Tag: fungi

automated picture recognition on the Danish Fungal Atlas

New mushroom identification by photo recognition web site and app – impressive results!

There have been several mushroom identification apps / web sites around for a while. Some are:

  • Digital versions of an established key – for example the key in Roger Phillips’ Mushrooms book moved to a web site and an app with photos and descriptions. Roger’s app was around for many years but has disappeared.
  • Visual keys. The MycoKey MMI ® (Morphing Mushroom Identifier) is a great example. It is described as an innovative identification tool which models your fungus on screen as you enter the characters with automatic presentation of the most likely species. A more detailed version of MycoKey to install on your PC is also sold.
  • This category of mushroom identification apps perform identification based on a picture you take or upload. There have been apps before that have claimed to identify them from a photo alone, but experts have dismissed some as “potentially deadly“. You know that one random example of a particular mushroom species you encounter can differ from that wonderful specimen in a book . How young or old the specimen is, what the weather has been doing – washing out colours etc. all means this is a big ask.

A new web site / app takes mushroom photo recognition to a new level. In this blog post we try it out. Overall, I am very impressed. Yes, it needs to be used with caution and a good level of knowledge and use of several books is still wise. Might we make those numerous forum posts / emails – “I picked this, can I eat it?” a thing of the past? For more on mushroom identification look at this previous blog post of ours.

New Danish Website and App

This Danish website’s new tool and related app uses automated picture recognition and artificial intelligence (AI). It was trained on images from the excellent Danish Fungal Atlas. The system has been developed by Milan Šulc og Professor Jiri Matas from Czech Technical University in Prague (CTU), Lukáš Picek from University of West Bohemia (UWB) and the Danish Fungal Atlas. The latter group includes the respected Danish fungi authors of an amazing set of fungi books I am contemplating (Fungi of Temperate Europe (2-Volume Set) usually £94.99!).

Warnings

The authors strongly warn that you should “be extra critical and always consult a good mushroom book”, warning:

Warning: Never eat a mushroom because the system indicates you have found an edible fungus. Always seek advice from experts if you are not experienced yourself.

and

Note that the system should be used with great care, and not as tool to identify edible fungi without involving knowledgeable humans with experience in fungal recognition. So please explore with curiosity and sanity.

If users do follow the advice then great, I am concerned that they all won’t.

Tests

I installed and had a quick play with the Android version of the app (Danmarks svampeatlas). It has plenty of disclaimers about not eating them based on the identification. As expected, you take a photo and it gives you suggestions. You can then drill-down into each to see photos and description. At the time of writing it is still partly in Danish including the species names.

Far better, for now at least, is the web version of the same – https://svampe.databasen.org/imagevision

Upload a photo and it gives you suggestions. The species names are English, though not always the same common name as we widely use in the UK. You can drill down for their photo and details but that is in Danish, but along side several fungi books it’s very useable.

automated picture recognition on the Danish Fungal Atlas
Screenshot from the web version of the automated picture recognition on the Danish Fungal Atlas website. My uploaded Jelly Ear photo suggests a range of options, the first one being correct.

 

automated picture recognition on the Danish Fungal Atlas
Drilling down on the first suggestion gives their image and description, but in Danish.

Results

I did some tests with some of my many mushroom photos, edible, poisonous and non-edible species. Most identifications were correct (first species suggested) but of course will depend upon your photos / specimen:

Correct Species

  • Fly Agaric
  • Death Cap
  • Candle snuff
  • Parrot Waxcap
  • Scarlet Hood
  • Bay Bolete
  • Parasol (photo from underneath!)
  • Dryads Saddle
  • Field mushroom (picked specimen on its side)
  • Scarlet Elf Cups
  • Cauliflower Fungus
  • Chanterelles
  • Stinkhorn (even though the top was covered in flies!)
  • Bearded Tooth
  • Collared Earthstar
  • Scarlet Caterpillarclub
  • White Spindles

Correct to Genus (Group)

  • Royal Bolete
  • Holly Parachute Mushroom
  • Oak Bolete

Wrong Species and Genus

  • Sandy stilt puffball
  • Snowy Waxcap

I did try and push it a bit further (it’s a bit addictive!) and interestingly:

  • An icing Fly Agaric of my 50th birthday cake was correctly identified!
  • It identified Hedgehog mushrooms in a basket of them and Autumn Chanterelle (they were in separate groups).
  • Unsurprisingly, it failed on a very mixed basket.
Fairy Ring Champignon (edible) and Fool's Funnel (poisonous)

Avoiding Mushroom Poisoning

Mushroom poisoning can be life-threatening. If someone has eaten a poisonous mushroom (or plant), don’t try to treat them yourself – seek medical help immediately.

If someone has accidentally consumed poisonous mushroom, please see this information at the end of the blog post.


Disclaimer. I do not have a medical background so this blog post is purely for information and should not be relied on to decide if you require treatment or not.

This is written from a UK perspective and ignores poisonous species not found in the UK. It does not give detailed identification information.

Introduction

When I tell people that I pick and eat wild mushrooms, the usual reaction is to tell me that I'm brave. This fear of mushrooms, “mycophobia” is prevalent among British, the main concern being some mushrooms are poisonous if eaten. Mushroom poisoning means harmful consequences from consuming toxic substances present in some. Let’s put some perspective on this:

  • Globally, of 100,000 known fungi species about 100 are thought to be poisonous to humans.
  • In the UK, we have about 4500 species. Of these, about 200 are edible, 50 poisonous and the rest are inedible or tasteless.
  • Most mushroom poisonings are not fatal.
  • Fatalities are extremely rare, the most recent deaths from mushroom poisoning in Britain were in 2012 and 2008.
  • You will not be ill from touching a poisonous species. Don’t put your fingers in your mouth, nose, eyes etc and wash them before eating anything.

There are mainly five explanations as to why people get mushroom poisoning:

  1. Misidentification – confusing a toxic mushroom with an edible species. Usually this is due to mistakenly eating a “look-a-like” with a similar appearance or a lack of knowledge
  2. Consuming certain species while uncooked or undercooked.
  3. Young children accidentally ingesting mushrooms while crawling on a lawn.
  4. Individuals attempting suicide or homicide.
  5. Individuals looking for a hallucinatory high.

In this post we concentrate on the first two reasons and help foragers avoid mushroom poisoning. We don’t want to put you off. By limiting yourself to species you can identify with confidence, eating picking and wild mushrooms is safer than walking down the road. Mushroom hunting is one of the greatest pleasures the countryside offers. The fact that many are poisonous, in my view, adds to, rather than detracts from the fun!

Avoiding Mushroom Poisoning

  • NEVER eat any fungus if you are not absolutely sure of its name and you know that it is safe to eat.
  • Familiarise yourself with the poisonous species such as the Death Cap and the Yellow Stainer.
  • Avoid picking young specimens, that have not developed fully, as they are more difficult to identify.
  • Stick to a selection of easy to recognise species that you feel confident about. Be aware of any possible “look-a-likes”.
  • Learn from a good field guide or, better still, by going out with an expert. We run day long fungus forays and 3 hour fungus walks with our focus on teaching identification skills. See also our blog post on Identifying Mushrooms.

