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Wild mushrooms [How To Get Started]

If you’re new to the magical world of wild mushrooms and you don’t know where to start, have no fear! Our step-by-step beginner’s guide has all the need-to-know essentials that will have you foraging mushrooms like a pro in no time!

A Cep, Penny Bun, Porcini, King Bolete growing in woodland

Mushroom foraging is essentially a treasure hunt in the wild. Getting outdoors searching for those hidden gems beneath moss, twigs and leaves… There’s nothing quite like the adrenaline rush when you find an edible wild mushroom. It is an activity that comes with a fair share of risks though, so it’s important to master the basics and do your homework.

Contents

1. The Wild Mushroom Golden Rule

When in doubt, don’t eat it! This is the most important rule above anything else. While the number of death-related mushrooms are rare, there are quite a few that will make you very sick if ingested, which is easy to avoid if you’re sensible. Unless you are 100 per cent sure you have identified the mushroom correctly, leave it alone. There are around 15,000 species of fungi in the UK, and you’re not going to learn them all overnight. So the best place to start is by learning the features and characteristics of two or three mushrooms that don’t have poisonous look-a-likes. Leave the rest for a later date!

2. Choose Your Mushroom Experts

First, it’s important to have good quality resources to hand. This means books, websites, online groups, video channels, and ideally mentors who are living in your local area. Be aware of the vast amount of misinformation surrounding mushrooms, which can be found across social media platforms, apps, and even foraging books that have been incorrectly written by AI. To hunt wild mushrooms with success, you’ll find you use a combination of all these resources, so it’s a good idea to get this ready upfront. And you’re in the right place for trustworthy recommendations!

When in doubt, don't eat it!

3. Learn the Anatomy of a Mushroom

If you understand the different parts of a wild mushroom, this makes a huge difference when it comes to an accurate ID. Before you set out on your first forage, make sure you familiarise yourself with the following main features:

Cap (Pileus): The cap is at the top of the mushroom and it comes in a variety of shapes, colours, sizes and textures.

Cap Underside: If you look underneath the cap, you will either find gills, pores, ridges or teeth. This is where the mushroom produces and disperses its pores from. Note how and where the underside attaches to the stem, which is another important marker.

Stem (Stipe): The stem supports the cap down to the soil’s surface. Not all mushrooms have stems, but it’s an important part of an accurate ID, as its features vary across different species.

Ring: When in the early stages of growth, some mushrooms form a partial veil that shields the underside of the cap. As the mushroom matures and expands, the partial veil breaks away from the cap and its remains hang from the stem. This is known as the annulus, ring or skirt.

Volva: Similar to the partial veil, some mushrooms also form a universal veil that encloses the whole mushroom in early growth. As the mushroom grows, the universal veil breaks and it leaves behind a cup-like structure at the bottom of the stem.

The Anatomy of a Mushroom

GILL ATTACHMENT

Is the gill attached, free, notched or growing down the stem (decurrent)?

Gill attachment of mushroom

VOLVA

Does it have a cup-like structure at the base of the stem? In early stages of growth, some mushrooms are covered in a thin tissue that encloses the whole mushroom, called the universal veil. As it grows, the leftover pieces remain at the base of the stem, taking the form of the volva. Usually, mushrooms with a universal veil also have a partial veil. 

GILLS, RIDGES, PORES OR TEETH?

What can you see on the underside of its cap? Look at the shape, width, spacing, depth and colour.

Underside of mushroom

STEM (STIPE)

Look for different identification clues on the stipe, such as how it attaches to the cap, the colour, the decoration (ornaments), whether it's hollow or tough to snap. Is it smooth, fibrous, patchy or ribbed?

RING OR SKIRT

Does it have a 'ring' or 'skirt'? During the early stages of growth, certain mushrooms grow a protective veil that covers the underside of the cap, called a partial veil. As the mushroom grows, the veil breaks away and remains suspended around the stem, forming a mushroom ring (annulus).

MYCELIUM

A crucial part of the mushroom lies beneath the soil’s surface - mycelium. It creates a network that links multiple mushrooms, as well as feeding them by moving and absorbing nutrients from sources such as plant roots and bark. It also crosses the entire forest ecosystem, providing nutrients to other plants, supporting their growth too!

MUSHROOM CAP

Look at the shape of the cap. This can help you identify the species and narrow-down the options. Is it rounded, oval, bell-shaped, conical, flat or sunken? 

4. Take Photos and Field Notes

Starting out in the world of mushrooms can be intimidating, especially when it feels like everyone around you is a seasoned expert. Don’t let this put you off (in most cases, the people offering unsolicited advice are a long way from expert status). If you take small, measured steps, you will surprise yourself in how much you do know in a short space of time!

One way to record and improve on your progress is photos. Although pocket books are great to have with you when out and about, photos let you refer back to what you’ve seen and look it up in more detail once home.

Sulphur Tuft - how to identify it
Sulphur Tuft (Hypholoma fasciculare) POISONOUS SPECIES

5. Pick 2-3 Easy to Identify Mushrooms

Now that you’ve done your homework, it’s time for some fun. Choose 2 or 3 mushrooms that are easy to find and identify, that don’t have any poisonous lookalikes. There’s a great list of common edible wild mushrooms here and we’ve included a few examples below. 

Next, make these mushrooms your new best friends and get to know them on a personal level. Where do they usually grow? What are their defining features and unique characteristics that make them stand out? Who do they hang out with? When is their favourite time of year?

3 Easy to Identify Wild Mushrooms

  1. Penny Bun (also known as Cep, King Bolete and Porcini). Scientific name: Boletus edulis
  2. Oyster mushroom Scientific name: Pleurotus ostreatus
  3. Giant Puffball Scientific name: Calvatia Gigantea
How to identify a Penny Bun, Cep, King Bolete, Porcini

Now Explore!

It’s time to get outdoors and explore. The best places for foraging wild mushrooms are woodlands, parks and grassy areas. Or even better, find a local expert near you who can show you where to look and tell you what’s in season.

When it comes to cooking your edibles, simple is best! Always cook your mushrooms, never eat them raw. Make sure you give your mushrooms a good clean before cooking (with a brush, not water, as they lose flavour and texture). Most mushrooms are terrific using a simple sauté (think butter, garlic and a splash of cream!).

If it’s a mushroom you haven’t tried before, play it safe and taste test first before you eat a plateful. Just like all foods, wild mushrooms can have varying effects on different individuals’ digestive systems, so try a small piece first and wait 48 hours before cooking up the rest. It’ll be worth the wait. Most importantly, have fun and happy hunting!