Wild mushrooms have delicious and distinctive flavours, which makes collecting them worthwhile. There are hundreds of mushrooms ranging from delicious to deadly, and it is obviously extremely important to know the difference. It is safest to master the identification of a handful of distinctive edible mushrooms, their appearance in their various growth stages and their characteristic habitat. It is very helpful to learn safe mushroom-hunting habits from an experienced person. Like any food, mushrooms should be fresh and free from decay to be suitable for consumption.
What is a Mushroom?
Mushrooms are the fruits of fungus that grows on soil, wood or decaying matter. They come in many shapes, sizes, and colours and produce their spores on gills, in pores, inside of cups and pouches and sometimes on the surface. Spores are blown away by the wind or carried by animals and if they land in a suitable habitat, a new mushroom will grow. When most people think of mushrooms they think of the gilled fungi, shaped like a parasol, with ridges underneath. Some parasol-shaped fungi have spongy pores underneath instead of ridges.
Distinctive Edible Mushrooms
Three common and distinctive edible mushrooms are Puff Balls, Shaggy Manes and Morels. Puff Balls are round or pear-shaped and 1 to 12 inches in diameter. They should be harvested before they age and when bisected, the interior should be white and featureless, like white bread. Make sure there is no developing stalk, since dangerous Amanitas can resemble Puff Balls when immature. Young Amanitas do have a stalk.
Resembling spongy pinecones on stalks, the popular Morels grow from 2 to 12 inches tall and have light ridges with darker pits in a honeycomb pattern. The bottom of the cap is attached to the stem. False morels are similar and although some people eat these, there have been cases of sickness and even death attributed to false morels.
Shaggy Manes are white, four to six inches tall and have a shaggy surface. The gills are whitish and the mushroom is fragile and crumbles easily. They belong to a group called the inky caps and the developing ink on the edge of the parasol is an identifier.
The folk methods for determining the safety of mushrooms are unreliable. These include peeling the cap, checking for insect damage or testing with a silver spoon. Three groups of mushrooms are the most dangerous and mushroom hunters should become very familiar with them. These are the Amanitas, the false morels and a miscellaneous category called little brown mushrooms. Mushrooms in these categories cause all the fatal mushroom poisonings in the U.S., with Amanitas being responsible for 90 per cent of the fatalities. Anyone who even handles these mushrooms should wash their hands immediately.