Basic Mushroom Identification

I get a lot of emails from people wanting help with mushroom identification. Unfortunately, identifying mushrooms from just a picture and a brief description can be very difficult.

Since there are so many factors to consider, I built this page to show beginners the thought process associated with identifying different types of mushrooms. There are some crucial factors to observe besides just color and size.

I'd divided this page into two sections. The first outlines things to look for when finding a new mushroom. The other contains five examples of mushroom identification. These lists and examples are by no means exhaustive, but they do give you a good feel for the basic process.

As always, never eat anything based on what you read here or anywhere else on the Internet. Nothing takes the place of hands-on instruction!


Eight Great Mushroom Identification Traits


These are in no particular order. Click on the links to learn more.

  • Gills - What sort of spore-producing structures do you see? How are they attached? Be it gills, pores, or teeth, this is important to know.
  • Stalk description - Make note of the size, shape, color, and whether or not it is hollow.
  • Spore color - Another extremely important mushroom identification characteristic. You will have to make a spore print to know this.
  • Bruising when touched - Does it change color or bleed any liquid when it's sliced in half or grasped firmly?
  • Habitat - Anything about the surrounding area. This includes trees, temperature, soil, etc.
  • Time of year - Certain mushrooms fruit during certain times of the year.
  • Cap description - Like the stalk, note all physical characteristics of the cap.
  • Smell and taste - Don't leave out these sensations. Smell and taste may tell you something too. (If tasting, only try the tiniest amount!)

There's much more to note about a mushroom than just these eight things. Some mushrooms display a chemical reaction when exposed to certain substances. Others are distinguished by microscopic characteristics.

For our purposes of beginner's mushroom identification, learning to examine these eight is a good start.

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Five Different Examples


Below are five different mushroom examples. Follow along and apply this type of analysis to your own finds!

The book I referenced for some of these is the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms (National Audubon Society Field Guides (Hardcover)). Pick up a highly rated guidebook for your region if you don't already have one.

I found all of these mushrooms in New Hampshire or Vermont.

Old Man of the Woods
Northern Tooth
Honey Fungus

Old Man of the Woods (Strobilomyces floccopus)

No, it's not that weird guy who lives in the forest behind your local bike path. This is a good beginner mushroom.

Identifying mushroom - the Old Man of the WoodsGills: None. A spongy layer of pores was on the underside of the cap instead.

Cap/stem: Distinct from each other, with white and gray coloring. The cap is convex, with a layer of woolly scales on the top.

Spore color: Unknown

Bruising: Reddish at first, then slowly turning to black.

Habitat: I picked this just off a trail in a mixed hardwood forest. It was growing alone on the ground, not on a tree.

Time of year: Late August

Smell/taste: Unknown

Easy to identify due to its unique cap and the presence of pores, this is a great example of a bolete. Boletes are defined as having a separate cap and stem with a spongy surface of pores. To be sure, I checked for the appropriate colors after bruising.

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Chanterelle (Cantharellus sp.)

The false gills of a chanterelle mushroomIt's definitely worth knowing how to identify the delicious chanterelle. See this page on chanterelle mushroom identification for a more in-depth article.

Gills: None. Instead there were wrinkled folds known as "false gills". This is very important to look for with chanterelle identification. The pic to the right is a good example.

Cap/stem: The caps were slightly vase shaped. The stems had no bulb or ring and were not hollow. Both were an orange-yellow color.

Spore color: Unknown

Bruising: Unkown

Chanterelle mushroom identificationHabitat: On the ground at the edge of a trail in a mixed hardwood forest. I found more than one, but they did not grow in clusters.

Time of year: August

Smell/taste: They smelled slightly fruity/flowery.

The false gills, and the fact that they weren't growing in clusters, led me to believe these were chanterelles and not poisonous jack o'lanterns. I did eat these, and they tasted great!

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Northern Tooth (Climacodon septentrionale)

This was a fun surprise. When I saw it from the road it looked like an oyster mushroom. A closer examination revealed something else!

Identifying mushrooms - the northern toothGills: None. Instead there were small "teeth", or spines, hanging from the underside of the cap. This made identification fairly easy.

Cap/stem: No stem. The caps were a series of overlapping, shelf-like fruiting bodies. They were whitish and very tough.

Spore color: Unknown

Bruising: Unknown

Habitat: Found growing on a dying maple tree.

Time of year: September

Smell/taste: Unknown

There aren't as many mushrooms with teeth as there are with gills, and fewer still that grow on trees. The other clue here is habitat, as I found it growing on a dying maple. The northern tooth is a parasite that rots the heartwood of maple trees.

Below is a close-up of the tiny teeth.

Teeth on a northern tooth mushroom

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Russula (Russula emetica?)

Mushroom identification - the russula speciesGills: Gills were white and attached to the stem.

Cap/stem: Cap was red on top and slightly upturned. The stem was white with no ring.

Spore color: Spore print was whitish.

Bruising: Unknown

Habitat: Found growing on the ground among leaf litter in a mixed hardwood forest.

Time of year: September

Smell/taste: Smelled fruity but the taste was very bitter.

The spore print, white gills, and red/white color combination indicates a mushroom in the Russula genus. Yet which one? Russula mushroom identification is very difficult, with microscopic information sometimes needed. I decided on one of the more common species that fit the description, Russula emetica.

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Honey Fungus (probably Armillaria mellea)

My apologies for the washed out picture.

Mushroom identification - the honey fungusGills: Brownish and attached to the stem.

Cap/stem: The caps were slightly convex with a lightish brown color. The stems had a ring around them and were brown-white.

Spore color: White

Bruising: Unknown

Habitat: Growing in a thick cluster on the roots of an overturned oak tree.

Time of year: July

Smell/taste: Unknown

Although these mushrooms matched all the characteristics of a honey fungus, I still took a spore print. A white spore print is an essential part of honey fungus identification.

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I didn't want to bore you with too much detail, but you can see the kinds of observations that you need for mushroom identification. Try to note all that you can when in the woods. Now go out there and start observing your own mushrooms. Let me know how it goes!

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