Edible and Poisonous Wild Mushrooms

Author’s Note: This article is not meant to encourage anyone to eat wild mushrooms. Ignorance and carelessness are the major reasons why people suffer poisoning and sometimes death.

Wild mushrooms have their particular growing season and are dependent on adequate soil moisture to develop. Many mycophagists (people who eat fungi such as mushrooms) know the yellow morel mushroom and look for it in the spring, but they never find it in the autumn, when most other species are appearing.

There are several types of common (true) morels in Door County. The black one is often the first to appear in late April and is frequently seen near conifer trees. It tends to have a more pointed top than the yellow variety. Some experts say that this species may cause digestive upset when eaten. 

The three types of morels that I have seen in Door County are black, yellow and half-free. Species names have changed over the years, and today, detailed study reveals that there are 19 DNA-defined species in North America, 14 of which are new. Some gray morels that we found one year are actually the immature fruiting bodies of the yellow species. 

Half-free morels, Morchella punctipes (mor-CHEL-la PUNK-ti-pees), are seldom seen and almost look like a type of Verpa species.

The false morel is irregularly wrinkled on the outside and partly solid on the inside. Photo by Charlotte Lukes.

True morels are hollow inside and have a distinct pattern of pits and ridges on the outside of the cap. False morels, in the Gyromitra (jy-row-ME-tra) family, are partly hollow and partly solid inside and have an uneven, contorted body without the deep pits and ridges. Some may have a toxin that contains monomethylhydrazine, which is a lethal component of rocket fuel. I’ve found these growing both in the spring and in the fall.

It’s best to eat mushrooms in moderation and not overindulge. Some friends shared in the 16 pounds of yellow morels we picked one day in May and gorged themselves. They got sick because mushrooms are not easy to digest in great quantities. And all edible mushrooms should be cooked and not eaten raw.

Golden chanterelle mushrooms have blunt gills that fork several times. Photo by Charlotte Lukes.

There are few other mushrooms of edible quality available until midsummer, when the golden chanterelle, Cantharellus cibarius (kan-tha-REL-us cy-BARE-ee-us), appears. This is a much-sought-after, fleshy mushroom that, when fresh, can have a faint apricot fragrance. It grows in soil, mostly in deciduous woodlands.

True chanterelles are deep egg-yolk yellow, not orange like the false chanterelle, Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca (hy-groh-for-OP-sis or-an-TY-i-ca). Most books list the false one as , but a recent text merely says it can cause problems for some people. The false one tends to grow on rotting wood and is a bit tough in texture.

Most of the good edible mushrooms begin to appear in late summer and early autumn, and a few grow after a spell of cold weather. I remember during the summer of 1992, when my late husband, Roy, and I constructed a tall fence around our large vegetable garden to keep deer out. We finished it in mid-June, and on Father’s Day, there was a killing frost that destroyed many of the tender plants.

Shaggy manes are edible only when they’re pure white inside. As spores develop, the mushroom begins to turn gray and then dissolves into black ink. Photo by Roy Lukes.

A week later, a heavy rain came, and then we saw shaggy mane and honey cap mushrooms in our woods. These two species never grow in midsummer – only during the cooler days of early September – but the extreme cold followed by rain brought these mushrooms into fruit at the end of June!

Mushrooms grow from mycelium in the ground or in dead or dying trees and do best with adequate moisture. Because they are dependent on nutrients from other sources – they have no chlorophyll to make their own food – they grow more abundantly when regular plants are finishing their season.

That’s why September and October seem to be the best times to find the greatest variety of mushrooms. Shaggy manes, Coprinus comatus (ko-PRY-nus ko-MAY-tus), are one of the easiest to identify. They grow in lawns and along roadsides from late August into October. Once thought to be , they are actually quite edible when thoroughly cooked. They give off a lot of water when fried; then the heat can be turned to low to allow them to brown slowly until they’re almost crisp. 

Giant puffballs are edible when they’re pure white inside and have an even texture to the flesh. Photo by Roy Lukes.

Puffball mushrooms come in several forms and sizes. The giant puffball, Calvatia gigantea (cal-VAY-she-a gy-GAN-tee-a), is the most familiar and one of the safest to cook and consume. There is no mushroom of that size and texture that is . It does not have any flavor, so adding some seasoning when frying it will help.

Oyster mushrooms have no stems and often grow in overlapping clusters on fallen hardwood trees. Photo by Charlotte Lukes.

Oyster mushrooms, Pleurotus ostreatus (plu-ROW-tus os-tree-A-tus), are sought by some because they’re easy to collect. They often grow in clusters on fallen hardwoods, so they’re easy to see. Like all vegetables, they must be eaten when they’re really fresh. Maggots and larvae of certain insects like to invade them as they become old.

Every species of the Entoloma (en-tow-LO-ma) genus is . One that we used to call the aborted Entoloma might actually be another species. It develops at the base of a tree or in soil near the tree and is merely a white, slightly round or misshapen growth. You would not even think of it as a mushroom.

This species was thought to be attacked by the mycelium of the honey cap to form the aborted growth, but now some scientists think it might be the honey cap that is being attacked by the Entoloma species. When fresh, these white globs are easy to harvest, but it is vital to make sure you are not picking a white Amanita species. 

Here is the deadliest mushroom in our county: the destroying angel, Amanita bisporigera. Photo by Roy Lukes.

Amanita mushrooms are called the aristocrats of the fungus world. They are stately, beautiful and quite distinctive, and some are the most lethal of all known mushrooms. Get to know all the  species in your location when collecting. Amanita bisporigera, the destroying angel, is deadly.

There are seven basic types of mushroom poisons. The Amanitas, plus a few other species, destroy the liver when digested. The painful result of eating them may last six to 10 days before you die of liver failure.

There is a large number of edible mushroom species that are part of a genus that also contains  members, and look-alikes can fool the inexperienced hunter. It’s best to go out with a local expert when learning about wild mushrooms and exploring various habitats.

Also invest in a good field guide for your part of the country that is up to date with the species and information about edible and  mushrooms. The recently republished Mushrooms of Northeast North America by George Barron shows New Edition on the cover and discusses mushrooms found from the Midwest to New England and parts of southern Canada.

Read your mushroom field guide right from page one to learn how to use the book and look for mushrooms. Identify the trees growing near the mushrooms you’re finding. Determine whether the fungi are growing in soil or on wood. Carefully examine every part of the mushroom to help you compare it to the text in the book, and never compare just the pictures. That is being careless and ignorant.Remember that there may be bold mushroom hunters and old mushroom hunters, but there are seldom any old, bold mushroom hunters!