Here I (Dr. Gordon Walker) do my best to sum up the answers to many of the questions I get asked on a regular basis via social media. Hopefully this will be resource for you, but please give me feedback on the the links and information presented here.
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Welcome to Fascinated By Fungi FAQs:
Q: I am interested in fungi/foraging, how do I learn more?
A: There are tons of online resources specific to mushrooms. The Internet is often the easiest and quickest way to access information and pictures. However, be wary of your search results as the internet is also full of misinformation. Searching by the scientific (Latin) name will usually yield better information than just searching common names along (although this is a good starting point to figure out the scientific name). It is important to find well curated resources when searching online; further down I post links to some of my favorite sites. Avoiding sites that are trying to sell you product (ie don't believe the hype).
Go register for an iNaturalist Account
Download the "iNaturalist" App or the companion app "Seek" by iNat (Mobile App store). You can also visit the iNaturalist.org website.
Q: What book(s) should I buy?
A: I rarely use books for ID purposes, instead I utilize online resources to get real time information about mushrooms and fungi. Many of the classic mushroom guide books have outdated names (DNA sequencing has led to a taxonomic revolution) and information concerning the mushrooms themselves. Plus, books are also expensive, bulky, and you can find most of the same information online for free.
Good books definitely do exist, but look for ones that have been published relatively recently (~5-10 years) and are specific in some way to your geographic area. Also, look for books with lots of color photographs, a picture is worth a 1000 words.
My favorite ID book for California/PNW is "Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast" by Noah Siegel and Christian Schwartz, published by Ten Speed Press.
An recent general overview is the "Mushrooms of North America" by the Audubon Society
Merlin Sheldrake's "Entangled Life" is an amazing combination of philosophy and science focusing on mushrooms, mycelium, and the complex role their play in nature, culture, and our past/future. All of it is spun together with tremendous eloquence, humor, and wisdom.
My favorite mushroom cookbook is "The Mushroom Hunters Kitchen" by Chad Hyatt. This book has some phenomenal recipes methods and shows you how to cook with a wide range of wild mushrooms.
One of my favorite foragers (and friends) @JessStarwood recently published a book which focuses on beginner edible mushrooms and how to prepare and preserve them through the eyes of a vegan. Her book "Mushroom Wanderland" is as beautiful as it is informative.
For a great overview of the staggering diversity of non-mushroom fungi, check out "The Hidden Kingdom of Fungi" by Keith Seifert, it's a very well written and intuitively organized book about all the hidden forms of fungal life that inhabit our world. This is what I've been reading Live on TikTok recently.
Fungi exhibit a wide spectrum of fascinating behaviors. Dr. Britt Bunyard's "The Lives of Fungi: A Natural History of Our Planet's Decomposers" is filled with incredible photos, illustrations, and descriptions of all the amazing forms and lifestyles that are present within the fungal kingdom.
For more book recommendations click here.
Q: Where do you find mushrooms?
A: Everywhere, once you start looking! Fungi are ubiquitous, although mushrooms (the fruiting bodies of the ever present but hidden mycelium) can be elusive. Generally you need moisture - going for a hike 1-3 days after a good heavy rain will often lead to fungal finds. Mushrooms degrade organic matter, forests are ideal, look up local tree species to understand where to find specific types of mushrooms.
If all else fails, just goto your local park after some rain and look at dead wood - something will be growing I promise you (maybe even slime molds!).
You can also use iNaturalist to help you scope out new nature spots, check to see where other people are observing the species you want to find.
Q: Slime Molds are fungi right? I mean mold is in the name right?!?
A: Slime Molds are in fact single celled eurkaryotes (similar to amoebas) that fuse together into a living "plasmodium" goo to consume organic matter and produce a "sporangia" fruiting body to disperse their spores. Although they are not mushrooms, they live in similar habitats, show up in similar conditions, reproduce by spore, and can be absolutely eye-catching (although often tiny).
Learn more about Slime Molds from @Sarah.Llyod.Tasmania
If you love tiny things, then you must also follow Allison Pollack @Marin_Mushrooms
Q: How can I determine edible from toxic?
A: There is no quick and easy answer to this question. The only way to definitively tell edible from toxic mushrooms is to learn each species individually. I know this seems daunting, but work on just understanding one mushroom at a time before trying to broadly understand all of them. There are no rules for "safe" mushrooms that don't have exceptions.