We recommend you avoid:

  • Small brown mushrooms (except Autumn Chanterelles (Craterellus tubaeformis)).
  • Any mushroom with red on it.
  • All Amanitas - mushrooms with white gills, a swollen base or bag at the base of the stem and, usually, a large ring on the stem.
  • Any mushroom with brown spores.
  • Young mushrooms that are still at the “egg” stage. They are very difficult to identify. If eating Puffballs, cut them in half lengthwise. Young Puffballs in the edible stage have undifferentiated white flesh within; whereas the gills of immature Amanita mushrooms can be seen if they are closely examined.
Destroying Angel
Young mushrooms that are still at the “egg” stage are very difficult to identify. They are actually deadly poisonous Destroying Angels (Amanita genus) though could be confused with Puffballs.

In a bit more detail:

  1. Unfamiliar Species: Check and re-check your identification, especially looking out for a similar poisonous species. If still in doubt, ask an expert or throw it away.
  2. Examine each specimen. Always check each specimen in case a different species has got in amongst your collection of edible ones.
  3. Keep your collections separate. Do not mix edible and non-edible species in your basket if you are collecting for the pot. It is a good idea if collecting for the pot to only collect edible species and not other species for identification purposes - the spores of some species can be deadly.
  4. Check the spore print. A simple operation, leaving a cap on some paper and covering for an hour or so. This will help check your identification.
  5. Do not eat raw wild fungi. Some wild fungi are poisonous if eaten raw, e.g. Morels (Morchella species) Wood Blewit (Clitocybe nuda), the Blusher, (Amanita rubescens) or species of Helvella. Always cook your collections. Heat destroys the toxins in these species, in the same way that it does for Kidney beans.
  6. Retain an uncooked specimen. This is a very sensible idea. Keep one example of what you have eaten in the fridge. In case, you do poison yourself, this will help others identify what you have eaten and therefore know how to treat you. Different species contain different toxins; therefore, treatments will vary.
  7. Only eat good specimens. Many poisoning cases occur when edible species are eaten in poor condition – decaying / dirt. Only eat good specimens - microscopic fungi and bacterial infection can occur in decaying mushrooms. Food poisoning can be caused by collecting old or partly rotten specimens, collecting in plastic bags or closed containers, or through spoilage by incorrect long-term storage.
  8. Keep your collections in the fridge. This keeps your specimens in good condition.
  9. Experimenting. If experimenting and eating a type for the first time, only eat a small amount. Different people react to fungi in different ways and it is safer to test your own body out gently! A classic cause of gastric upset is Chicken of The Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus). Roughly 9/10 people get on with it, but about 1 in 10 is ill from it.
  10. Alcohol. Avoid drinking alcohol with species you haven't eaten before and with certain species, e.g. the Common Ink Cap (Coprinus atramentarius)
  11. Fear. Do not feed wild mushrooms to people who don't want to eat them. Fear can make people sick.
  12. Susceptible people. Do not serve wild fungi to young children, old or sick people. Their resistance to mushroom toxins may be lower.
  13. Greed. Do not eat large quantities of wild mushrooms in one sitting. This alone can make you sick.

Source: How to avoid mushroom poisoning (adapted from Shelley Evans' guidelines in Guides for the Amateur Mycologist - No.4 Guide for the Kitchen Collector: Preservation and Cooking of Fungi. British Mycological Society, 1994)

Types of Mushroom Poisoning

Each poisonous mushroom species contains one or more toxins, which may be classified based on the mushroom’s physiologic and clinical effects in humans, the target organ toxicity, and the time to symptom onset. The clinical spectrum and toxicity vary with the following factors:

  • Species consumed
  • Amount consumed
  • Season
  • Preparation method
  • Individual response to the toxins

A. Rapid Onset Mushroom Poisoning

With this category, symptoms appear within 6 hours of eating a mushroom. These are usually are not life-threatening; they may last a few hours, occasionally a few days. There are five basic types of rapid-onset mushroom poisonings.

1. Gastrointestinal

Species involved: Various

The most common type of rapid onset mushroom poisoning is usually gastrointestinal upset - vomiting and diarrhoea. Typically, there is no long-term damage. It is recommended that medical assistance should still be sought if this type of poisoning is suspected particularly in the case of children.

2. Alcohol Sensitisation

Species involved: Common Ink Cap (Coprinus atramentarius)

 

Common ink cap
Common Ink Cap (poisonous with alcohol)

These mushrooms contain the toxin coprine, which causes an Antabuse-like reaction. Antabuse is a drug given to alcoholics to make them sick if they drink alcohol. Symptoms begin within minutes of ingesting alcohol (including medications) up to 5 days after eating the mushroom.

3. PSL (perspiration/salivation/lacrimation) syndrome

Species involved: Species of the Fibre Cap (Inocybe) and Clitocybe genuses.

Mistaken Species: Fool’s Funnel (Clitocybe rivulosa) and Deadly Fibrecap (Inocybe erubescens) have both been confused with:

Fool's Funnels have been confused with Fairy Ring Champignon (Marasmius oreades) and The Miller (Clitopilus prunulus).

Fairy Ring Champignon (edible) and Fool's Funnel (poisonous)
Fairy Ring Champignon (left) (edible) and Fool's Funnel (right) (poisonous)

The toxic substance is muscarine. Symptoms may include sweating, dizziness, muscle twitching, confusion, coma and occasionally seizures. With treatment nearly all people recover in 24 hours. Without treatment, death can occur in a few hours with severe poisoning. One fatality was recorded in Surrey in 1937.

4. Hallucinations

Species involved: Often in the Psilocybe genus, for example Magic Mushrooms (Psilocybe semilanceata)

A group of psilocybe semilanceata , better known as Liberty Caps ("Magic Mushrooms"), in Belgium (Flanders) by DimiVeBE is licensed under CC BY 3.0

Symptoms are delusions, euphoria or anxiety, altered space and time, and occasionally seizures, especially in children. These symptoms go away without treatment, and serious consequences are rare, so specific treatment is usually not needed.

5. Intoxication/delirium

Species involved: Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) and Panther Cap (Amanita pantherina).

Foragers enjoy looking at fungi too, such as these magnificent Fly Agaric.
Fly Agaric (poisonous)

They may be eaten intentionally or accidentally by humans and pets and should be suspected whenever the victim is described as "acting drunk”. The toxins are ibotenic acid/muscimol. Symptoms may include apparent intoxication, in-coordination, hyperactivity, muscle spasms, collapse, anxiety, visions, and finally, a coma-like sleep. Fly Agaric has been used ritually for thousands of years as an inebriant.

B. Delayed Onset Mushroom Poisoning

These are life-threatening, late-onset poisonings, where symptoms appear over 6 hours after ingestion. The results are organ failure potentially resulting in death. Serious symptoms do not always occur immediately after eating, often not until the toxin attacks the kidney or liver, sometimes days or weeks later. The types are based on the symptoms resulting from the toxin in the mushrooms consumed.

