There are more than 500,000 types of wild fungi in the UK. Only a small fraction of these are generally likely to be found during your weekly shop or on the menu of your favourite restaurant.
Foraging for your own mushrooms can be an exciting alternative for the real foody, and can add a personal touch to a home cooked meal. Autumn is a great time to scrub up on the best (and worst) species to look out for.
The greatest variety of mushrooms can be discovered between September and November, thanks to the moist and damp weather. Head out after a rainy few days and you should be in luck, as new species are likely to ‘pop up’ in great numbers. Local woods and nearby nature walks are ideal places to visit – and after a period of exploring you will become accustomed to species-rich areas.
Once you have familiarised yourself with the hotspots, you can begin deciding which mushroom are worthy of taking home. Ensure that you read up fully before committing to cooking up a mushroom Stroganoff for a party. As always, the Golden Rule remains: if you are unsure of a species do not take a risk - be smart when dealing with new discoveries.
The general identifying system is is a process of elimination. Working via deduction is a safe guide, while it is also always a good idea to cross-reference with official guides for complete certainty.
Steps to identifying a mushroom
A detailed look at the different parts of a mushroom is a great starting point on the identification journey. Look out for the following characteristics when you stumble across a new species to begin to successfully categorise your findings. Please remember: A particular shape or colour is not going to clearly indicate whether or not a mushroom is edible or poisonous – these are guidelines to be considered together and alongside secondary sources.
1. The cap (shape and size)
There are many different shapes and sizes that a mushroom cap can fashion, all of which can give an indication as to which family a mushroom may belong to. Here is an illustration of the types of caps you can expect to find to help you successfully name your foraging finds.
As well as the shape, the colour, the texture and other such characteristics are important clues in the identification.
Begin by taking note of the colour(s) of the mushroom. Secondly, make a note as to whether the original colouring changes when the mushroom is bruised. Cutting in to the cap can also be an interesting test to see whether or not the inside of the mushroom changes colour when it is exposed to the air. While, secondly, any markings that are particularly unusual and the general ‘feel’ of the mushroom can be a useful indicator of the mushroom’s family. The margin (the edge of the cap) is a further indicator – does the mushroom have in-rolled or turned up edges? Note it down.
2. The spores
First, it is important to identify whether the spores are produced by gills, pores or pikes - these will be found on the underside of the mushroom cap. Gills sometimes attach themselves to the stem and sometimes do not – this is an important detail to take note of. Colour, spacing, thickness and consistency are all other important characteristics to take note of.
3. The stem
Once again, consider the shape and size. Is it noticeably short? Thick? Thin? In terms of colour, consider whether it is consistent with your notes of the cap. Next, look to see if there is a ring – how would you describe the ring? And does the consistency change below or above it? As previously with the cap, look for any marking on the stem – perhaps some freckling? Examine the bottom of the stem and check whether or not it is connected to the soil – and whether the stem appears to have an extension below the ground. Finally, cutting the stem and checking whether the inside is hollow or solid can be a good indicator.
As a novice mushroom forager, it’s also useful to know a little bit about what different mushroom families are out there. This is another great starting point to give an idea of whether or not a mushroom is poisonous or edible.
There are both poisonous and edible members of the Agaric family, all of which have a white cap, gills ranging from pink to brown/black and commonly a stout stem with a skirt. Once you have identified a mushroom as being a member of the Agaric family you can deduct whether it is poisonous or not by the smell. Edible Agarics have a pleasant smell of mushroom, occasionally with a hint of almond or aniseed. Poisonous Agarics will have an unpleasant smell that has been likened to iodine or Indian ink.
This is a more difficult family for toxic mushrooms. The easy way to identify this mushroom family is that they have spongy pores instead of gills (this is true of the Suillus, Leccinum and Bolete families). The simple rules to follow to avoid poisonous mushrooms in this family is these spongy pores are yellow, cream or white and there is no red on the stem or cap. Once this is established you should cut into the mushroom, and if it does not turn blue it is good to eat! There are exceptions to these rules that mean you will miss out on some tasty edible mushrooms but these rules are ‘better safe than sorry’ guidelines.
Milkcaps (Lactarius family)
Until you become more experienced in establishing individual members of this mushroom family, it is best to steer clear of the group altogether as the majority of milkcaps are poisonous. The way to recognise a milkcap is in the title – they have a milky substance that seeps from the gills.
The Russulas family (or brittlegills because they have brittle stems and gills) is one of the most versatile families, as it contains a vast mixture of toxic and edible fungi, some of which taste great and some which do not taste nice at all. As a result of the versatile nature of the Russula family, we recommend that unless you are an experienced forager well acquainted with identifying individual members of this family, you should avoid this group.
The most toxic and poisonous mushrooms in the UK belong to the Amanitas family (probably why they sound like ‘A man eaters’!). All of the mushrooms in this family have white spores and gills and grow from something called a volva, which is a bulbous sack-like object. We recommend staying away from this family unless you are extremely confident in your ability to identify mushrooms as there are members of this group that can cause fatalities.
Mushroom identification is essentially a guessing game
If you remember the ‘Guess Who’ board game, it’s pretty much that same logic: a process of elimination and a search for common features. However, this is not a game you want to lose! Be smart and never consume a mushroom unless you are 100% sure that you have correctly identified it against multiple sources.
As you start to discover and recognise new species, keep notes and photos and build up a collection of your discoveries. Happy hunting!