When you're first getting started its a good idea to pick up something, examine it from all angles, touch it, feel it, smell it, break it apart in your hands. To learn a mushroom you need to examine it closely to understand all the morphological features. No one person knows all of the mushrooms out there, but you can learn at least one every time you go out for a hike.
Get used to "keying" out mushrooms, recognizing certain features (see morphological chart below). Other common ID tools are spore prints (usually unnecessary but still cool), potassium hydroxide (KOH), iron salts, UV, and microscopy to examine spores and tissue.
Make sure you understand what toxic lookalikes exist for certain edible species. It crucial to be able to recognize the differences between edible mushrooms like Chanterelles vs. toxic mushrooms like Omphalotus (Jack O'Lanterns).
Educated yourself on some common toxic mushrooms like Amanitas, Galerinas, Inocybe, Lepiotas, Paxillus, Rubroboletus, Scleroderma, and more.
Q: Can I eat this?
A: This question makes me very nervous when people ask me this. I am not an expert - just an enthusiast. I can help people to the best of my abilities, but I never recommend people eat something they can't absolutely identify. I usually ask people to rephrase the question to "What is this?" because once you understand something, then you can concern yourself with it's edibility.
It's a good idea to err on the side of caution and just generally assume stuff is not edible unless you learn enough about it to consider eating it. Always be cautious with new species, cook well, and try a small piece to start.
NEVER EAT ANYTHING YOU CAN'T 100% IDENTIFY
Q: Do you eat wild mushrooms?
A: Yes I do and I love them! That being said, I have accumulated enough experience and knowledge to confidently recognize and identify wild mushrooms for consumption. I do my best to forage responsibly and act as a steward of nature, you should too.
Q: What is your favorite mushroom?
A: I have a very difficult time choosing a "favorite" mushroom, often my favorite mushroom is the one in front of me, or whatever is in season/one that I can find in abundance. There is a seasonality to mushrooms (just like fruit), I generally like to eat mushrooms that are in "season" as my favorite mushroom of the moment.
I realize this isn't necessarily a satisfying answer, so I made a Top 10 Favorite Edible Mushroom Countdown
I also did a whole podcast episode exploring my favorite mushrooms.
Q: Why do you "tap" the mushrooms?
A: When out mushroom hunting, you often find mushrooms in various states of maturity/decay. Tapping a mushroom is a quick way to judge the density of a mushroom. The more dense/solid sounding the mushroom, the better. More hollow sounding mushrooms are often infested with bugs or have matured past the point of wanting to harvest them as food.
Additionally, tapping a mushroom helps to dislodge dirt, forest litter, and critters (bugs, slugs, etc...). Tapping the mushroom can help disperse a significant amount of spores, never a bad thing if you are taking the mushroom out of it's environment and putting it in your basket. However, mushrooms are fully capable of spreading spores on their own. My primary reason for tapping mushrooms is not to release spores (despite what people say in the comments).
I wasn't aware of it until people on social media started comment on it, but tapping mushrooms produces some wonderful sounds. Each mushroom has it's own unique resonance. I love to listen to the range of sounds produced by different mushrooms, although boletes tend to provide the best "beats" of all. Much of the tapping I do is as intentional ASMR content.
Tapping a mushroom has also become a tool for engaging my audience. It is a simple way for me to interact with a mushroom that increases the number of comments a video will receive (mostly from people asking me why I tap mushrooms). The more comments I get, the more people see my videos. My hope is that people will read my captions and learn something from watching my educational content. It might seem annoying to some, but the truth is that tapping a mushroom is a fun and easy way to get more views and engagement.
Q: Should I "cut" or "pluck" mushrooms? Mushroom Ethics
A: This is an incredibly contentious questions in the mushroom community driven by a common misconception. The idea is that you should "cut" a mushroom from the ground instead of "plucking" it by hand. The assumption is that by cutting instead of plucking, the mycelium at the base of the mushroom is less disturbed. Thus, the less affected/damaged it is by human interference and will fruit better in the future. However, this is inherently not the case as demonstrated in multiple long-term studies (Egli, et al., 2006).
Please do not "pickshame" or "gatekeep" others for how they harvest their mushrooms. Your personal opinions do not outweigh the body of scientific literature. Recognize that animals have been plucking and eating mushrooms for literally millions of years (not cutting mushrooms with a knife) and they mushrooms are still thriving. There is even some evidence to suggest that plucking may actually be better for the mycelium because cutting leaves the base of the mushroom open for infection/invasion by pathogens.
