Mushrooms are a commonly occurring thing in nature, and if you slow down a bit and look beneath your feet whilst you are out then you’re likely to spot some whether in the most far-flung corner of the wilds or just wandering off the path in a city park. But unlike common birds or trees, such as the robin or blue tit, the oak or the sycamore, species you can spot from a distance and be sure as to what they are, mushrooms are slippery customers that are almost impossible to accurately identify just by eye.
I was fairly convinced that there were a few species of mushroom that I could identify without any problems at all, but after a morning of mushroom foraging at Port Mulgrave on the Yorkshire Coast my confidence took a dint. To be honest, I’m now wondering how many of the mushrooms I munched through as a teenager were liver-engorging rather than mind-expanding! But anyway, that’s a story for another day.
There are at least enough features on a macrobiological level that are reasonably distinct that when foraging you can be confident of identifying the genus, or family, that the mushroom you’re looking at belongs to. Macro’s the opposite of micro, by the way; so that’s stuff big enough for you to make out with your eyes.
The basic parts of a cap and stem fungi.
The basic mushroom shape that you think of when you’re thinking of a mushroom is probably one variation or another of Gilled Fungi. These are made up of a central body, a bit like the stem of a flower, which can vary greatly in thickness, called the Stipe; a dome that sits on top of the Stipe and can range from sombrero-like to jaunty fez, called the Cap; and the underside of the cap which is divided up into textured rivets, again of widely varying depths and delineations dependent on the mushroom, called Gills.
There are many other types of wonderful, exotic looking mushrooms, such as Earth Stars and Jelly Fungus, examples of which wouldn’t look out of place if wheeled in by the BBC special effects department to stand in for alien invaders in certain 1970s Dr Who serials. But IDing’s hard enough as it is and all the examples we found when out were Gilled Fungi of one sort or another.
Earthstar fungi (Geastraceae) have an outer skin which splits open into star-like rays. The spores within a central pod get ‘poofed’ out when the pod is disturbed (eg. a raindrop falls on it).
Yellow brain (Tremella mesenterica) is a jelly fungi usually found parasitising the crust fungi Peniophora, on Gorse and Hazel. Amazingly, jelly fungi are capable of rehydration resurrection. They can completely dry out, then resume growth and spore production once they’re rehydrated.
To try and ID the mushrooms we’d gathered, we started off by inspecting them on a macrotic level i.e. looking at them with our eyes. The series of visual checks you can run through with mushrooms is fairly straight forward, but there can be a huge amount of variation within each check. We checked the following:
Colour: What colour is your mushroom. This can range from whites and greys through yellows and browns all the way to bright reds or oranges and most colours in between. All the mushrooms we found were brown.
A selection of brown fungi.
Stipe shape: Again, this can range from slim and almost cress-like to fat and round like the type of mushroom that’ll shuffle about to the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy. If picking mushrooms to ID, its worth carefully teasing out as much of what’s beneath the ground too, as that’ll help you figure out what you’ve got. Under the soil, the Stipe could taper off, twist, bend, shoot off at a right angle or blow up into a tuber and a decent field guide will give you notes on what to look out for there too. All ours were past their best and snapped off at ground level.
Cap: As well as the size of the mushrooms cap, its shape can be quite distinctive and should help you figure out what you’ve got. This can range from a broken umbrella to a nipple, with most shapes you can imagine in between. Most of ours were kind of nipple-y.
Gills: The gills underneath the cap are where a mushrooms spores are stored; just to confuse you, some mushrooms might have pores down here, but everything we found was sporting gills. Following on from that, there are three main ways that gills vary from mushroom to mushroom. Whether they’re crowded or distant; how they attach to the Stipe, be that high up where the Cap and Stipe meet, lower down the Stipe or a variation thereof; and the form of the individual Gills, taking into account their thickness, how far the protrude from the underside of the Cap and such like. Here, we had a variety in what we’d picked.
So, we had a load of little brown mushrooms. They all looked different, but going through our field guides over and over again; we could get a different result each time for every one!
That’s when we have to start looking at the microbiology of the mushroom. If you take the Cap of a mushroom and leave it facing Gills-down on a piece of paper over night, it’ll drop its spores and you’ll get a pretty print from them. The spread and size of the spores is another indicator to help identification. And so is the colour. All our mushrooms were sort of brown-ish, but we got a wide variety of colours in our spore prints. From dusty ochre’s that brought to mind hand prints in ancient caves to mustardy yellows and the sort of black you’d find in your handkerchief after an afternoon of riding the tube in that London, the variety found in spore prints is vital in getting anywhere near to accurately identifying your mushrooms.
And with the help of those prints… we were about 70% sure of what some of them might be.
Basically, ID for fun and not for food. ‘Nuff said.