I want to take a few minutes to explain why identifying your local mushrooms is important. Even if you have no desire to ever eat a wild mushroom, which I think is a travesty, there is still a few good reasons to go beyond simple avoidance.

And for all you sticklers out there, I know a “mushroom” is really called a “fruiting body”, but for sake of simplicity for the average reader, I will stick with the layman’s vernacular. 

These mushrooms popped up all over my neighborhood... but what were they?

These mushrooms popped up all over my neighborhood… but what were they?

Before I get into the reasons, let me give you some background:
We’ve been in our new neighborhood for a few weeks now, and last week it rained quite a bit. Within a few days, there were mushrooms popping up in many of our neighbors lawns. Now I never really dismiss mushrooms. I am kind of addicted to them. I like to try and identify mushrooms, and I absolutely love to find edible mushrooms. However, I am not a highly skilled mycologist. Yes, when comparing myself to the average man-on-the-street, I am smarter than your average bear pertaining to the topic of mycology. But I am not a Paul Stamets or David Arora (these are two famous and noted mycologists… two of my favorite mycologists, in fact… and I know it makes me a geek when I actually have “favorite” mycologists!).

Well, the ones I saw were large, mostly white, and gilled. While a number of mushrooms can make a person sick, very few mushrooms in North America are actually deadly; however, there are a few mushrooms fitting this description that are, indeed, deadly. This includes the Death Cap (Amanita phalloides) and the Destroying Angels (species including Amanita ocreata, A. verna, A. virosa, A. bisporigera). If a person is a beginning mushroom hunter, you should avoid eating any mushrooms that comes close to this description. If you are a mid-level, amateur mycologist (like me), then it is fun to identify them, but I would probably never eat this type of mushroom, just in case I am wrong. A seasoned mushroom hunter or a professional mycologist may feel comfortable eating a mushroom of this type, but even some of these people avoid eating them. There is not room for error with these mushrooms. This nice thing is that these mushrooms are easily avoided. And there are so many other edible mushrooms that are easily identified, that we are not missing out on much by avoiding mushrooms that may look like deadly species.

Well, I saw a few of these mushrooms, and I quickly realized they were not going to be easily identified without a little bit of work. I had a few guesses for species, but I wasn’t sure. But we had just moved here, and we had a lot of other things going on, and frankly, I just didn’t have the time to try and identify these mushrooms. But then I saw more of them, and then some more, and then even my wife was telling me about them popping up in the neighbors’ lawns. I started to reevaluate  the need to identify these mushrooms, and I came up with a few reasons why it could actually be more than just a personally interesting project.

First – I really just like to know the biology that is surrounding me. It was kind of bothering me to have this many mushrooms popping up around me when I didn’t know what they were.

Second – In a worst-case scenario, one of my children, one of my neighbors’ children, or even my dog, could end up taking a bite of one of these mushrooms. It would be very helpful to know how concerned I needed to be about these mushrooms surrounding me, my family, and my community.

Third – I will be working in a local ER in a few weeks. It is not uncommon for parents or babysitters to show up with a child who ate some mushrooms from the front yard. They often come in with the remnants of the mushroom cap. Since this is my local area, it would be good to have this information on hand to make a faster clinical decision.

Fourth – I had a great kids science project right in front of me. Every time we walked past these mushrooms, my two boys (age 5 and 6 years old) would ask if these were poisonous mushrooms or not. I kept telling them that since we didn’t know what they were, we have to assume they are poisonous for now.

A partial Fairy Ring.

A partial Fairy Ring.

Once I decided to try and identify these mushrooms, I had to gather some information. I grabbed my boys, and we went for some collections of data and specimens. We found this partial ring of mushrooms growing a few houses away. This ringed pattern is sometimes a full circle, and it is called a Fairy or Elf Ring/Circle. After reading The Chronicles of Narnia and The Hobbit with my kids at bedtime, by boys loved that name!

I took photos of mushrooms at various ages of development, from just popping through the soil to very mature. (see the photos that follow)

Young unidentified mushrooms.

Young unidentified mushrooms.

False Parasol Chlorophyllum molybdites

Prime Unidentified Mushroom

False Parasol Chlorophyllum molybdites

Another photo of the same specimen from above, showing the gills and the firmly attached ring (annulus).

False Parasol Chlorophyllum molybdites

A mature specimen of our unidentified mushroom. 

We returned to the house with a number of photos and a few specimens. After really examining these mushrooms, I had already narrowed down the list in my head, but I was still not certain. I took about 10 minutes, and gave my boys a little science lesson on the parts and life cycle of mushrooms. They really got into it, and they can still name all the parts to a mushroom (fruiting body) – they were looking over my shoulder as I wrote this and pointed them out to me!

All my books are still being shipped from the Azores, including all my mushroom and mycology books, so I used the MycoKeys Online Morphing Mushroom Identifier. This is a really useful tool, and is pretty simple to use.

With the information I had gathered so far, I had narrowed down the choices to two likely species. The first was the highly edible Parasol Mushroom (Macrolepiota procera) or the False Parasol (Chlorophyllum molybdites) which is not deadly, but definitely poisonous causing severe abdominal pain, diarrhea, and vomiting. The False Parasol is responsible for the most mushroom poisonings in the United States each year. But how do we tell them apart?

The answer is a Spore Print. This is a very simple project, and my kids were fascinated by it. The spores produced by a mushroom will drop from the gills under the cap. Each individual spore is way too small to be seen by the naked eye, but if there are enough of them in one spot, we can determine the color of the spores. The fallen spores will leave a pattern that is unique to that species and individual specimen, just like a fingerprint. A mature cap (I used the one pictured above), with the stalk (stem) removed, is placed on a piece of paper. Putting the cap on a half sheet of black and a half sheet of white paper will ensure the spores can be seen if the spores are all white or black. The cap is left for at least a few hours, but it is best to leave it overnight. I had a very mature mushroom, and my kids were impatient, so after about three hours we checked on our print.

A beautiful spore sprint!

A beautiful spore sprint!
I put half of the cap back on top to show both the cap and spore print in one photograph.

The spore print was a nice, pale green, and this clinched our identification. Our mushroom was the False Parasol (Chlorophyllum molybdites). My kids now know that these mushrooms are poisonous. I am relieved they are not deadly. I have a bit more confidence in my mushroom identification skills. My kids had a fun time without even realizing they were learning… which is how education should be! And I got to know some of my mycological neighbors.

But, if I am honest, I was a bit bummed they weren’t edible!


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Photo References: All photos are mine. If you would like to use them, please let me know!