Mushrooms are the temporary reproductive structure of the mycelium below, their purpose is to make spores to help the mycelium propagate over long distances. Harvesting a mushroom is like picking an apple off the tree, it does not kill the organism below. For ectomycorrhizal mushrooms like chanterelles and boletes/porcini, the mycelium lives down in the ground in association with the roots of the host tree. The mycelium sends up a small cord to the surface to form a mushroom. Regardless of how you harvest a mushroom, the mushrooms will fruit again in the same spot/area. Mushrooms fruit as a function of habitat, weather, and nutrient availability - not dependent on whether they were cut or plucked.
Sometimes I cut mushrooms because it keeps them cleaner, but plucking them is often easier and gives you a better look at the mushroom features. For some mushrooms like Amanitas and Matsutake, it is absolutely necessary to pick the entire mushroom for identification purposes. There are also some mushrooms that are buried too deep in the duff/ground to effectively be able to cut them out, meaning you have to pick/pull them out (think truffles). I do preferentially cut specific mushrooms off a cluster (if I'm not harvesting all of them) and I cut the growing edge off of polypores (like chicken of the woods) when harvesting to avoid disturbing the rest of the growth.
When I do pluck a mushroom, I make sure to trim the stem butts back into the hole I picked it from and to cover it back over with dirt/duff to preserve the mycelium below. I cannot emphasize this enough, try to leave the forest floor as undisturbed as possible. If you move duff to look for mushrooms, put it back. If you significantly disturb the forest floor while harvesting mushrooms, take a minute to cover your tracks. The way you harvest mushrooms does not make a difference, but the way you treat the forest definitely does.
Best practices dictates that you leave at least 25-50% of the edible mushrooms you come across out in the environment. Don't bother picking anything too old or too young, only pick what you need, and don't get greedy. Nature deserves it's fair shot at perpetuating itself. Make sure future harvests are plentiful for yourself an others by understanding and respecting the role of fungi in nature.
Here is a phenomenal article written by Damon Tighe on the "Ethics of Mushroom Foraging"
Q: Have you ever gotten sick from eating a mushroom?
A: No, I have not. I am generally very careful/cautious when trying a new mushroom. First, I get multiple confirmations on ID and make sure the mushroom fits all of the morphological and contextual clues. Then I cook a small sample of the mushroom thoroughly and try a small piece. I will then wait an hour or two before trying another small piece. If after 24 hours I do not experience any discomfort, I will consider eating more of this mushroom.
Beware that even mushrooms you have consumed before can cause GI issues. Always be aware of the potential risks and remember that the symptoms are going to be dose dependent. The more you eat of something, the more of a chance you could experience negative side effects (this goes for store bought mushrooms too). Experiment cautiously to learn what your body can handle.
Q: I have been told it is dangerous to touch mushrooms, is that true?
A. Despite what your Mom or well-intentioned relatives may have told you as a child - mushrooms are not inherently dangerous to touch (even the poisonous ones)! Generally the toxic compounds in mushrooms (like deadly amatoxins) cannot diffuse freely across your skin, making it safe to touch and handle almost all mushrooms. In general I am far more concerned about touching poisonous/toxic plants than mushrooms.
There is one example of a mushrooms found in Australia that could potentially harm you if touched, but what in Australia isn't trying to kill you?
Some people with sensitive skin can experience irritation (contact dermatitis) from touch certain types of slimy mushrooms like Slippery Jacks (Suillus) or the dark insides of Earthballs (Scleroderma). It is not necessary, but if you are prone to skin irritation, you can consider wearing gloves while out mushroom hunting (it does help keep your hands cleaner).
Q: I am worried that my pet (or myself) may have consumed a toxic mushroom, what can I do?
A: If this is an emergency, call the Poison Control Center.
Also consider joining this Facebook group: Poisons Help; Emergency Identification For Mushrooms & Plants
For non-emergency situations (like wondering if the mushroom on your lawn could hurt your dog) try joining other local mushroom groups or forums on Facebook and online.
Q: Where can I find/how do I recognize psychedelic mushrooms?
A: Generally I do not talk about Psilocybe species (pronounced Si-law-so-be) since they are not the focus on my account. I recognize the enormous potential benefits of entheogenic substances as a legitimate form of therapy. I sincerely hope that in the near future, there is a move towards legalization on a national level.
