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How do you tell what kind of mushroom it is?

How do you tell what kind of mushroom it is?

Identifying mushrooms can be challenging for beginners. With thousands of species, many look similar to the untrained eye. However, learning some basic mushroom anatomy, understanding key identification features, and using the right mushroom hunting tools can help you successfully identify many common edible and poisonous mushroom species.

Learn Mushroom Anatomy

To identify a mushroom, you need to look at its different parts. Here are the main anatomical features of a mushroom that aid identification:

– Cap – The cap or pileus is the umbrella-shaped part at the top of the stem. Pay attention to characteristics like shape, texture, color, and surface features like scales or warts.

– Gills – The gills are the thin, papery structures that hang vertically under the cap. Note the attachment to the stem, spacing, color, and whether or not they bruise.

– Stem – The stem or stipe holds up the cap. Note the color, shape, texture, and whether it has a ring or volva.

– Ring – Some mushrooms have a skirt-like ring around the upper stem. If present, note the color and position.

– Volva – The volva is a cup-like structure at the stem base. If present, note the color and shape.

– Spore print – The powdery deposit of spores left behind by the mushroom. Spore print color is key for ID.

Focus on Key Identification Features

When identifying mushrooms, focus on key characteristics:

Characteristic What to Look For
Cap shape Convex, flat, bell-shaped
Cap surface Scaly, smooth, fibrous, sticky
Gill attachment Free, attached, notched
Gill spacing Crowded, distant
Gill color White, brown, black, pink
Stem shape Equal, bulbous, tapered
Ring or volva Present, absent
Color changes Bruising, fading, staining
Habitat Woods, grass, buried
Spore print color White, brown, black, purple

Focusing on these features will help you zero in on key mushroom groups:

Cap Shape

The cap shape can offer major clues to mushroom identity. Examples:

– Convex cap – Common in Amanitas

– Bell-shaped cap – Seen in many edible species like Chantrelles

– Flat, umbonate cap – Indicative of Lactarius milkcaps

– Skinny, elongated cap – A feature of deadly Galerina mushrooms

Gill Attachment

How the gills attach to the stem is important:

– Free gills – Detached from stem, like in Chanterelles

– Attached gills – Broadly attached, as in Oyster mushrooms

– Notched gills – Partially attached, found in Porcini

Stem Features

Look for key stem features like:

– Bulbous base – Indicates toxic Amanitas

– Skinny stem – Seen in deadly Galerinas

– Ring – Points to safe Agaricus campestris

– Volva – Sign of toxic Amanitas like A. phalloides


Some mushrooms bruise or stain when handled. This can aid ID:

– Blue bruising – A hallmark of psilocybin mushrooms

– Red staining – Typical of boiled red Lactarius peppers

– Yellow staining – Seen in some Russulas and Milkcaps

Spore Print Color

The spore print color is a crucial ID feature:

– White – Russulas and Amanitas

– Pink – Volvariella mushrooms

– Black – Deadly Galerinas and Coprinopsis

– Purple-brown – Edible Agaricus like portobello

Use the Right Tools

Having the right mushroom hunting equipment can make identification easier:


A pocket knife allows you to cut the mushroom open and examine interior characteristics. Look for differences in color or density between flesh and gills.

Magnifying glass

A magnifying lens lets you closely inspect small identifying features, like the shape of cystidia on gill edges.

Field guides

Mushroom field guides serve as visual references to compare and identify characteristics. Consider books focused on your region.

Spore print kit

Spore print kits allow you to safely take a mushroom’s spore print for color comparison. They include black or white paper cards and a clear cover.


Collecting baskets let you neatly transport mushrooms separately to prevent spores mixing between different varieties.

Take a Spore Print

Taking a spore print is one of the best ways to identify many mushrooms:

1. Cut the stem near the mushroom’s cap. Place the cap gill-side down on paper.

2. Cover the cap with a glass or bowl. Leave undisturbed for 8-12 hours.

3. Carefully remove the cover. White, purple-brown, black, pink or other colored spores should be deposited.

4. Compare the spore print color to mushroom field guide descriptions. It’s a key ID feature.

5. For mushrooms with lighter spores, use black paper. For darker spores, use white paper.

Examine Under a Microscope

Using a microscope reveals microscopic identifying details:

– View the shape and color of spores. Different varieties have distinct spore shapes.

