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How do you identify different types of mushrooms?

How do you identify different types of mushrooms?

With over 10,000 types of mushrooms worldwide, being able to identify the difference between edible and poisonous varieties is an important skill for foragers. While some mushrooms have distinct characteristics that make identification easier, others require close examination and knowledge to discern. By understanding the key physical features to look for and learning about the most common edible and poisonous mushrooms, you can safely enjoy hunting and eating wild mushrooms.

Examine the Mushroom’s Appearance

When trying to identify a mushroom, the first thing to look at is its overall visual appearance. Take note of the following features:

Cap Shape: The cap or pileus may be convex, flat, or concave. Shape can help narrow down the mushroom type.

Cap Size: Measure the diameter across the cap to get size. Size can vary greatly amongst mushroom species.

Cap Color: The cap may display various colors including white, brown, gray, yellow, or red. Also note any zoning or patterning.

Gills: Look underneath the cap. Mushrooms may have gills, pores, teeth, or ridges instead of true gills. Note the attachment to stem, spacing, and color of these structures.

Stalk: Consider the shape, texture, color, and size of the stem or stalk. See if there is a ring or volva present.

Color Changes: See if cutting or bruising the mushroom flesh causes any color changes. This can help indicate mushroom type.

Texture: Feel the cap and stalk. textures may range from smooth and silky to scaly or hairy.

Smell: Give the mushroom a sniff. Scent can provide hints to identification.

Spore Print

One of the best ways to conclusively identify mushroom species is through taking a spore print. To do this:

– Place the mushroom gills-side down on white and black paper. Cover with a bowl.

– Leave for several hours until spores deposit on the paper.

– The color of the spore print reveals the mushroom genus. For example, pink or red = Entoloma, purple-brown = Cortinarius.

– Compare spore print color to mushroom field guides to aid identification.

Consider the Habitat

Identifying what habitat the mushroom was growing in can provide critical clues to narrowing down the species:

On wood: Tree stump, logs, branches. Ex: Oyster mushrooms, reishi mushrooms.

On the ground: In grass, in duff layer, in soil. Ex: Puffballs, morels, chanterelles.

Mycorrhizal: Growing symbiotically on roots of trees. Ex: Porcini, boletes.

Parasitic: Growing on other fungi. Ex: Lobster mushrooms.

Use a Field Guide

Once you have examined all the key characteristics of the mushroom and noted details about its habitat, grab a good mushroom field guide that covers your region. Compare your notes and look at the photos to see if you can find a match. Some field guides to consider are:

– National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms

– Peterson Field Guide to Mushrooms of North America

– Mushrooms of the Midwest by Michael Kuo

– All the Rain Promises and More by David Arora

Take a Spore Print

Using a mushroom field guide is the best way to confirm the identity and edibility of a mushroom. Always note key features and cross-reference with multiple sources if unsure. When in doubt, remember to take a spore print and compare to guidebook descriptions to perfectly match the species. Proper identification is crucial – never eat a mushroom unless you are 100% sure of its identity!

Look Out for Common Edible Species

Once familiar with the identification process, get to know some of the most popular edible mushroom species in your area:


Habitat Mycorrhizal on forest floors
Cap Vase-shaped, wavy edges
Gills Ridged and forked
Color Yellow, orange, white
ID Tips Look for vase shape, ridges vs. true gills


Habitat Forest floors, especially burnt areas
Cap Conical, honeycombed
Gills Attached to pits and ridges
Color Yellow, brown, black
ID Tips Distinctive honeycomb cap

Oyster Mushrooms

Habitat Decays logs, stumps, trees
Cap Fan or oyster-shaped
Gills Run down stem
Color White, grey, blue, pink
ID Tips Look for oyster-shaped caps on wood


Habitat Grassy areas, woods, gardens
Cap Round, no gills, cottony inside
Color White, yellow, purple, brown
ID Tips No stem or gills, slice open

Avoid Common Poisonous Species

While most mushrooms have lookalikes, watch out for these notably poisonous varieties:

Death caps

Habitat Around hardwoods and pines
Cap Convex to flat, often sticky
Gills Closely spaced gills
Color Greenish to yellowish brown
ID Tips Beware – can look similar to edibles

Destroying angels

Habitat Scattered in leaf litter
Cap White, bell-shaped
Gills Bright white gills
Stalk Thin stalk with baggy volva
ID Tips Pure white mushrooms are risky


Habitat On ground in woods
Cap Orange to cinnamon brown
Gills Attached gills, often reddish
Stalk Thin stalk with ring zone
ID Tips Fine cobwebby cortina on cap edge

Jack o’ Lanterns

Habitat Base of trees and buried wood
Cap Orange, wedge-shaped
Gills Bright yellow-orange gills
ID Tips Bright yellow gills attach to stem

When in Doubt, Throw it Out!

Mushroom poisoning is extremely dangerous, ranging from mild to deadly. Consuming a poisonous mushroom can cause severe illness and organ damage. If you have any doubts about the identity of a mushroom, do not eat it! Only consume wild mushrooms you are 100% confident you have accurately identified. Consider taking a mushroom foraging course to learn proper ID from experts. You can also bring samples to a mycologist from your local mycological association for help with identification. Stay safe while enjoying the magical world of mushrooms!


Identifying mushrooms takes patience and skill. By carefully observing key characteristics like appearance, spore print, and habitat, and cross-referencing with reputable field guides, you can learn to discern between both edible and poisonous species. Always exercise extreme caution – when unsure, throw it out! With experience, you will be able to safely forage delicious wild mushrooms while avoiding hazardous ones. The ability to identify mushrooms is extremely useful for mushroom hunters, naturalists, and anyone who spends time outdoors in mushroom territory.