I cannot tell you more about finding or identifying Psilocybe species than you can find with a quick google search (stains blue and has dark purple spores). I do recommend caution when searching for Psilocybe species as they can be confused with deadly toxic mushrooms like Galerina and Inocybe species (different colored spores). You should never consume something you are not 100% sure of (having gotten multiple confirmations from different sources). The type of Psilocybe species you can find will depend on your local habitat, read up on what species occur where.
For cultivation, I believe it is legal to order spores to most states (except CA, GA, and ID). There are lots of good resources online for cultivation, check out the Shroomery.org community. There are many famous personalities that talk about entheogenic mushrooms, but I recommend avoiding anyone with a particular agenda (or those who are selling a product).
Psilocybe mushrooms are legal in Brazil, Peru, Jamaica, Bahamas, Nepal, Samoa, and the Netherlands (sclerotia not fruiting bodies). They have been partially decriminalized or are somewhat tolerated in Canada, Portugal, Italy and a few other countries. They have been decriminalized at the county level in a few select American cities (Oakland, Denver, Santa Cruz, Ann Arbor), but this is very different from Federal legalization. The passage of measure 109 in Oregon gives a pathway for the development of legal psilocybin assisted therapy, but this is a far cry from full legalization. Be wary of what you admit to in public or online, you never know who is watching.
Q: How do I get more involved in the mushroom community?
A: Join a local mycology club, they are present in some form or another almost everywhere (mycophiles unite!). Social media has also become an incredible tool for fostering community as well as sharing photos and information.
Best Resources (in my opinion) for Beginner Mushroom Hunters:
Go start an iNaturalist account: https://www.inaturalist.org/
iNat is a little bit like real-life Pokemon Go. You can upload photos of any living organism and often get a decent ID suggestion for the life form in question. For me it was the first app I started using regularly to identify, track, and scout for fungi. The mobile app leave a lot to be desired, but the desktop version of the website is quite advanced. Starting an account it easy, you'll be amazed how many things you can identify.
As a budding naturalist, you will be participating in "Citizen Science", giving you a chance to help scientists track the "phenology" (appearance and timing of natural events) of life in your area. I highly encourage everyone to try this app as it is a gateway to learning more about the natural world in your pocket.
Considering Starting a Mushroom Observer Account: https://mushroomobserver.org/
Mushroom Observer is more advanced than iNaturalist, usually it helps to know what a mushroom is already if you want to make a complete post. It is an incredible community, but too much work for me.
Read up on posts by Michael Kuo on MushroomExpert.com
Michael Kuo has probably the best curated private website of fungi and mushroom knowledge. We all bow down to Michael.
When I started getting obsessed with mushrooms in 2017 I was living in Hawkes Bay NZ. This New Zealand specific website really helped pin point local species and understand the ecology of the island.
I always recommend finding local resources as people around you will be finding similar fungi and can help with identification.
Other Great Mushroom Education Personalities:
Consider subscribing to great publications like Fungi Magazine
Mushroom Morphological Traits
Basidiomycetes vs Ascomycetes
Relatedness of Basidiomycetes
"Megaphylogeny resolves global patterns of mushroom evolution" Varga, et. al., NatureResearch, 2019
"Phylogenetic relationships and diversification across 5,284 mushroom-forming fungi One of the 245 analysed maximum-likelihood trees was randomly chosen and visualized. Trees were inferred from nrLSU, rpb2, ef1-a sequences with a phylogenomic backbone constraint of deep nodes. Branches are coloured by net diversification (speciation minus extinction) rate inferred in Bayesian Analysis of Macroevolutionary Mixtures (BAMM). Warmer colours denote a higher rate of diversification. Significant shifts in diversification rate are shown by triangles at nodes. Only shifts present on >50% of ten trees, with a Bayesian posterior probability >0.5 and a posterior odds ratio >5 are shown. See Supplementary Data 6 for detailed discussion of shifts. Reconstructed probabilities of ancestral plant hosts for order-level clades are shown as pie charts partitioned by the inferred ancestral probability for gymnosperm (green) and angiosperm host (black). Pie charts are given for the most recent common ancestors of each order plus backbone nodes within the Agaricales—for small orders see Supplementary Data 3. Inner and outer bars around the tree denote extant substrate preference (black, angiosperm; green, gymnosperm; grey, generalist) and the placement of species used for inferring the 650-gene phylogenomic backbone phylogeny. Geological time scale is indicated with grey/white concentric rings."