1. Gastrointestinal/headache/liver damage

Species involved: False Morel (Gyromitra esculenta)

False Morel (poisonous). I got the photo from a library where they are free for commercial use. The photograph description said "Morels" - I hope the photographer didn't eat them!

Mistaken Species: False Morels have been confused with the highly prized mushrooms Morels (Morchella species).

Morels
Morels (edible)

The toxin involved is monomethylhydrazine (MMH). Symptoms are delayed vomiting, diarrhoea and a low blood sugar level. Other problems include brain toxicity (such as seizures) and, after a few days, liver and kidney failure. While not 100% confirmed, a lady died and 18 people were taken ill following eating a dish containing Morels in a restaurant in Valencia, Spain. Initial blame pointed to the Morels.

2. Gastrointestinal/liver damage

Species involved: Death Cap (Amanita phalloides), Destroying Angel (Amanita virosa), Funeral Bell (Galerina marginata) and Dapperlings (Lepiota species)

The toxins involved are amatoxins. The first two species listed below are both members of the Amanita genus. While there are some edible members of this genus, our advice for beginners is to avoid them all. Another point is that young specimens of Amanitas at an immature or “egg” stage look completely different and are easy to confuse with other species. With the stem not developed and no cap yet, the mushroom is still entirely encased in their universal veil and you won’t be able to identify them with any confidence.

Death Cap (Amanita phalloides)

Death Cap (poisonous).

The Death Cap is the most dangerous and poisonous mushroom, responsible for 90–95% of fatal mushroom poisonings globally. Just one mushroom is likely to contain enough toxins to kill an average adult human. The toxins are not destroyed by cooking, boiling, soaking, or drying. It is widely distributed in Europe and has spread to Australia, Asia, Southern Africa, and the Americas on the roots of imported trees. I see it in the UK about 3 or 4 times each year. It is reported as being palatable (tasty).

There is no complete antidote for Death Cap mushroom poisoning – survival depends on early diagnosis and treatment. Vomiting and diarrhoea start in 6 to 12 hours. Sometimes the blood sugar level drops dangerously low. Symptoms subside for a few days, but then people develop liver failure and sometimes kidney failure. Liver failure causes the skin to turn yellow (jaundice). People with kidney failure may have reduced urination or may have stopped urinating. Sometimes the symptoms disappear on their own, but about half of the people who have this type of poisoning die in 5 to 8 days. People with liver failure may survive if given a liver transplant. IN 2018, a lady in Essex was hospitalised after eating Death Caps. She survived.

Death Caps have been mistaken for other species, especially when immature, even by people with some experience in identifying mushrooms. A proportion of the fatalities from consuming Death Caps are cases where people have been used to picking and eating edible Amanita in their home country and have then moved to a different country and picked and consumed Death Caps by mistake. These include the Thai lady that died on the Isle of Wight from eating Death Caps. Also, unfortunately, in 2 weeks in September 2015, there were over 40 cases of mushroom poisoning in Germany, where refugees from other countries confused Death Caps with edible Amanita species.

Mistaken Species:

Destroying Angel (Amanita virosa)

This is another member of the Amanita genus which contains the same toxins as the Death Cap.

Destroying Angel (poisonous)
Destroying Angel (poisonous)

Read here someone's experience of nearly dying after eating Destroying Angels.

Mistaken Species:

The Dapperlings (Lepiota species)

Stinking Dapperling (suspected of being poisonous), other Dapperlings are poisonous

Mistaken Species:

3. Kidney, later liver damage.

Species involved: Fool’s Web Cap (Cortinarius orellanus) and Deadly Webcap (Cortinarius rubellus)

Deadly Webcap
Deadly Webcap (poisonous)

Mistaken Species:

The toxin involved is orellanine. Vomiting and diarrhoea may last for 3 days. Kidney failure, with symptoms of flank pain and a decreased amount of urine, may occur 3 to 20 days after the mushrooms are eaten. Kidney failure often resolves spontaneously.

In the UK, there are cases of these being accidentally consumed leading to kidney failure including holiday makers in Scotland in 1972 as well as Nicholas Evans, author of The Horse Whisperer, his wife and two other relatives. Evans had assumed they were Ceps but overlooked that the mushrooms had gills rather than pores. All four victims were informed that they would require kidney transplants in the future. Several years later, Evans received a kidney donated by his daughter. The other three eventually received transplants after some searching for donors, despite Charlotte having only eaten three mouthfuls of mushroom.


What to do in the case of accidentally consuming a poisonous mushroom

Adapted from NHS poisoning treatment information. Numbers / links are for UK residents.

Being poisoned can be life-threatening. If someone has eaten a poisonous mushroom (or plant), don’t try to treat them yourself – seek medical help immediately.

If they’re showing signs of being seriously ill, dial 999 to request an ambulance or take them to your local A&E department.

Symptoms associated with serious poisoning include:

Call NHS 111 for advice if a person who’s been poisoned doesn’t appear to be seriously ill.

Helping someone who’s conscious

If you think someone has been severely poisoned and they’re still conscious, ask them to sit still and stay with them while you wait for medical help to arrive.

If they’ve been poisoned by eating a mushroom, try to get them to spit out anything that is remaining in their mouth.

Helping someone who is unconscious

If you think someone has eaten a poisonous mushroom and they appear to be unconscious, try to wake them and encourage them to spit out anything left in their mouth. Don’t put your hand into their mouth and don’t try to make them sick.

While you’re waiting for medical help to arrive, lie the person on their side with a cushion behind their back and their upper leg pulled slightly forward, so they don’t fall on their face or roll backwards. This is known as the recovery position.

Wipe any vomit away from their mouth and keep their head pointing down, to allow any vomit to escape without them breathing it in or swallowing it. Don’t give them anything to eat or drink.

If the person isn’t breathing or their heart has stopped, begin CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) if you know how to.

How to help medical staff

Medical staff will need to take a detailed history to effectively treat a person who’s been poisoned. When the paramedics arrive or when you arrive at A&E, give them as much information as you can, including:

  • What mushroom you think the person may have eaten.
  • When the mushroom was eaten (how long ago)?
  • If it was cooked.
  • How much was eaten (if you know)?
  • Any alcohol consumed?
  • Had the patient consumed this mushroom before?
  • Is a specimen of the mushroom available?
  • Is a photograph of the mushroom available?
  • How long after ingestion did symptoms begin?
  • Details of any symptoms the person has had, such as whether they’ve been sick.

Take a sample of the mushroom and photographs with you for accurate identification. If there is any of the food left over take a sample of that too.

Medical staff may also want to know:

  • the person’s age and estimated weight
  • whether they have any existing medical conditions
  • whether they’re taking any medication (if you know)

There is an excellent Facebook group Poisons Help; Emergency Identification For Mushrooms & Plants. If you can post pictures of the mushroom (or plant) and give your geographic location (e.g. Dorset / UK) you will get a rapid identification from extremely knowledgeable people around the globe.

