating mushrooms for consumption is no easy task, each species must be maintained at extremely specific conditions (requiring a fair amount of time and effort) to ensure they grow consistently. Here is a general breakdown of the process for growing your own mushrooms:
1) Decide what type of mushroom you are going to grow and how you are going to grow it. You’ll need to consider factors such as temperature, humidity, amount of sunlight… for each individual species; so consider what the weather is like where you live. For instance, oyster mushrooms (arguably the most popular cultivated fungus) need warm temperatures (68-75 F) and a dark, moist room to fruit, so don’t try to cultivate this species in the heat of the summer or the middle of the winter.
2) An important part of growing mushrooms is having a functional substrate. A substrate is a tempered substance that will allow the mycellium of your fungus to grow as if it were in the wild. There are a number of diffrent substrates that you can use; anything from straw to sawdust to woodchips will work (make sure to look up what is most conducive for the specific species that you intend to grow)!
3) After you’ve created you substrate, it would be wise to treat it. Treating will help remove microscopic organisms that would otherwise act as competitors to your sprouting mycellium. There are four main methods of treating your substrate: – Pasteurization – Lime Bath – Peroxide Treatment – Cold Fermentation —> Look here for the specifics of how to treat your substrate using these methods: https://namyco.org/preparation_of_substrates.php
4) Now it’s time to inocualte your substrate. You will need to either obtain a culture of your desired species from spores yourself or simply buy spawn online from a mushroom supplier. Once obtained, you’ll mix the spawn with the substrate. The mixed substrate can be placed in a variety of containers (an open tray, a bucket, a large bin) – just make sure that it is either open or perforated (this includes drilling holes in the side of a bucket so that the fungus has space to fruit).
5) Now it’s time to sit back and wait for your fungus to start fruiting (aka producing mushrooms). Many species will require a change in temperate or location once they begin fruiting, so make sure you have an auxilliary location where you can quickly transfer your fungus for optimal growth.
The Types of Poisonous Mushrooms
The lethality and adverse affects of the various toxins within mushrooms varies drastically, listed below are a few of the harmful compounds within mushrooms that you should definetly keep an eye out for, and have some notion of what you can do in a compromising scenario involving poisonous mushrooms. Along with each toxin are a few of the mushrooms listed that contain the toxin. You should research every single mushroom you intead to eat before doing so, epsecially if it comes from one of the families lsited below.
Amanitin: (Amanita phalloides, Amanita virosa, Amanita verna, Galerina autumnalis)
As mentioned above, numerous mushrooms from the genus Amanita are imbued with this highly toxic amatoxin. Inadvertently ingesting any form of Amanitin will lead to diarrhea and stomach cramps within 10-24 hours, as it will cause liver cells to burst through cytolysis. Shortly following this bout of discomfort, the symptoms will seemingly fade until approximately a week after ingestion when the much more serious affects begin to set in. Liver and kidney failure, alongside convlusions, comas, and ultimately death will quickly ensue. If you believe that you may have ingested any mushroom containing an amatoxin, your best move would be to test your urine and then immediately have your stomach pumped although medical attention can counterract the affects of the toxin within 1-2 weeks if it has already advanced to a comprimising stage.
Monomethylhdrazine: (Gymotria esculenta, Gymotria gigas)
This compound is frequently used in rocket fuel but can also commonly be found in mushrooms of the genus Gyromitra, and manifests more specifically as the poison gyromitrin. The toxin binds within an individual’s central nervous system and can lead to nausea, stomach cramps, diarrhea, and in high enough doses, comas and ultimately death. Yet even with these dangerous symptoms, many Gyromitra mushrooms are quite desirable for their edibility. The toxin is water soluble and can reliably be eliminated by dicing a mushroom into small pieces and then boiling it numerous times.
Orellanine: (Cortinarius orellanus, Cortinarius gentilis)
Again, Orellanine can be exceptionally dangerous on account of the fact that symptoms do not begin until 3-14 days after the initial ingestion. The first signs of poisining include polydipsia (prompts excessive thirst) and excessive urination, followed by nausea, bowel irritations, and ultimately kidney failure in extreme scenarios.
Muscarine: (Amanita muscaria, Inocybe geophylla, Clitocybe dealbata)
Muscarine is a neurotoxin with symptoms that occur very quickly after ingestion. they are not as severe as some of the others on this list and range from perspiration, nasuea, diarrhea, and blurred vision to, in some exceptional cases normally amongst individuals with preexisting respiratory conditions, death. Atropine can be used to effectively treat a Muscarine poisining, which is highly advisible since the effects can become much more comprimising if the toxin reaches the brain.
Psylocibin (Psylocibe species: cubensis, semilanceata, coprophila, Gymnopilus spectabilis, Panaeolus subbalteatus)
Psylocibin is actually quite safe for ingestion (a lethal dose is far lower than that of caffeine) but still has a high propensity to precipitate adverse symptoms. As a hallucenogenic substance Psylocibin can be overwhelming for an individual and it is important to keep someone under its influence away from dangerous places (busy streets, high promontories, sharp objects) and continuously ensure them that the sensation will pass. Psylocibin is currently being legally tested in the United States (bythe Usona Clinical Institute) to diagnose patients with severe cases of depression who were resistent to a number of other antibiotics. Although the FDA has given the Institiute permission to continue testing, posession of Psylocibin mushrooms is still a federal offence in the U.S. and many other countries as it it is labelled as a class 1 drug.