In the world of foraging, few organisms conjure up more fear and mystery than mushrooms. Tell someone you harvest wild berries, and he thinks to himself what a great hobby. Tell another person you hunt wild mushrooms, and she fears for your life.
“Aren’t you scared?”
“What if it’s poisonous?”
“I could never pick wild mushrooms, they’re much too dangerous.”
The fungal kingdom, it seems, is a bit of an enigma. In 1991, a paper was published suggesting that, although 1.5 million fungi were thought to have inhabited the earth, only about 70,000, or 4.7%, of fungal organisms were identified at that time (1). Today, it is estimated that there are 5.1 million fungal species in existence, and the number of identified species is still quite small in comparison.
It’s true, out of 5.1 million fungal species, some of them are quite toxic. Destroying Angel, Deadly Galerina, and Death Cap aren’t just fancy names, though they may or may not be hit singles from late 80’s heavy metal bands…
Amatoxin, forever popularized by their hit single, “Destroying Angel”
It’s easy to focus all our attention on the dangers of wild mushroom hunting, and of course the risks are valid concerns. One must absolutely know what he or she has in hand before even thinking about pulling out the butter, salt, and frying pan.
There is another side to wild mushroom hunting, however. The medicinal side. The healing side. The delicious side.
Obviously, several mushrooms are edible. A quick trip to the grocery store confirms this. Many individuals are interested in going one step further by foraging edible mushrooms, yet have no idea where to start. It can all appear quite daunting at first, especially after realizing you’re dealing with 5.1 million potential species (okay, this is an exaggeration … much of this large number does not pertain to mushrooms in their fruiting body stages, but rather to microscopic fungi, such as yeasts and molds).
So where do we start?
Well, why don’t we begin with the most easily identifiable wild edible mushrooms? You know, the ones that when you see them you think, “Yep, that’s exactly it!”
In this post, I have put together a list of 5 easy-to-identify edible mushrooms. These mushrooms are fairly conspicuous, they’re delicious, and they require a hefty stretch of the imagination to misidentify as toxic look-alikes.
Note: I live in western Pennsylvania. This list, therefore, is based on my experiences with the organisms in this area.
Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus)
Not all mushrooms look like the portobellos and the shiitakes found in the grocery store. Lion’s mane, for one, certainly does not. It is one of the most unique-looking mushrooms, with its unbranched body of icicle-like spines and soft white tissue. Accordingly, lion’s mane is a great mushroom for beginning mushroom hunters.
Very few mushrooms resemble lion’s mane, and the ones that do are taxonomically placed in the same genus (Hericium). These include bear’s head (H. abietis), coral tooth (H. coralloides), and bear’s head tooth (H. americanum), among others. What distinguishes lion’s mane from its relatives are its long spines (1-4 cm long) and unbranched fruiting body. All species of Hericium are considered to be edible.
Also known as the pom-pom mushroom, lion’s mane is one of the most delectable mushrooms in the fungal kingdom, resembling crab meat in taste and texture. Additionally, lion’s mane has been well researched for its role in improving cognitive health, producing neuro-regenerative effects in numerous studies (2, 3, 4).
Look for lion’s mane on the wounds of living hardwood trees, such as oaks and maples, as well as on recently felled trees. It can be found in the summer months through autumn.
Chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus)
While lion’s mane is one of the easiest mushrooms to identify, its presence is a bit more rare than some of the other choice edibles. Take chicken of the woods, for example. Once you develop a search image for this fungus, you’ll start seeing it everywhere (okay, maybe not on Mount Kilimanjaro, but you get my point).
Chicken of the woods (chicken mushroom, sulphur shelf) grows in clusters on both standing and downed trees, emerging as knob-like growths and soon developing into numerous shelves. The color is an unmistakable yellowish-orange, and the pore surface is yellow (for L. sulphureus, and white for the closely related L. cincinnatus … both edible). Always make sure the underside has pores. If it has gills, you won’t be having chicken for dinner.
The chicken mushroom resembles … get this … chicken in taste and texture, and is best collected when young. As it ages, the chicken mushroom becomes too tough to eat, though the outer edges can still be salvaged and used in dishes. Like all wild mushrooms, it requires cooking before consumption.
Beyond edibility, the chicken mushroom is medicinal as well. Research has shown that an extract from this mushroom possesses antimicrobial activity against the pathogen, Aspergillus flavus (5). Chicken mushroom is also a great source of antioxidants, including quercetin, kaempferol, caffeic acid, and chlorogenic acid (6), and it contains lanostanoids – molecules that have the ability to inhibit cancerous growths (7). What more could you ask for from a humble saprophyte?
Look for the chicken mushroom in the summer months through autumn. To learn more about this fantastic fungus, I encourage you to check out a video I created on its identification, look-alikes, medicinal benefits, and more.