Slug nibbled Fly Agaric

Mushroom Identification

The below great quote on mushroom identification is saying that there is no easy way of telling poisonous from edible species.

“A toadstool has a cap and a stem and you can’t eat it; a mushroom has a cap and a stem and you can”.

If you want to pick and eat wild mushrooms, the way to avoid risk is to learn the physical features of each species. If globally, people that pick and eat mushrooms recognised 10 of the most poisonous mushrooms,  the incidences of mushroom poisoning would decrease dramatically.

In the UK there are c. 4500 species of mushroom. Even experts can have difficulty identifying some species. For some complicated ones, identification of spores under microscopes or the use of chemical reagents are required. However, with the right approach and some practice, even without such techniques, you should be able to identify a good number of species of fungi.

1. Dangerous Myths

The first lesson is that there are no shortcuts to identifying a mushroom. There are lots of old wives’ tales and myths about safe eating of mushrooms. They are all misleading and dangerous.

Slug nibbled Fly Agaric
Slugs can happily nibble this Fly Agaric. To humans, symptoms from eating it may include apparent intoxication, incoordination, hyperactivity, muscle spasms, collapse, anxiety, visions, and finally, a coma-like sleep!

 

  • I saw a slug / squirrel / deer / rabbit eating it so it must be safe. False
  • If the cap can be peeled it is safe to eat. False
  • Poisonous mushrooms turn a silver spoon / copper coin blue / black. False
  • If silver and copper coins boiled with them don’t change colour, they are safe to eat. False
  • All mushrooms growing on wood are edible. False
  • All mushrooms in meadows and pastures are safe to eat. False
  • All white mushrooms are safe. False
  • Poisonous mushrooms taste bad. False

 

2. Apps can be dangerous

Don’t rely on an app designed to identify mushrooms in the wild using just a smartphone photo. A recent newspaper headline read “Experts Call This Mushroom-Identifying App ‘Potentially Deadly‘”. There are some mushroom apps that are helpful however, see below.

 

3. Books

Mushroom books are great, I have quite a few and could happily buy many more. You can see some of our favourites here. They should be taken outdoors with you to use and not just left on the shelf. Yes, they’ll get wet or dirty, but they are invaluable in the field for correct mushroom identification. However, they need to be used correctly, just thumbing through pictures in a book is unlikely to work.

 

4. The correct process of mushroom identification

There are 4 stages to identify an unknown mushroom – observation, examination, using a key and finally, checking the answer.

a. Observation

You start WITHOUT YOUR BOOKS / APP – with observation about the surroundings of the fungus you are trying to identify:

  • What sort of habitat are you in?
  • What species are the nearest trees?
  • How it is growing? in rings? Singly? in clusters?
  • What is it growing on? Wood (if so what type of tree)? the ground? Dung? Other fungi? Woodchip?
Parasol
Observations about the surroundings: this fungus has been found in grasslands, there are no trees near to it, it is one of a number in a circle and was growing on the ground.

b. Examination

Examine the specimen studying as many fine details as you can think of. Look at specimens in at least two stages of development. This is because they can vary in colour and shape depending on the stage of growth and maturity. The weather will make a difference too; rain will wash-out the colours and make a normally dry cap wet or sticky.

Always gently lever unknown mushrooms out of the ground and handle them with care. This will preserve important characters for identification.

This image shows some of the different structures found under the cap, gill attachment options and cap shapes.

“Mushroom cap morphology” by debivort is licensed under CC BY 3.0

Examine:

  • The cap – size, colour, shape (see above image), stickiness, scales etc.
  • What is under the cap? (see above image) gills, pores or spines/teeth
  • If it has gills, are they crowded or closely spaced ? (see above image) Are they attached to the stem or free? Do they run down the stem (decurrent)? etc.
  • Is there a ring on the stem? what is it like?
  • What is the stem like? Thickness, flexibility etc.
  • What is the base of the stem like?
  • Is there a colour change on cutting or bruising?
  • Does it have a smell?
  • What colour are the spores? In the field you may be able to determine this by seeing where they have dropped onto the cap of another specimen or on the grass / leaf / log below. Often, but not always, the spores are the same colour as the gills. The ideal approach for a definitive answer is to take it home to make a spore print.
Making a spore print

A spore print shows the colour of the spores of any given mushroom. To make one is very straightforward:

• Cut off the stem.
• Place the cap (gills downward) on a piece of paper.
• Leave the cap in place for a few hours.

There are many spore colours including white, cream, pink, purple, brown and black. If you wish to keep the spore print, you can "fix" them with spray glue or hairspray or laminate them.
Mushroom Spore Prints
A selection of spore prints.
Under a Parasol Mushroom
Examination of this mushroom (the same species as in section a above): • Cap – 12 cm across. Mainly white with large brown scales. Centre of cap brown and slightly raised. Not sticky. • Gills are crowded (not close together) and are not attached to the stem. • Large double ring with frayed margin. The ring can slide up and down the stem. • Stem – about 1.5 cm diameter and 14 cm long, thickening towards base, brown and white pattern a bit like a snake’s skin. Stem does not snap if bent. • No colour change on cutting or bruising. • Smell not distinctive. • Spores are white or pale cream.

 

c. Use a key to find out what it is

Keys are an easy to use, valuable tool that are not just used for mushrooms but also for wider species identification (plants, dragonflies, shells etc). The standard approach is to ask questions based on easily identifiable features. Dichotomous keys use questions to which there are only two answers. For example, “Is the cap bigger than 5 cm?”. The key can be presented as a table of questions, or as a branching tree of questions with one answer leading you to the next question. They will include some technical terms but the book will have a glossary to explain them. Some keys will get you to species level, others to the genus. Here is an a short extract from MushroomExpert.Com’s Key to Major Groups of Mushrooms

Question No.QuestionAnswer / Go to question
1.Mushroom growing on other mushrooms or the decayed remains of other mushrooms.Mycotrophs
1.Mushroom not growing on other mushrooms.2.
2.Mushroom with gills on its underside.3.
2.Gills absent.5.
3.Growing shelflike on wood (or, if not, then gills concentric rather than radial); mushroom very tough and leathery, corky, or woody (try tearing it in half); gills tough and hard, sometimes maze-like; cap frequently (but not always) with concentric zones of colour.
Polypores
3Not completely as above.4.

Another key approach is a visual one. The MycoKey MMI ® (Morphing Mushroom Identifier) is a great example. It is described as an innovative identification tool which models your fungus on screen as you enter the characters with automatic presentation of the most likely species. A more detailed version of MycoKey to install on your PC is also sold.

MycoKey

Most mushroom books have a key, people are often unaware that they are in the book or haven’t used them. There are some good App keys too, some being a computerised version of a book’s key. Note that any key will only include the species in that book, not all that you may encounter. For example, one popular mushroom book contains about 100 species of the 4500 or so found in the UK.

