Since September is National Mushroom Month, I thought it would be fun to honor this random celebration through a nature study of mushrooms. I really wanted to learn more, because when the month started, I’ll admit I knew almost nothing about them.
Totally committed, I’ve spent many days this month scouting out, sketching, studying, and trying (and mostly failing) to identify mushrooms. In the process, I've become completely smitten with them. The learning curve is high, but since I'm always up for a challenge, this fascinating kingdom has really captured my interest.
Mushrooms are only a small part of the Fungi kingdom which is also comprised of other things like molds, yeasts, and mildews. Mushrooms are found mostly in the phylum Basidiomycota, though a few mushrooms (like the popular Morel) can be found in the phylum Ascomycota.
I enjoy studying classification because it can help greatly with identification, but the deeper I went into mushroom taxonomy, the trickier it got. Even the scientists can’t seem to sort it out! Part of the problem is that fungi are extremely numerous and diverse. And since new discoveries are constantly being made, classification is constantly changing.
Though there is much debate regarding the final numbers, it's estimated that there could be more than 5 million fungi species that include upwards of 10,000 mushrooms, so the chances of a novice like me correctly identifying any but the most common fungi is little to none. But it’s still fun to try!
The Dirt on Mushrooms
Usually when I am in the field observing, I try to interfere as little as possible with nature. However, when studying mushrooms, it’s important to get your hands dirty. Even the most poisonous species of mushroom won’t hurt you unless you consume it, and the chances of disturbing or destroying an extremely rare species of fungus is nearly nonexistent.
The mycelium appears as the mushroom’s “roots,” but it’s really the main part of the organism, and it lives completely underground. When picking and handling mushrooms, only the fruit is disturbed, not the plant itself which stays happy and intact under the surface of the soil. Just as you can’t harm an apple tree by picking an apple, you can’t hurt the mycelium by plucking a mushroom.
Regardless, I'll often leave the mushroom unharmed unless there are multiples. However, my intentions aren't altogether pure— mainly I want to continue to study its life cycle. Growth rate depends upon species, but the fungi’s fruit can change dramatically within a matter of hours and are often in a state of decay by day two or three.
Check conservation laws in your area just to make sure, but as long as that isn’t an issue, feel free to pick, handle, and explore to your fungi-loving heart’s delight. Just don’t eat unless you are absolutely, 100-percent sure of what you are doing!
When examining a mushroom or other fungi in the field, it's important to pay attention to certain factors. There's a lot to look for; thankfully, mushrooms don't move! The traits listed below are necessary keys for observation and identification, and noticing these factors will also vastly aid sketching skills.
Study the environment.
First thing to note is the date and time along with the mushroom’s location and lighting conditions (partial shade, full sun, etc). Pay attention to what the mushroom is growing on or in— wood, grass, leaf litter, or dirt. If it’s growing in soil, note what type (sand, clay, loam, etc) and if the soil is wet, moist, or dry. If it is growing on wood, try to identify the type of tree and whether the tree is dead or alive. What trees are overhead? How moist is the environment? Is there one mushroom or multiples? If there are multiples, are they attached at the base or distinctly separate?
Measure its size.
Note cap (or pileus) diameter and height along with the length and width of the stem (or stape), plus the height of the entire mushroom. To determine a mushroom's true size, it's often necessary to dig around the base and uncover its bulb or end.
Move on to its parts.
Though mushrooms and fungi can vary widely, the most notable mushroom shape has a handful of standard, easily identifiable parts. Below are important features to pay attention to.
The cap (or pileus): What is its surface texture (wet, dry, scaly, corrugated, etc)? Is there a veil or partial veil? Note the cap’s shape including the shape of its margin (or rim) and the cap's color pattern and markings. Test whether it bruises (changes colors) or releases a liquid (called bleeding or weeping) or a powder when scraped, punctured, or broken.
Under the cap (or hymenophore): Does the specimen have gills, pores, or teeth? If gills, are the gills tightly packed or sparse? Do the gills continue down the stalk? If pores, are they large or small; tight, sparse, or in a pattern? Do the gills bruise or release a liquid when touched or pressed? If possible, try to make a spore print. (For instructions, see here.)
Stalk (or stipe): Is there a stipe? If so, what is the length, shape, color, and texture (brittle, fibrous, soft, slimy, scaly, webbed or reticulated, etc)? Is there a ring (annulus), and if so, how is it shaped? Is there a cup? Does the stalk bruise or turn a color when scraped? When picked, is there a “tap root” (rhizomorph)? Is it hollow inside? Digging around the base with a spoon or sharp stick will help keep the mushroom intact while allowing measurements of the stem and base along with any attached mycelium.
Does it have a distinct smell? Some fungi fanatics even taste a small portion, spitting it out so it can't (supposedly) cause any harm. I'm not ready to try this yet!
All of the resources mentioned are for North America, which is where I live. Mushrooming is a big business as well as a popular pastime, so if you live outside of the U.S., a quick internet search will probably turn up tons of resources for your part of the world.
Though there are some great mycological resources out there, many of them concentrate only on edible species. And some concentrate on... well, let's just say illegal pursuits. Though I'm not into breaking the law and I think it would be fun to forage, the resources below are mainly for fungi study and identification.
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Probably the biggest group in North America is the NAMA, or North American Mycological Association, which shares identification and education resources along with a list of statewide clubs.
I have Peterson's field guide and think it's a decent guide for getting started. I like its size and organization better than Audubon's. However, Peterson's guide isn't regional so you have to sort through a lot of mushrooms that might not grow in your area, and the image plates aren't located next to the species information (which is also one of the drawbacks of the Audubon guide). Also, not all of the plates are in color. Mushroom experts tell me that color prints aren't important, but they are to this beginner.
As far as general field guides go, Roger Phillips once hosted a extremely informative mycology website, but he no longer keeps it active. However, he's written several field guides. I don't own any these, but if they're anything like his website, they should be top notch. I've also heard much ado about Orson Miller's field guide.
Since we live in the southern Appalachians, I recently purchased William Roody's guide and have found it to be a huge help. Another option for the Eastern U.S. is Mushrooms of Northeastern North America. David Fischer co-authored this book and also hosts a very informative website called American Mushrooms.
One last resource for the east coasters... be sure to download the document from the USDA on Macrofungi in Eastern Forests. Very informative and totally free!
For those west of the Rockies, Mushrooms Demystified is rumored to be the mushroom bible for this area, though I've heard it also has a fair amount of east coast species.
If you live somewhere in between, Michael Kuo has published Mushrooms of the Midwest. In fact, probably my favorite online resource is his website, Mushroom Expert. At first, Kuo's identification keys took some serious brain work for this layman mycologist, but with a bit of effort, I eventually found them invaluable for learning basic mushrooming skills.
My longtime favorite, Comstock's Handbook of Nature Study, has some great pages on mushrooms, puffballs, bracket fungi, and more, and her questions can help hone field observation skills. I've kept this book close at hand this past month as it has served as an extremely handy reference not only for mushrooms but also for observing the environment (trees, etc) around the specimen. However, it won't help with identification.
Free Mushroom Field Guide Printable
To help you observe and document mushrooms in the field, I'm sharing a free printable with key mushroom identification features as well as a reminder list of things to look for. This printable only covers the basic mushroom and not pufferballs, stinkhorns, etc, but I find these questions to be an invaluable reminder in the field. I hope this simple tool helps you explore the fascinating world of fungi!
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