Identifying Wild Mushrooms: A Guide to Edible and Poisonous Mushrooms (2024)

Mushroom collecting is a practice that helps people discover local food sources and the bounty generated by their own neighborhood forests. Of the many different species in North America, almost all of the mushrooms are technically edible, but many are too fibrous to consume. Only about 250 are considered significantly poisonous.

The consequences of making a wrong guess or a misidentification about whether a mushroom is edible can be severe. What's even more challenging is that some edible and poisonous mushrooms look quite similar. In this guide, we'll help you identify some common edible mushrooms and highlight which ones are poisonous, how they may resemble edible varieties, and why they should be avoided.

Treehugger Tip

When searching for mushrooms in the wild, inexperienced foragers should search for mushrooms alongside an experienced and trusted mycologist.

Chanterelles vs. Jack-O’-Lanterns

Chanterelles and Jack-o'-lantern mushrooms look a lot alike; however, Jack-o'-lanterns should not be eaten as they are poisonous. They will not kill the average adult, but eating them will result in several days of digestive discomfort.

Chanterelles (Edible)

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The gold-yellowish or brilliant orange color of chanterelles makes them easy to spot during a walk in the woods. Chefs love to cook with chanterelles because of their unique peppery, peachy, apricot flavor and because they are found only in the wild.

Where they grow: Chanterelles are found on the east and west coasts of the U.S. At maturity, eastern chanterelles tend to be smaller (about the size of a fist) than those on the west coast, which can weigh up to two pounds.

When to forage: You can forage east coast chanterelles during the summer and early fall, and west coast chanterelles from September to February.

Habitat: Chanterelles tend to grow in small clusters among hardwoods, conifers, shrubs, and bushes, though usually several feet away from the base of trees. They are also often found in leaf litters of mountainous forests and among grasses and mosses.

How to identify: You can pull chanterelles apart much like a stick of string cheese. Their interior is solid and white. They have wavy, funnel-shaped caps and no gills, although they could display gill-like ridges running down the stem.

Jack-o'-Lanterns (Poisonous)

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The jack-o’-lantern mushroom is a common mushroom with two varieties in the United States. East of the Rocky Mountains, Omphalotus illudens is bright orange, almost shiny. West of the Rockies, Omphalotus olivascens grows in southern and central California. Omphalotus olivascens is olive in color, mixed with orange. Jack-o’-lanterns can be found in urban settings in large clusters at the base of trees, on stumps, or on buried wood.

How to differentiate them from a chanterelle: There are two primary differences between chanterelles and jack-o’-lanterns. The jack-o’-lantern has true, sharp, non-forking, and deep-set gills that descend the stalk. Chanterelles have blunt, gill-like ridges on the cap to the stem. When the stem of a jack-o’-lantern is peeled, the inside is orange. In chanterelles, the interior of the stem is paler than the exterior.

Jack-o'-lanterns also primarily grow in hardwood forests where they feed off decaying wood, so you'll see them on fallen logs or at the base of dead trees. Chanterelles are usually further away from healthy, living wood. Jack-o'-lanterns grow in large clusters, whereas chanterelles tend to grow in smaller clumps that are more spread out. The jack-o'-lantern's cap will almost look like it's been waxed, it's so shiny, whereas the chanterelle's has a rougher texture.

Morels vs. False Morels

Two more mushrooms that are difficult to tell apart are morels and their toxic identical twin, but as you'll learn, there are key differences that can clear up any confusion.

Morels (Edible)

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Morels are one of America’s most popular and highly regarded mushrooms. They range in color from cream to almost black, and their honeycomb pattern makes them easy to spot. They're hard to find, and thus special—not to mention utterly delicious, converting many a non-mushroom-lover to fandom.

Where they grow: Morels grow in almost every state. Exceptions are Florida and Arizona, which are too hot and arid for these mushrooms to thrive.

When to forage: You can forage morels in the early spring before trees leaf out and make them harder to spot.

Habitat: Morels thrive in moist areas and on specific tree types—ash, tulip, oak, hickory, sycamore, cottonwood, maple, beech, conifers, and apples.

How to identify: Look for the iconic honeycomb-looking or corrugated-type cap that grows above a white stem. Inside, it will be hollow all the way from cap through stem when cut open.

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False Morels (Poisonous)

There are approximately a dozen species of false morels that grow in the United States. False morels fruit in the spring at the same time as morels as well as in the summer and fall.

How to differentiate from an edible morel: Though people sometimes confuse the two, they are actually quite different. The caps of false morels have a wrinkled, brain-like, or saddle-shaped structure rather than a honeycomb look. Also, when sliced down the middle lengthwise from the top, false morels have a cotton-ball-looking substance inside their stems. They are not hollow, unlike true morels.

Their color is more red, purple, and brown, whereas the true morel is yellow, gray, or tan in appearance. And the former is definitely less attractive. As one source explains, "To put it simply, a false morel looks a true morel that was stepped on and left out in the sun and rain."