Identifying mushrooms can be difficult; individuals of the same species will vary with age and the weather, but a key makes the task a lot easier, far better than flicking though the pictures looking for one that looks right. Give them a go. We teach using keys on our courses and attendees soon get the hang of them, identifying many examples we find.

If you followed a key you would have worked out the the mushrooms shown in the observation and examination sections of this post is a Parasol Mushroom (Macrolepiota procera). MycoKey gives a number of possibilities and ranks how well they fit. You can then “drill-down” to read more about each suggestion.

Parasol Mushroom in MycoKey
Parasol Mushroom in MycoKey

 

d. Check the answer

Check the species that the key has led you to in as many books as you can. Use the pictures and the descriptions. Is every detail correct? Make sure that the descriptions, seasons, preferred habitats and the photographs all agree with each other. If it says only found in the Spring and it is Autumn, you are wrong. Similarly, if it says only found with Oak and you are in an area of just Pine trees, again you are wrong. They may mention “lookalike” species which are worth checking. An Internet search may help in finding more pictures – though there is no guarantee that any picture online is correctly labelled – I am aware of serious errors on reputable web sites!

If the answer given by your key is not like the mushroom your are trying to identify, revisit your key answers in particular any subjective answers like “small”, “bendy” or “sticky”.

One of my “go to” web sites for checking fungi identifications is First Nature. If you look at the entry there for Parasol Mushroom you can check the details of our identification.

 

Wood Blewitts

Wood Blewits

As I write this in late November you could be forgiven for thinking that most foraging opportunities are finished for the year but this is far from the truth. There are still some wild greens and fruit about and while most fungi finds are slowing up, with a frost or two already past, it becomes time to hunt for Wood Blewits. They can be found from September to January or February. While not as well known as other “top table” fungi like Ceps and Chanterelles, these are right up there for flavour and versatility and used to be sold in markets in this country.

Habitat

Many woodland fungi are mycorrhizal. This means that the mycelium (underground web of fibres making up the majority of the body of the fungus) grows on the roots of trees. It takes up water and nutrients to pass to the tree in exchange for sugars. Wood Blewits are saprophytes. They feed on dead or decaying organic matter such as leaf litter. The name suggests that they are only found in woodland, however, some of the best places I know are nice, old (unimproved) grasslands, including along the coast where agriculture is often less intense. Here they can be found growing in huge rings. They are also found under hedgerows (linear woodlands), in gardens (including mine occasionally!) and on road verges.

Ring of Wood Blewits in unimproved, coastal grasslands.

Identification

We strongly recommend you check identification with several books.

Wood Blewits are violet when young but become light brown / tan with age. I could identify one blind-folded due to their distinctive smell, described as floral, aromatic, sweet, perfumed or best of all, “frozen orange juice” according to one source!

You need to be very careful that you do not confuse them with some of the larger purple species of Cortinarius fungi which can be of a similar colour. The Wood Blewit has pink spores and all Cortinarius fungi have rusty brown spores. A spore print will confirm their colour.

Spore print showing brown spores. Produced by cutting the stem off, putting the cap on a piece of paper with a glass over it (to stop draughts), then waiting a few hours.
Spore print showing brown spores. Produced by cutting the stem off, putting the cap on a piece of paper with a glass over it (to stop draughts), then waiting a few hours. A darker piece of paper will help show lighter coloured spores (e.g. pink)

The genus name Cortinarius means “curtained”. A young specimen will have a “cortina” between the cap and the stem. A cortina in this case, is not the United Kingdom’s best-selling car of the 1970s, but a “veil”, a web of threads between the mushroom stem and cap. Remnants of it may be seen on older specimens.

Good view of the Cortina (veil).
Good view of the Cortina (veil) of a Cortinarius and brown dust of the spores sticking to the cortina and stem.

Another species that you will head off the path in pursuit of, thinking from a distance it is a Wood Blewit, is The Clouded Agaric. A closer inspection will reveal the lack of violet and the distinctive smell. As they make most people that eat them ill, you will soon learn to despise Clouded Agarics.

Preserving

As Wood Blewits can be found in good numbers they can be preserved for later consumption. While drying is an option, I usually fry them and then put the cooked mushrooms into freezer bags and the freezer with the amount I would need for a meal in each bag.

Wood Blewits can often be found in quantity.

Cooking

Wood Blewits must be cooked before consumption. Raw they can cause indigestion or stomach upsets. A minority of people find even thoroughly cooked Wood Blewits indigestible so it is recommended you should try a small amount the first time that you eat them to check they like you.

They can often have a lot of water in them so when you cook them, you may need to drain off any surplus liquid so you fry them and not boil them. They are very good sautéed and served with a range of meats or poultry. They can be one of a number of mushrooms in a risotto or pasta dish.

The good, the bad and the pretty – from a walk last week:

Good

Cauliflower Fungus
Cauliflower Fungus

One of my favourites, a Cauliflower fungus. Always found at the base of a coniferous tree. Compared to many mushrooms the preparation is hard work with woodlice, pine needles and leaf litter all found inside. Breaking into smaller pieces and washing under a running tap is the way to clean them. They have a lovely nutty flavour, the portion of this one that came home made a great curry.

Bad

Death Cap
Death Cap

I usually see Death Caps about 2 or 3 times each year. These are responsible for most mushroom deaths in Europe. It is a member of the Amanita genus with their characteristic ring and (not shown) the swollen base (Volva). Other family members include the Destroying Angel, Fly Agaric and Blusher. While one or two of the family can be eaten, the advice of many including me is to avoid all Amanitas. If you have any interest in eating mushrooms you should learn to recognise an Amanita. The Death Cap is found with a pretty wide range of trees including Oak, Beech, Birch and Pine. The toxic component damages the liver and kidneys and can be fatal.

Pretty

Stinking Dapperling / stinking parasol (Lepiota cristata)
Stinking Dapperling / stinking parasol (Lepiota cristata)

I wished I smelt this at the time – it apparently smells of burnt rubber. “Edibility suspect – avoid”.

If this post interests you, we have some places available on our full day fungus forays and our 3-4 hour fungus walks in The New Forest (by kind permission of The Forestry Commission) in October.

New Forest Fungi – Update August 2017

As fungi have made an early appearance this year, some foragers thoughts have turned to The New Forest and what will happen there after the events of last year. All has become clear in the last week or so and I thought I would summarise what happened last year and give the current position.

Last year (2016)

I wrote last year about the situation then, firstly here after the initial announcements and then here when things clarified. In summary, The Forestry Commission introduced a “no-picking” code for the New Forest SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) covering most of The New Forest – open forest, heathland, timber inclosures etc.

“Due to the growing concern from conservationists and very real fears from members of the community in the New Forest about the wide-scale harvesting of fungi, Forestry Commission feels it necessary to adopt a precautionary approach and can no longer support fungi picking on any scale on the New Forest Crown Lands (Site of Special Scientific Interest).”

