How Can I Tell the Difference between Poisonous and Edible Mushrooms?

Crystal Cook

While mushrooms available for purchase in your local grocery should be safe to consume without question, poisonous and edible mushrooms can be difficult to tell apart in the wild. References such as field guides should always be used when gathering wild mushrooms. Brown mushrooms, Amanitas and false morels are all deadly. Other kinds of mushrooms can cause digestive problems or hallucinations. Checking against a reliable field guide can help reduce encounters with deadly mushrooms, but spore printing and chemical tests can more accurately ensure a mushroom's safety.

Orzo with edible mushrooms.
Orzo with edible mushrooms.

Of the many different types of mushrooms, three cause nearly all the deaths related to poisonous mushrooms. Many poisonous and edible mushrooms look very similar, so it is important to learn the differences between them. Experts recommend that even experienced gatherers use reference guides when gathering mushrooms. Mistakes can happen easily and even experienced gatherers have been poisoned by mushrooms.

Pasta with kielbasa and edible mushrooms.
Pasta with kielbasa and edible mushrooms.

Brown mushrooms are very common. These mushrooms also are called galerina and some refer to them as deadly galerina. Fallen trees, stumps and dead wood provide the perfect home for clusters of these mushrooms. As a common mushroom, these are picked often, though all small, brown mushrooms should be avoided, because accurate identification is difficult.

Button mushrooms.
Button mushrooms.

Approximately 90 percent of the poisonings that occur with mushrooms happen because of the Amanita. Even experts who are adept at telling poisonous and edible mushrooms apart often cannot tell the difference between an Amanita and a safe mushroom. The Amanita has a bulbous base that is unique to this kind of mushroom but may not always grow above ground, so careful digging may be required. The "death cap" is one type of Amanita, and so is "the destroying angel" which looks very similar to the safe, "meadow mushrooms" that are sold in stores. Most deaths are caused by "the destroying angel" because of the close resemblance.

Whole and sliced shiitake mushrooms.
Whole and sliced shiitake mushrooms.

One of the most popular mushrooms in the world is the morel. These mushrooms have wrinkled caps, thick stems and a flavor that is considered one of the best. False morels, which are poisonous, look similar. The differences between the poisonous and edible mushrooms are that false morels have caps that are not attached to the stem. Care should always be taken when gathering morels because, while both kinds have preferred season, both kinds also can grow any time during the year.

Morel mushrooms are quite popular, but they are easily confused with poisonous false morels.
Morel mushrooms are quite popular, but they are easily confused with poisonous false morels.

Poisonous and edible mushrooms are easy to mix up. Many kinds of mushrooms are poisonous enough to cause stomach problems or hallucinations but are not deadly. Gatherers should not taste a mushroom to see if it is poisonous, because some kinds of poisonous mushrooms do not taste bad, even though they're deadly. Spore printing, in which the moist mushroom cap is pressed against white paper to see the spore impression — specifically, its color — should be done to identify safe mushrooms. Chemical tests also should be done to ensure a mushroom is safe.

Oyster mushrooms.
Oyster mushrooms.
Enoki mushrooms.
Enoki mushrooms.
Amanitas are poisonous mushrooms that will be identified in reference guides.
Amanitas are poisonous mushrooms that will be identified in reference guides.
Many edible and poisonous mushrooms look similar to the untrained eye.
Many edible and poisonous mushrooms look similar to the untrained eye.
Edible Marasmius oreades are often confused with the similar but toxic Clitocybe dealbata.
Edible Marasmius oreades are often confused with the similar but toxic Clitocybe dealbata.

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Discussion Comments

Markerrag

@Terrificli -- shopping for mushrooms is the safest route, but there are some hobbyists who enjoy the heck out of spotting them in the wild. How can one avoid being poisoned? Research, learn from experts and cultivate enough knowledge as you can about how to spot safe mushrooms. Remember -- people who are probably no more intelligent than you developed ways to harvest safe mushrooms centuries ago. You can develop those same skills.

Still, even a hobbyist skilled at spotting mushrooms should learn to leave something alone if there is any doubt about whether it is poison or not. There's nothing wrong with cultivating mushroom hunting and collecting as a hobby, but exercise some caution in the process.

Terrificli

This article points out a fact very well -- it can be difficult and sometimes almost impossible to tell the difference between a dandy, edible mushroom and one that is deadly poison. For that reason, leave such identifications up to the experts. Confine your hunting to your local market and you'll be fine.

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