The class raised an interesting question: how do you identify a mushroom? I gave an unsatisfactory answer which involved jargon like “keying out” and “microscopy,” but the honest answer for me, these days, is Google. I wouldn’t recommend this to someone who’s late for a potluck and spots some ‘not-poisony-looking’ mushrooms on the side of the interstate, but a simple Google-search, or more often a series of increasingly more precise Google-searches is often my first go-to when identifying a new mushroom.
An example of this came after our 2nd Wissahickon hunt of the year. Students spotted these guys
Having a smart-phone handy in the field can be helpful in deciding whether to bother taking the mystery fungus home with you. This particular fungoid specimen didn’t exactly call out for the dinner plate, so I left it and searched at home. Into the searchbar I typed “Brown blob puffball.” Images. Nope, those are all lycoperdon. “Brown Blob Fungus.” OK, lots of funky looking fungi… aha! that looks similar to my guy. Website says it’s a slime mold. “Brown Blob Slimemold” ok, there it is again, but it’s pink. They’re calling it Lycogala epidendrum. I’ll bet my brown ones are in the same genus, so let’s search “lycogala brown” ok that’s a hit! Turns out that it’s the same species, Lycogala epidendrum and its colors are variable. In all it took about 2 minutes and I knew, with some confidence, that I’d identified this species.
Now, it’s not always nearly this easy. Within some groups of fungi, the bolete-types and Russula genus to name two, identifying some specimens down to a species takes incredible precision. Even published mycologists get stumped now and again. To “key out” a difficult species, you may need various chemical reagents to place on the mushroom, noticing things like what shade of blue it stains, how quickly, which parts stained and for how long. You may need an experienced nose that can tell the difference between “phenolic” and “fenugreek.” You may need a microscope to tell whether the spore is slightly amyloid or ellipsoid. This is tricky business. If you want to see expert-level identification, I’d recommend joining a local mycological club on a foray.
Blewit!!!! One of my new favorites.
To someone interested in getting started mushrooming, here’s what I’d recommend: Get a field guide (and assume some species and edibility info have changed since it was published). General field guides will cover some of the biggies, but it’s impossible to fit them all into a book, so consider getting a local fungi field-guide, or a more specific guide to, for instance, “Boletes of North America.” Take lots of spore prints. If you’re interested in hunting for the table, figure out which choice edibles are in your area and look at lots of images of the mushrooms and the habitat they grow in- this will help train your eye. You can always start with the “fool-proof four”- giant puffball, chicken of the woods (though remember chicken mushrooms growing on locust, yew and some other poison woods can cause problems), morels, and shaggy mane (alternately chanterelles on some lists). Don’t believe the “foolproof” part though- some of these things still require a close examination. And just hunt, hunt, hunt. Think of it as practice, practice, practice, but fun. Smell them, bruise them, squish them, tear them apart- whatever it takes to familiarize yourself with a new species. With enough first-hand experience, you may, eventually, be able to pick a tasty blewit from a patch of poisonous purple cortinarius without a second glance, but for now leave that sort of thing to those with lots of experience.
Hypholoma Fasciculare, the poisonous “Sulphur Tuft,” easily confused for tasty Brick Caps by an inexperienced hunter.
And, I hope I don’t need to mention this but I will: Do not eat anything you aren’t 100% sure of. 99.99% is not 100% when it’s the difference between a tasty casserole and an agonizing death. Don’t be scared, just be cautious, and in time you will get it down