Posters appeared in the car parks:

New Forest "No Picking sign
2016 New Forest “No Picking sign

The message was very clear as far as the public and most media were concerned there was a ban on mushroom picking in the New Forest. However, the Association of Foragers, Radio 4 and The Times pushed for facts and eventually the much needed real clarity was given by The Commission:

I’d like to reassure you that we are not seeking to prosecute individuals that are picking for themselves – it is not illegal. … Our main aim is to tackle commercial collection of fungi, which has always been prohibited – it is an offence under the Theft Act 1968 to do so without the permission of the landowner. .. also, in the case of persistent offenders, tools such as the Stop Notice may be issued.

There was no change to any laws or by-laws at all. However, the damage was done with fully legal permitted fungus forays being verbally abused and photographed by members of the public despite permits being shown. It is alleged that the Police were called to at least one incident.

This year (2017)

On 15th August the Forestry Commission (South England Forest District) distributed a news release:

More looking, no picking – protecting New Forest fungi

Autumn is usually the height of the growth cycle for mushrooms, but with the wet and warm weather we’ve experienced this August many fungi have already started to emerge. Fungi are essential to the New Forest ecosystem, so we are appealing to people to look, but please don’t pick.

The New Forest is a SSSI and an area of special beauty, highly designated for nature conservation. It is a stronghold for many rare species of fungi, some of which are yet to be identified. Protecting the New Forest’s world-renowned habitats and balancing the needs of visitors and nature is a complex mission.

The Deputy Surveyor for the Forestry Commission South District, Bruce Rothnie, said: “We want people to get out into the Forest to enjoy the signs of autumn, we just appeal to them not to pick fungi, respecting the natural environment of the New Forest and leaving fungi for everyone to admire.”

Certain fungi are edible and enjoyed by people, however, many aren’t palatable and several are poisonous. There are a wide range of approved educational forays on offer, where people can find out more about the incredible fungi that thrive here.

We are working with organisations and experts who can identify the characteristics of the huge varieties of fungi found in the New Forest and get more people interested and involved in the conservation of our rarest fungi.

Bruce added: “We’ve already approved a limited number of licensed educational foragers in the New Forest who can help interpret and raise awareness of the huge value of fungi. We continue to work with foragers to develop sustainable solutions for people to enjoy the benefits of foraging outside of the protected New Forest area.”

The campaign has the support of many local partners including; the New Forest National Park Authority, Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust and the National Trust.

Oliver Crosthwaite-Eyre, Chairman of the New Forest National Park Authority, said: “We are fully supportive of the Forestry Commission’s continuing work to stop fungi picking from the land that they manage in the New Forest. The New Forest Site of Special Scientific Interest is a stronghold for many rare and endangered species of fungi and it is important that we all do our bit to protect

them. By leaving fungi unpicked, we can all help conserve the Forest’s fragile ecosystem for everyone to appreciate.”

The Forestry Commission is not seeking to prosecute people that are picking small amounts of fungi for themselves (it is not illegal) we are appealing to people’s better nature and encouraging visitors to see the bigger picture. The aim is to prevent potential harm to the SSSI that is notified for its fungi.

You can support the Forestry Commission’s efforts by letting them know if you see any suspected commercial picking (which is an offence under the Theft Act 1968) by calling their 24 hour telephone line: 0300 067 4600.

For more information about fungi in the New Forest visit www.forestry.gov.uk/newforestfungi

There is more information on the above link and the related Q&A. This year’s posters and leaflets are changed:

2017 New Forest Fungi leaflet

Following the press release, an article appeared in The Bournemouth Echo calling for a complete ban on mushroom picking in The New Forest.

So, in summary, this year there is recognition that gathering small amounts of common fungi for personal consumption is legal (1968 Theft Act). Commercial collecting is, as it always has been, illegal and will be dealt with. Fungus forays and walks (such as ours), can continue to operate under permit and following strict guidelines. The Forest is a special place and one of the best places for fungi in Western Europe;  there are rare species of fungi, protected by law and they should not be picked or damaged. The Forestry Commission are asking you to look and not pick.

Fungi-filled fun

The fungi season has arrived a bit earlier than some years thanks to the combination of hot, dry weather in late June (it seems a long time ago) and then the cooler, wet weather since the kids broke up for the summer.  On Friday, I wrote in a Hedgerow Harvest Facebook post:

If you you’re a fungi fan change your plans for the weekend and head for your favourite fungi spots. The combination of really hot weather then lots of wet days means the fungi are going crazy. Where I live we have lots of grass fields and I am picking Field Mushrooms, Fairy Ring Champignon and Scarlet Waxcaps. The fungi forums are buzzing with photos of good quantities and a wide range of species of both grassland (Parasols and Giant Puffballs) and woodland (Chanterelles, Ceps, Horn of Plenty, Chicken of The Woods, Amethyst Deceivers, False Saffron Milkcaps and many more). Of course, it’s not just the good species that are about, I’ve seen photos of some of the Amanita’s including the deadly Destroying Angel.

On Friday evening, we took the dogs for a local walk. In the grasslands we found Parasols a plenty, some visible from a few hundred metres away! In the woods we found good numbers of Chanterelles and Hedgehogs but all far to small to pick. Being the beginning of the season we had good revision lessons with a possible gone over Death Cap, Brown Roll Rim, various Brittlegills and Porcelain fungus.

Top view of Parasol Mushroom - about 8 inches (20 cm) across
Top view of Parasol Mushroom – about 8 inches (20 cm) across

 

"Snakeskin" pattern on the stem and large, moveable ring - characteristics of a Parasol mushroom.
“Snakeskin” pattern on the stem and large, moveable ring – characteristics of a Parasol mushroom.

On Saturday, we stayed in West Dorset but went a little further a field, finding many of the above and one tree “covered” in Oyster mushrooms,  some very small Ceps (too small again), a Bay Bolete, a Red-Cracked Bolete and some Deceivers.

This fallen Beech was covered with hundreds of Oyster mushrooms.
This fallen Beech was covered with hundreds of Oyster mushrooms.

 

A few of these Oyster Mushrooms came home with us.
A few came home with us.

We couldn’t resit the call of the New Forest and headed there yesterday for a lovely walk through the open forest, heather-clad heathlands and wooded inclosures. Our first find was, at first glance, a lovely group of Ceps, but closer inspection revealed them to be the quite similar looking, Bitter Bolete. One of these in a pan will spoil all the “good stuff” so worth recognising! We soon met a couple with some nice “real” Ceps and a Scarletina Bolete. Encouraged, we soon found our first “real” one, some Chanterelles (a few pickable but “hundreds” too small), a few small Hedgehog Mushrooms, Blushers, Tawny Grisettes, Oak Milkcaps, Brown Birch Boletes, a Chicken of The Woods and many Common Yellow Brittlegills. The real find of the day was not an edible but a beech stump with a large number of pristine Lacquered Brackets. I think, there are only 307 records for these for the UK!

Bitter Bolete (not edible).
Bitter Bolete (not edible).

