How to Pick Mushrooms

"Mushroom hunting" is not a casual affair. Some mushrooms are deadly to consume, while others will cause permanent organ damage. There are tens of thousands of fungal species, many of which are currently undocumented by science.[1] Since it can take several years of education and experience to accurately identify mushrooms to species, this article is geared towards readers who are interested in picking mushrooms for study, not for consumption.


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    Consider the context. When you've discovered a mushroom to identify, examine its surroundings. Make note of what the mushroom is growing on, and note the location. A GPS locator is an excellent tool here!
    • Is the mushroom growing on dead wood, a living tree, soil, moss, or something else entirely? Note that some mushrooms grow on buried wood; this can fool you into thinking that they grow on soil!
    • Which trees are present in the area, if any? While fungi can form associations with many plants, trees are the most relevant to identification. If you can't tell the species of tree exactly, at least note whether conifers, hardwoods, or both are present.
    • Make a note if your mushroom is growing in a lawn, on sand, on moss, on another mushroom, or any other site of interest. Then photograph it from a few angles before picking it! This will help any expert you show the photographs to along with the specimen, as it will establish the context in which you found it.
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    Observe all identifying characteristics.
    • Color: Be careful. Mushrooms can change color upon drying or exposure to sunlight. If possible, note the color both before and after drying of all parts, including the stalk, the top of the cap (both in the middle and near the margin), the gills (which change color in age for most species!), and the flesh, or context, inside these parts. Because colors can change so dramatically, they are NOT to be relied upon.
    • Ornamentation: Are there any warts, scales, or folds in the cap? These features may vanish with age, just like color.
    • Are the gills covered by a veil of thin, felt-like, or cobwebby tissue? This veil may break up to leave a ring around the stalk, which is a very good character to look for. Again, this often vanishes in age. If it is not yet obvious, an old mushroom can be hard to identify.
    • Spore-bearing surface: Does your mushroom have plate-like gills under the cap surface, wrinkles, spongy tubes, or something else? Does your mushroom even have a cap, or is it just a round off-white ball?
    • If gills are present, cut the mushroom longitudinally (top-to-bottom) and see if the gills are connected to the stalk. If so, do they run down the stalk, meet it at a right angle, or barely touch it? This character, like color, can change in age! You can also use this section to see if the stalk is hollow, full, or stuffed with a pith of some kind.
    • Is a stalk (stipe) present or absent? Fungi growing on wood may lack any stripe, or have one that is attached to the cap from the side, rather than in the middle.
    • Be sure to dig your mushroom out in a way that leaves the base of the stalk undamaged! Do not pull; dig, and considerately replace the soil when you are done. Some mushrooms have important features, such as an easily destroyed sac, at the base of the stipe.
    • Does your mushroom bruise when cut or crushed? What color? Do very fresh specimens exude latex when cut?
    • How does your mushroom smell? Generically fungal? Phenolic (like antiseptic bandages?) "Almond-y"? Like green corn?
    • Take a spore print by removing the cap and allowing it to sit for several hours, preferably overnight, on a piece of paper. If the mushroom is dropping spores, you will see them dusting the paper, allowing you to determine their color. Note that the terms for spore color can be very precise; chocolate brown, tobacco brown, and rusty brown are entirely different colors!
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    Identify lookalikes. Since you are not eating these mushrooms, this will not be a matter of life and death; however, if you are tempted to try, remember that a species that is easily identified in one region may have a dangerous lookalike in another region! For example, Volvariella speciosa, a popular edible species in Asia, can be easily confused with Amanita phalloides, a deadly poisonous species in North America and Europe.[2]
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    Mushrooms should be carried in paper bags or waxed paper, preferably in a rigid container. Plastic sandwich bags will turn them to unidentifiable mush. Smaller mushrooms can be kept intact by carrying them in a small, hard box; some tackle boxes used for holding fishing flies are ideal for this purpose!
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    Store and transport the mushrooms safely. If there will be any children or pets near the mushrooms, make sure that the two never, ever meet.


  • Make sure that your basket has a loose weave to allow spores to escape.
  • Work from a key in a field guide that is reliable in your area. Don't bother identifying by playing "match the photo;" this has gotten people killed!
  • A member of your local mycological society may be able to help you identify fresh material, but rarely will they be willing to make a confident identification from a single top-down shot of a tiny mushroom. Take multiple photos that show gills, cap, and base, note the characteristics listed above, and get a spore print.
  • Many mushroom species are most abundant in the fall.


  • Be aware of any laws against collecting from public lands in your area. You can be hit with a hefty fine for collecting without a license, even if you don't intend to eat what you collect! In addition, you may want to avoid collecting anything that resembles a hallucinogenic species; possession of Psilocybe is a crime in many jurisdictions.
  • Several deadly or seriously toxic mushroom species resemble edible species. Do not eat wild mushrooms unless you have forayed with a knowledgeable group --doing so entails the following risks:

    • Severe vomiting and/or diarrhea
    • Decreased blood pressure
    • Difficulty breathing, possibly death due to respiratory failure
    • Drowsiness (falling asleep and unable to be roused) leading to a misdiagnosis of a comatose state
    • Kidney and liver failure
    • Cancer (Gyromitrin is a known carcinogen)
    • Hemolytic anemia

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Categories: Food Selection and Storage