The Deadliest Mushrooms

Mushrooms in the genus Amanita are among the deadliest in the world. Here are some ways to recognize and avoid two of these.

Death Caps

This highly toxic mushroom (Amanita phalloides) is blamed for the most mushroom poisonings in the world. While native to Europe, death caps also form on the east and west coasts of the United States and in Canada.

Description: Death caps have a 6-inch-wide cap, often sticky to the touch, that can be yellowish, brownish, whitish or greenish in color. The cap has white gills and grows on a stalk about 5 inches tall with skirting on the stem and a white cup at its base. It can emit a faint, honey-sweet smell that some describe as an unpleasant, cleaning-product smell.

Can be confused with: Young death caps can resemble puffballs, including genera Calvatia, Calbovista, and Lycoperdon, as well as tropical edible paddy-straw mushrooms.

When seen: Death caps can appear from September to November.

Habitat: Under pines, oaks, dogwoods, and other trees.

Destroying Angels

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Destroying angels get their name from their pure white stalks and caps. Like the death caps, they belong to the genus Amanita, with several species occurring in different regions of the country. All Amanita varieties have a similar white fruiting body. Ingesting a half-cap can kill a healthy adult.

Description: An attractive white cap, stalk, and gills.

Can be confused with: In their button stage, destroying angels can be confused with button mushrooms, meadow mushrooms, horse mushrooms, and puffballs.

When seen: Destroying angels appear in the summer and autumn months.

Habitat: All Amanita species form relationships with the roots of certain trees. Destroying angels can be found in or near woodlands or near shrubs and trees in suburban lawns or meadows.

How to identify: The cap should have a few loose flecks left over from a veil that covered the mushroom in its early fruiting stage. It will have a bulbous skirt around the stem that contains most of its toxins, as well as a cup at the stem's base, known as the volva, which could be hidden underground.

Three Common Edible Mushrooms

There are plenty of edible mushrooms that are safe to eat. We've highlighted three you might find on your next search.

Lion's Mane

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Also known as the bearded tooth, hedgehog, or pompom mushroom, the distinctive Hericium erinaceus can be found growing on hardwood trees in late summer and fall. Its distinctive shape, which resembles the mane of a male lion or a pompom, is unlike any other mushroom. Its taste is also unique and often compared to seafood.

How to identify: Beech trees are frequent hosts, as are other types of hardwood. Another identifying characteristic is that it tends to grow its spines from one group rather than from branches. It can also grow very high in the trees, as much as 40 feet up the trunk. They can also be found growing on dead logs.

Maitake Mushrooms

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Also known as hen of the woods, ram’s or sheep’s head, maitake mushrooms (Grifola frondosa) grow at the base of hardwood trees like oaks. This mushroom is prolific in the Northeast but has been found as far west as Idaho. Because they can grow quite large and become too tough to eat, they should be harvested when they are young. Older specimens can be dried, powdered, and used for soups and sauces, also for a unique breading adjunct.

How to identify: Maitakes have small, overlapping tongues or fan-shaped caps. They like to grow on oak trees, typically on dead or dying wood or stumps. It has a single white stem from which it grows, and the underside looks similar to the bottom of a cauliflower.

Oyster Mushrooms

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Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) belong to a genus of some of the most commonly eaten mushrooms. They can be found in every season of the year but are most prolific in cooler weather. Be sure to clean carefully to remove any insects that may be hiding in the gills. Also make sure to discard the stems, which tend to be woody.

How to identify: Look for their scalloped caps on dying hardwood trees such as oaks, maples, and dogwoods, especially after the first rains of the fall. The caps are a whitish-gray, sometimes tan. Cultivated varieties found in grocery stores may have blue, yellow, or pink caps.

The gills are described as "decurrent," meaning they run down from the underside of the cap into the stem, but not necessarily all the way to the ground. They often grow in a shelf-like, overlapping formation and are smooth with no bumps or discolorations.

Treehugger Tips

Tradd Cotter runs a fungi research lab and growing operation on hisMushroom Mountainwoodland in Liberty, South Carolina. He shared these tips with readers on mushroom foraging:

  1. Join a local mycological (fungi) group. They are located all over the United States. A list is available at the North American Mycological Association.
  2. Buy a regional field guide to learn what mushrooms grow wild near you.
  3. Seek to identify at least the genus of the mushroom you have found. Identification keys include the stem, a spore print, what the mushroom is growing on, and the structure of the stem base, which could be below ground.
  4. Take two collecting baskets when foraging. Put mushrooms positively identified as edible in one. Put mushrooms you are uncertain about in the other.
  5. Be extremely careful if you are a pet owner or want to take your dog on a foraging trip.
Identifying Wild Mushrooms: A Guide to Edible and Poisonous Mushrooms (2024)

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