 

Penny Bin / Cep / Porcini - one of the best edible mushrooms. Drying intensifies the flavours.
Penny Bin / Cep / Porcini – one of the best edible mushrooms. Drying intensifies the flavours.

 

Blusher
Blusher

 

Chicken of The Woods
Chicken of The Woods

 

Lacquered Bracket
Lacquered Bracket

 

Porcelain Fungus
Porcelain Fungus

When we thought we had finished for the day, nearly back at the car, we found an area with lots of Ceps, many kicked over, we took a few. Finally, we got the wiff of a Stinkhorn and soon followed it to it’s source.

Some Ceps, Chanterelles and a few Hedgehogs went home.
Some Ceps, Chanterelles and a few Hedgehogs went home.

 

Stinkhorn
Stinkhorn

When you thought it was all over, this morning’s dog walk found the local Field Mushrooms have moved on to be replaced by one of my favourite’s – Horse Mushrooms.

Horse Mushrooms
Horse Mushrooms

We’ve had mushrooms as a side dish, a wonderful Risotto and there are Ceps to get in the dehydrator this afternoon. I’m looking forward to Battered parasols dipped in garlic mayo too!

“Experts Call This Mushroom-Identifying App ‘Potentially Deadly'”

This recent headline is from the US. Someone has developed an app that is designed to identify mushrooms in the wild using just a smartphone photo.

There is a growing trend for foraging apps but this one is just down right dangerous. However, a few are good.  In Denmark, a recent one is a comprehensive and free resource for the public to learn about and sustainably explore wild food. The initiative comprises an app in Danish and in English, a website, a curriculum for Danish schools, and foraging workshops offered by fifty rangers (“naturvejledere”) across Denmark.

Roger Phillips is one of the world’s leading mushroom specialists with over 40 years’ of expertise of studying fungi in the wild. His excellent book ‘Mushrooms’, has sold more than 2 million copies worldwide. You can get an app version of the book, but rather getting the app to tell you what the mushroom is, you are lead through an electronic version of the key from the book. Lots of mushroom books have these, people are often unaware that they are in the book or haven’t used them. They are easy to use and a really valuable tool – give them a go.

Keys are not just used for identifying mushrooms but also for wider species identification. They usually ask questions based on easily identifiable features. Dichotomous keys use questions to which there are only two answers. They can be presented as a table of questions, or as a branching tree of questions with one questions answer leading you to the next. Here is an example, okay not mushrooms, but it shows the principle.

Branching key
Branching tree example This tree could help you identify a new vertebrate. For example, if it had no fur or feathers and dry skin, you would follow the right-hand pathway at the first and second junctions, but the left-hand pathway at the third junction. This would lead you to identify the animal as a reptile. Copyright © 2017 BBC.

On our mushrooms day courses and walks we teach guests how to use keys. In fact, everyone who attends takes a turn at leading an identification. You start WITHOUT YOUR BOOKS / APP – with observation about the surroundings – habitat, trees etc., then examination of the specimen – cap, spores (including colour), gills, / tubes (pores) / spines, ring, stem, colour changes, smell etc. Then you use your key, before checking the answer with pictures or descriptions in several other sources too. Does it all agree? Note you shouldn’t trust every mushroom photo caption on the web as accurate!

Yes, identifying mushrooms can be difficult. Individuals of the same species will vary with age and the weather, but a key makes the task a lot easier, far better than flicking though the pictures looking for one that looks right. Give them a go.

Spring Fungi

While Autumn is the main time of the year to think about fungi, there are a few edible species to be found in the Spring. The usual rules about not picking all in an area, being 100% certain on the ID etc. apply. This post gives an introduction to the species you can find at this time of the year.

Jelly Ear / Monkey’s Ears

Jelly Ear
Jelly Ear

This is a rubbery ear-like fungus that was formerly known as Jew’s Ear or Judas’s Ear fungus. It ranges from purple to dark brown or black in colour with a rubbery texture when the air is moist or brittle when dry! It is found most commonly on dead elder trees. The spores are white and it grows singly or in groups. There are no poisonous species that it would be confused with.

It is one of the few fungi that has the ability to withstand freezing temperatures. It can actually freeze solid, and when thawed out shows no ill effects. It can be found all year round.

While most fungi collectors ignore it, they have been sold in Waitrose as Chinese Black Mushrooms. This species is used in Asian cooking because, although it lacks a strong taste, it absorbs the flavours of other foods (garlic / ginger / soy sauce etc.) and provides delicate texture in Chinese and Japanese dishes. The Chinese call it “Wood Ear” or “Tree Ear”, the Japanese “Tree Jellyfish”. An Internet search on these terms or the related species “Cloud Ear” will find far more recipes than “Jews Ear”. Beware if you fry them,  they spit like mad! cover with a lid and stand well back!

Bizarrely, they are an ingredient in a US health drink! They are blended with organic goji and hawthorn berries and other organic superfoods. They contain high levels of polysaccharides – often cited as having heart health benefits.

Scarlett Elf Cups

Scarlett Elf Cups
Scarlett Elf Cups

Spotting some Autumn fungi species is nearly impossible as they are the same colour as the leaf litter. You have no such difficulty with these! Look in damp, deciduous woods from January to April and you might be in luck

Fungi are either edible, poisonous or inedible. The latter usually means they are either tough, like trying to eat your shoe, or have no flavour. Some books put these into the inedible camp, but I, and many others, think they are good with a pleasant, subtle flavour. Some mushrooms, in the same way as Kidney beans, need to be cooked before you can eat them. However, I am unaware of any problems from eating these raw. As with any wild food take a nibble first to make sure you don’t have any adverse reaction. Frying quickly retains the colour – so throw into a stir fry at the last minute. You could serve with white fish to show off their colour or sprinkle on top of nettle soup. They can be added to stews though the colour goes. Raw, the shape lends itself to being stuffed – cooked egg with any of  other spring wild foods such as Three Cornered Leek, Wild Garlic flowers, Pennywort, Hairy Bittercress or other herbs. You could also poach them in a reduction made from onion or chicken stock.

Morels

Morels
Morels

Morels are perhaps one of the most prized mushrooms for cooks coming in price-wise below only truffles. I have tried to find these many times but have only seen them once. On the fungi forums you hear stories of people finding tonnes of them on woodchip used for landscaping in glamorous places like motorway service stations and supermarket car parks! The season usually starts in the last week of March. Look in woods with gentle slopes, sandy soil, Ash trees and disturbed ground. You could also try gardens, orchards, fire sites and areas with woodchips.

Their flavour is nutty or steak-like. They can be used in sauces, sautéed on their own or served with pasta and cream sauce. They are also great on a pizza! Anywhere you can use a regular mushroom, you can use morels, but with better results.

Beware of False Morels. The toxin they produce is described as “basically rocket fuel” – and can cause liver damage and seizures.

