For people who enjoy foraging for mushrooms, there are several thousand fleshy species in North America to choose from. Of these many different kinds of mushrooms, only about 250 are considered significantly poisonous. While those numbers put the odds of picking an edible rather than a nonedible mushroom heavily in the favor of foragers, experienced mushroom growers are quick to point out that foraging for mushrooms should never be thought of as a game of chance.
Proper identification is critical
The consequences of making a wrong guess or a misidentification about whether a mushroom is edible can be severe. Lethal mushrooms picked in the California wilderness poisoned 14 people late last year, with three requiring liver transplants, including an 18-month-old girl.
One of the dangers of collecting mushrooms in the wild is that of toxic look-alikes — poisonous mushrooms that resemble edible ones. Two highly desirable and popular edible mushrooms have toxic look-alikes. Morel mushrooms can be confused with the toxic false morels, and chanterelle mushrooms can be mistaken for jack-o’-lantern mushrooms.
Another problem that is a relatively new phenomenon are immigrants from Asia who mistakenly harvest poisonous North American mushrooms thinking they are the same ones as edible mushrooms in their home countries.
Immigrants from Asia sometimes confuse the edible paddy straw mushroom, cultivated throughout East and Southeast Asia and used extensively in Asian cuisines, with the death cap mushroom. The genus Amanita is one of the most toxic mushroom genera in the world.
Edible mushrooms and their toxic look-alikes
Edible chanterelles vs. toxic jack-o’-lanterns
Edible chanterelle mushrooms (Cantharellus) are a gold-yellowish or brilliant orange color, which makes them easy to spot during a walk in the woods. Chanterelles tend to grow in small clusters among hardwoods, conifers, shrubs, and bushes. They are also often found in leaf litter of mountainous forests and among grasses and mosses.
At maturity, East Coast chanterelles tend to be smaller (about the size of a fist) than those on the West Coast, which can weigh up to two pounds. On the West Coast, look for chanterelles around conifers. On the East Coast, they prefer hardwoods, especially oak species.
Chefs tend to prize chanterelles more because of their unique peppery, peachy, apricot flavor and because they are found only in the wild. Their distinctive flavor stands up well in soups and stews, and with main courses such as scallops, chicken, pork, or veal.
The toxic jack-o’-lantern mushroom is a common mushroom and has two forms in North America. East of the Rocky Mountains, Omphalotus illudens is a bright orange. West of the Rockies, Omphalotus olivascens grows in southern to central California, where it has olive shades 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.
There are two primary differences between chanterelles and jack-o’-lanterns. The jack-o’-lantern has true, sharp, non-forking gills that descend the stalk, whereas 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.
Edible morels vs. toxic false morels
Edible morels (Morchella) are considered a gourmet’s delight and are one the most popular and highly regarded mushrooms. They range in color from cream to almost black, and their honeycomb pattern makes them easy to spot. Morels associate with moist areas and specific tree types: Ash, tulip, oak, hickory, sycamore, cottonwood, maple, beech, and apples.
Morels grow in almost every region in North America. Notable exceptions are Florida, which is too hot, and Arizona, which is too arid. Morels fruit only when the ground temperature is 50°-58°F.
Morels have a unique smoky, earthy, nutty flavor that is prized by cooks worldwide. The darker the color, the stronger the flavor. A popular way to cook them is to simply sauté then in butter with salt and cracked pepper. Wash thoroughly, but be aware that because of their honeycomb structure, they may retain some bits of soil that can’t be washed out.
There are approximately a dozen species of toxic false morels (Gyromitra, Helvella, and Verpa) that grow in North America. False morels fruit in the spring at the same time as morels, as well as in the summer and fall.
Though people sometimes confuse edible versus false morels, 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, morels have hollow interiors, whereas false morels have a cotton-ball looking substance inside their stems.
Two of the deadliest mushrooms in the world
Mushrooms in the genus Amanita are among the deadliest in the world. Here are some ways to recognize two of these.
Death caps are a highly toxic mushroom (Amanita phalloides) blamed for the most mushroom poisonings in the world. While native to Europe, death caps occur on both the east and west coasts of North America.
Death caps grow under pines, oaks, dogwoods, and other trees, and 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 a white cup at its base. Young death caps can resemble puffballs, which encompass the genera Calvatia, Calbovista, and Lycoperdon.
If eaten, a person will experience vomiting, diarrhea, and cramps. After several days, these symptoms will go away and the person will think they are OK. However, they are not. During this time, internal organs are being severely damaged, sometimes irreparably. Death can occur 6-18 days after ingestion.
Like the death caps, destroying angles belong to the genus Amanita, with several species occurring in different regions of North America. All, however, have a similar white fruiting body.
Destroying angels get their name from their pure white stalks and caps. They have an attractive white cap, stalk and gills. All Amanita species form relationships with roots of certain trees. Destroying angels can be found in or near woodlands or near shrubs and trees in suburban lawns or meadows. In their button stage, destroying angels can be confused with button mushrooms, meadow mushrooms, horse mushrooms, and puffballs.
If eaten, symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, and abdominal pain that generally occur 5-12 hours after ingestion. As with death caps, the symptoms will typically go away and the victim might think they don’t need to see a doctor. However, a day or two later, the symptoms will return and get worse. By then, it will probably be too late because the person will likely suffer liver and kidney failure, and enter a hepatic coma that ends in death. If they survive, treatment is severe: a liver transplant.
Three mushrooms that are edible
Lion’s mane mushrooms (Hericium erinaceus), also known as the bearded tooth, hedgehog, or pom pom mushroom, can be found growing on hardwood trees in late summer and fall. Beech trees are frequent hosts.
Its distinctive shape, which resembles the mane of a male lion or a pom-pom, is unlike any other mushroom. 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. Its taste is also unique and often compared to seafood.
Maitake mushrooms (Grifola frondosa), also known as hen of the woods, ram’s or sheep’s head, maitake mushrooms grow at the base of hardwood trees such as oaks. They have small, overlapping tongue or fan-shaped caps.
It is prolific in the Northeast, but has been found as far west as Idaho and British Columbia. 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, sauces, or as a unique breading adjunct.
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.
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.
Written by David Clapp.