– Inspect gill edges for cystidia. These are cells with identifying projections like needles or bumps.

– Look for binding hyphae in the cap tissue. These give some species a rubbery texture.

– See if the stem has rhizoids – root-like threads that indicate gilled mushrooms.

Specialized mushroom identification guides provide detailed microscopic features for comparison.

Use Dichotomous Keys

Mushroom dichotomous keys allow identification through a series of either/or steps:

1. Start with broad characteristics like habitat or spore color.

2. Progress to more specific traits like gill spacing or stem shape.

3. Each step splits the group in two based on a defining feature.

4. Keep following steps until you reach species name.

Regional mushroom dichotomous keys narrow options by location. Digital dichotomous keys let you click through steps quickly.

Take Multiple Photos

Taking various photos aids identification:

1. Photograph the intact mushroom in situ before collecting. Note the location.

2. Take photos of the top and underside of cap. Include close-ups of characteristics.

3. Take photos of the stem, including ring or volva if present.

4. Include a photo with a coin for scale to show size.

5. Take photos of any bruising or latex secretions.

6. Photograph the spore print next to the mushroom that deposited it.

Upload photos to mushroom ID websites or social media groups to get crowdsourced help with tricky identifications.

Consider the Habitat

Note the habitat where you find mushrooms:

– Mycorrhizal mushrooms – Grow symbiotically with trees like pines, oaks or firs. Examples include Boletes, Russulas, and Amanitas. Look for them around the specific trees they partner with.

– Saprophytic mushrooms – Decompose woody debris like logs, mulch and woodchips. Oyster mushrooms are common saprobes.

– Parasitic mushrooms – Attack live trees and woody plants. Keep an eye on decaying tree trunks.

– Coprophilous mushrooms – Grow on animal scat like deer droppings. Conocybe tenera is a common coprophile.

Matching the habitat narrows potential species. Reference habitat clues when using field guides.

Take a Spore Sample

Using tape or swabs, you can collect mushroom spore samples to aid in identification:

– Use transparent tape to lift spores directly from gill surfaces. Stick the tape to an index card.

– Swab gills with cotton swabs. Roll the swab gently to pick up spores.

– Place clear tape samples over different colored paper to help spores show up.

– Mail or deliver samples to labs for microscopic analysis and DNA testing if desired.

– Compare observed spore color and shape under a microscope to guides for identification.

Examine the Flesh

Cutting open mushrooms reveals helpful identification details:

– Flesh color – Note if it differs from surface color. Brown-capped Boletes have yellow flesh.

– Bruising – Some mushrooms bruise blue, red or other colors when cut.

– Staining – Inking or staining points to mushrooms like the bleeding tooth fungus.

– Texture – Flesh may be soft, corky, gelatinous, rubbery. Helpful for genera like Russula.

– Odor – Smell for scents like anise, fishiness, or fruitiness. Can indicate toxicity.

– Latex – Some milkcaps and boletes “bleed” white or colored latex when cut.

– Larvae – Check for insect larvae tunnels, especially in older specimens.

Spore Size and Shape

Measuring spore size and viewing shape helps pinpoint species:

Mushroom Spore Shape Spore Size
Shiitake Oval 5-7 x 3-4 μm
Oyster Elongated 12-17 x 4-6 μm
Porcini Ellipsoid 14-20 x 7-10 μm
Morel Ellipsoid 18-20 x 10-12 μm

Use microscopy and technical guides to compare shapes like lenticular, nodulose, fusoid and sizes in microns.


Identifying wild mushrooms takes patience and practice. Start by carefully observing key structural characteristics. Use technical tools to reveal microscopic features and spore prints. Consider where the mushroom was growing for habitat clues. Over time, identification skills will improve with experience. Proper identification ensures you find choice edibles and avoid poisonous lookalikes.