St George’s Mushroom

St George's Mushrooms
St George’s Mushrooms

On my full day fungus forays I am joined by a true fungus expert (nerd). He tells the story of his daughter’s late April wedding. When everyone else was photographing the bride and groom he was to be seen on all fours snapping away at, you guessed, a group of these mushrooms growing in the churchyard.

So called because they appear around St George’s Day, these are a great tasting mushroom. Uncooked they smell and taste of “meal”; this goes in cooking. They are found in “grasslands” – some of my best spots are on quiet roadside verges and even a roundabout! Beware of the highly poisonous Deadly Fibrecap, which grows in the same habitats. This has a pink gills (white in the case of St George’s), a more pungent fruity smell and bruises red.

Molly Moochers, Miracles, Hickory Chickens and Dryland Fish – Morels to you and me!

I get email alerts when news articles appear on a variety of things, not surprisingly, including mushrooms. For the last while, a good number of these have been American and about Morels. We get them in this country too but they can be difficult to find. All these alerts eventually got my attention and I thought I would find out more.

Morels are perhaps one of the most prized mushrooms for cooks coming in price-wise below only truffles. Their flavour is nutty or steak-like. They can be used in sauces, sautéed on their own or served with pasta and cream sauce. They are also great on a pizza! Anywhere you can use a regular mushroom, you can use morels, but with better results.

Cooking Morels - © Thor / CC-BY-SA-2.0
Cooking Morels – © Thor / CC-BY-SA-2.0

One report says, “Morels are America’s mushroom, more so than any other”. This could be “because they’re widespread, they’re easy to identify, and they come up in the spring, giving people a reason to get out and enjoy warm weather after a long winter. Or, it could be they’re popular simply because they taste so good“. Interest in them is enormous, far greater than in this country’s mushrooms. The harvest is a very valuable one, possibly 10 million dollars per year for the North West Territories alone with some pickers making more than $500 cash per day! To manage the harvest, and harvesters, there is often permitting, random inspections in the woods and checks of restaurants. June marks the unofficial end of morel mushroom season in the US and it’s been a bumper season in many areas thanks to rain and warm weather at the right time.

Morel
Morel / Public Domain

Eating

Morels should not be eaten raw. They must be cooked through completely or they can make you ill. Heat is required to destroy a toxin in the same way as you have to cook kidney beans. You can also be ill if you overeat very large quantities or occasionally if you consume them with alcohol.

According to reports, even people who have eaten morels for years can develop an allergy to them and begin to experience gastric problems. Unfortunately, once that happens it’s going to continue to happen again and again.

Identification

Some wild mushrooms that look similar to edible morels are very poisonous. Even experienced pickers have been known to harvest “false morels” by mistake. The toxin produced by false morels is described as “basically rocket fuel” – and can cause liver damage and seizures.

False Morel - © Seney National Wildlife Refuge / CC-BY-SA-2.0
False Morel – © Seney National Wildlife Refuge / CC-BY-SA-2.0

Recently, again in the US, a family of four had to go to the hospital after eating poisonous mushrooms. Investigators say they used a phone app to figure out if what they gathered was edible. They say the family misidentified the mushrooms using the app. You should never rely on just one source or photo to decide if a mushroom is safe to eat.

Fire sites

Morels like the areas of forest burned in previous years. It is not difficult to find these areas. Wildfires are common in interior Alaska; an average of over 700,000 acres burns each year and in a “bad” year over 2 million acres can burn – a bit bigger than the whole of Devon!

A United States Department of Agriculture and United States Forest Service report published the results of a study on after-burn yields. They found the dispersal of spores during a “major event” is massive. Events that significantly disrupt an environment include timber harvesting, insect infestation or wildfire, according to the study. Larger yields may last for the first two years after the event.

Rules

While I would have said safety, according to one source, the first rule of morel hunting is to not talk about morel hunting! Most mushroom foragers will not divulge their secret spots. Once you give up your spot, it is gone forever.

 

Commercial Collection

The rules on commercial collection vary from state to state and which government department owns the land. Some state landowning bodies have “blanket bans” on commercial collection while others, for example, in Alaska, charge $100 for an annual land use permit for the commercial harvest of mushrooms. 2 day and 30 day licences are available too. In addition, a fee of $0.20 per pound, which is 5 percent of the current average fresh price per pound, is charged for mushrooms.

Commercial collectors are required to have their mushroom permit in their possession at all times when gathering mushrooms. If you don’t get a permit or don’t carry your permit with you, you can be fined. Requiring a permit to harvest morel mushrooms for commercial use helps “ensure public safety and environmental responsibility“. It also ensures that forest users contribute to “sustainable and responsible use of natural resources“.

In some states authorities look further up the supply with restaurant owners who buy from an uncertified local picker risking a $20,000 fine for buying from an uncertified picker. “The reason wild mushroom foragers are required to be certified as mushroom experts is a matter of food safety and public health

The large influx of commercial harvesters is carefully managed with designated camp sites to avoid garbage, camp fires and sanitation problems. In some states closed areas are defined each year and roads closed for the duration of the morel season.

Spring Morel collection - © A much better place / CC-BY-SA-3.0
Spring Morel collection – © A much better place / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Personal Use

Again rules vary but as an example, in one state a harvest of three gallons per day is free and a permit is not required. Maps are published showing “potential personal use mushroom harvest areas”. The maps show the general areas of past fires where mushrooms may or may not be growing.

In some states, people harvesting for personal use are required to make a vertical cut down the stem of each mushroom or remove the stem immediately after harvest. This makes the mushrooms worthless as a commercial product. Rangers will inspect the contents of people’s mushroom baskets to check this is being followed.

Economic benefit

Some states have woken up to the economic opportunity that is offered in the form of morel mushrooms. In the North West Territories they anticipate this harvest could generate as much as ten million dollars per year. The Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment there has worked to prepare residents to take advantage of this opportunity and keep some of these revenues within the territory. They have hosted significant numbers of morel mushroom information sessions in communities where the impacts of the anticipated season are expected to be greatest with nearly 1,200 residents participating. These sessions covered potential harvesting areas, methods for gathering and storing morels, and best practices for selling and marketing their harvest. They also emphasized the message of harvesting in a way that is safe, legal and respectful of the environment and Aboriginal peoples, whose lands some of these mushrooms will be on.

A Morel Mushroom Harvester’s Handbook and field guides have been produced to ensure pickers have adequate information at their disposal when they venture into the harvest areas. On-site, “walking workshops” have also been run in areas where the mushrooms have appeared to provide hands-on experience for those interested in harvesting. Communities have welcomed the pickers hosting community barbeques for them.

As on all issues, not everyone sees it the same way, with headline of “Are morel pickers more trouble than they’re worth for N.W.T.?” and articles saying “It’s like a mushroom rush out there“.

 

Final thoughts

Are there any lessons to be learned for Europe here? Concerns about the sustainability of harvesting edible fungi arise with claims that the productivity of many species of edible fungi is declining. Most of these concerns, however, involve species of fungi that fruit in the same place year after year. Because morels fruit prolifically for only a year or two after disturbance, they present a different set of questions.