Maitake (Grifola frondosa)
The maitake mushroom (sheep’s head, hen-of-the-woods) is a choice edible and medicinal that always demands a good hunt. While it’s easy to identify and widely distributed, the maitake mushroom can be somewhat tricky to locate compared to the showy chicken mushroom, as the former blends in well with the autumnal foliage. Maitake contains overlapping gray to brown caps attached to a single base. Individual specimens can be rather large and weigh several pounds. Like other polypores (mushroom fruiting bodies with pores or tubes on the underside), maitake has no gills.
While not difficult to identify, maitake may resemble other non-toxic polypores. The black staining polypore (Meripilus sumstinei) bruises black and can be found growing on buried wood. Young specimens are edible, though they become too tough to consume with age. The umbrella polypore (Polyporus umbellatus) is another edible look-alike which contains white to grayish caps, though this mushroom is multi-branched and not as common.
Maitake compliments a variety of dishes, lending a hearty flavor and tender texture. In addition to its use as a food, maitake has been researched extensively for its medicinal properties, specifically in the areas of cancer and diabetes.
Maitake, with few look-alikes, is certainly one of the safest mushrooms to harvest. Look for this gem under oak trees (and make sure you circle the tree … you may be pleasantly surprised to find a second or third), late summer through autumn.
To learn more about the maitake mushroom, I encourage you to check out this video I created on its identification, health benefits, and more!
Old man of the woods (Strobilomyces floccopus)
Some mushroom enthusiasts may question my decision to include old man of the woods on this list, though my reasoning, which applies to the others included here, is this: it’s easy to identify, it’s edible, and it has few, if any, toxic look-alikes.
Old man of the woods is very unique. Like most boletes (fungi in the Boletaceae family), it contains a spongy surface of pores under the cap rather than gills. These pores are usually whitish or gray and become dark with age. Its wooly cap is grayish-black with velvety darkened warts, and when cut in half, this mushroom will usually stain red.
Old man of the woods, unlike most polypores, grows on the ground among hardwoods and conifers. Therefore, if you see a mushroom that fits this description (wooly grayish-black cap with warts, whitish pores that become dark, slowly staining red when cut, growing on the ground), it’s most likely old man of the woods.
Now, there is a close look-alike. S. confusus resembles S. floccopus, though the former contains spiny-erected warts that are firmer to the touch than the wooly S. floccopus. Regardless, they’re both edible (cooked, of course). Some field guides consider old man of the woods unworthy of the dinner table. I am a bit more optimistic, and enjoy consuming them regularly when presented with the opportunity.
Though one might think that this mushroom would blend in very well with the forest floor, I find them rather easy to locate. Look for old man of the woods in the summer months.
*Note: Strobilomyces floccopus may be strictly a European species. The North American version is, at least macroscopically, identical in appearance and can be used in the same way.
Yellow morels (Morchella esculenta group)
Morel mushrooms need no introduction. But heck, I’m going to give them one anyway!
Few mushrooms in the wild resemble morels, and the ones that do can be easily distinguished based on key defining features. The yellow morel, for instance, retains a hollow and pitted head. Likewise, a cross-section of the stalk typically reveals a hollow interior. Additionally, the cap is attached to the stalk.
These features, once learned, will help you clearly separate morels from their look-alikes, including false morels, thimble morels, and stinkhorns. False morels of the genus Gyromitra tend to retain a darker shade of red and have a wrinkled, brain-like, or convoluted cap. These mushrooms are known to be toxic (to a degree). Thimble morels (Verpa spp.) have free, “skirt-like” sides, and stinkhorns (Phallus spp.) have a sack or vulva at the base and are generally quite foul-smelling.
Yellow morels exhibit a wide variety of positive health effects. For example, they are a fairly good source of vitamin D and antioxidants, they have been shown in the scientific literature to display protection against drug side effects, and they’ve been researched for their role in supporting immune system health (all referenced in the link above).
Look for morels in old apple orchards or in burned areas. They’re also associated with tulip poplar, ash, beech, maple, and dead or dying elm trees. In the eastern United States, they can be found in the spring months through early summer.
For more information on finding and identifying morel mushrooms, check out another article on this blog: How To Find And Identify Morel Mushrooms
If I had to include additional easy-to-identify mushrooms, I would extend this list to oyster mushrooms and chanterelles. Heck, I would even throw in some puffballs and shaggy manes. The ones that made the final cut, however, are those that I have found to be the easiest to identify. I hardly need to think twice before bringing these delectable fungi home.
The mushrooms that earned their ranking are also the ones that, when taught to other beginning mushroom hunters, are identified with confidence and ease. If you are just starting on the road to becoming an ardent mushroom hunter, use this list as a guide for helping you along your journey. Remember, however, that the descriptions here are not complete and are only meant to briefly discern the listed mushrooms from their potential look-alikes.
A good habit (actually, an extremely wise habit) is to cross-reference your mushrooms with other resources, and always be absolutely positive with your identification before ingesting wild mushrooms in any form. Your safest bet is to have an expert identify, or confirm the identification of, your specimens. A quick online search will yield local mycologists as well as online forums to assist in the identification process.
There, that eases the fear of wild mushroom hunting just a little bit, wouldn’t ya say?
Thanks for reading, and as always … happy foraging!
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