There are more than 10,000 different species of mushroom, from the tiny ones that pop up in your lawn after a rain to enormous tree-dwelling bracket fungi. With so many species out there, they can be tricky to identify. When it comes to mushrooms, identification is crucial. Some are delicacies, and some are deadly. It’s critical to know which is which!
If you’re going to go mushroom hunting, take along someone more experienced. Even photographs can’t always clarify the difference between species, and unless you want to spend time and money getting your finds tested in a lab (trust me, you don’t), you want to be sure that the mushrooms you’ve picked are what you think they are.
This list focuses on mushrooms that grow wild in North America, though many may be found elsewhere as well. There’s also a list of common cultivated mushrooms, which you can find in stores or grow yourself.
Edible Wild Mushrooms
- Chanterelles (Cantharellus spp.) Funnel-shaped and typically yellow-orange in color, chanterelles are some of the most commonly consumed foraged mushrooms. They typically grow beneath pine trees, but some varieties grow in other forests, or even grasslands. To avoid confusion with the poisonous lookalike mushroom, the Jack-o’-Lantern, cut into the stem. Jack-o’-Lanterns are bright orange all the way through, while chanterelles are paler inside.
- Morels (Morchella esculenta) These delicacies are impossible to cultivate, so every year, mushroom hunters hit the woods to find them. They’re also likely to find false morels, which are poisonous. The texture of false morel caps is slightly different—more brain-like and less honeycomb-like—than true morels, and if you cut both open you’ll find true morels are perfectly, symmetrically hollow, while false morels are partially hollow, with strands of tissue like cotton wool inside.
- Hen-of-the-Woods (Grifola frondosa) This tasty treat grows in clusters of wavy, greyish caps usually found at the foot of oak trees. Cooked, the flesh has a mild, pleasant taste that, yes, resembles chicken.
- Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus) This is undoubtedly one of the weirder edible mushrooms. At first glance, it looks like a lumpy, whitish growth on a tree (its favorite is American beech, but you might find it on other hardwoods, too). Upon closer inspection, you’ll find it really does look like a pale, hairy mane. There are several closely related species, but all are edible, and taste great when sliced and fried in butter!
- Hedgehog Mushroom (Hydnum repandum) Also known as the “sweet tooth” mushroom, this unusual fungus has what appear to be dense spikes along the stem and underside of the cap. The flavor is sweet and crunchy, and, best of all, there aren’t any poisonous mimics for this variety!
Poisonous Wild Mushrooms
- Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) This one just looks poisonous! A large mushroom, the caps range in color from yellowish to deep red, and are typically scattered with white warts. They contain muscimol and ibotenic acid, which cause psychological effects like Alice-in-Wonderland syndrome (where you perceive small objects as unusually large, or vice versa). They can also cause nausea and vomiting, and a deep sleep from which it is difficult to wake until the mushroom’s effects wear off.
- Destroying Angel (Amanita virosa)Mushrooms in the amanita family, like the Destroying Angel, are most frequently involved when there are cases of serious mushroom poisoning. The compound they contain, amanitin, causes symptoms that initially mimic the flu and don’t arise for up to 24 hours after the mushrooms have been eaten. This gives the body time to absorb the toxin, and by the time symptoms progress, it’s usually too late to stop permanent organ damage.
- Green-Spored Parasol (Chlorophyllum molybdites) These are one of the most commonly consumed poisonous mushrooms, as they look quite a bit like the white button mushrooms you’d find at the supermarket. While not deadly, they can cause severe gastrointestinal distress, though some people seem to be immune.
- Death Caps (Amanita phalloides) When it comes to death-by-mushroom, this is almost always the culprit. They closely resemble edible varieties, and though they’re rare in many parts of North America, they’re just common enough to cause deaths among unwary mushroom hunters every year. They look like oversized button mushrooms, but have a tell-tale “veil” of tissue surrounding the stem.
- Inky Caps (Coprinus atramentarius) These aren’t the most appetizing-looking mushrooms, with their black, drippy-looking caps, and they’re not a common cause of mushroom-related poisoning. In fact, the chemical they contain, coprine, isn’t toxic on its own. The problem is that it interacts with alcohol, causing headache, flushing, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting, and the compound can stay in the body for up to a week after eating the mushrooms, so steer clear of these!
Cultivated Culinary Mushrooms
- White Button Mushroom (Agaricus bisporus) These are the most common mushroom found in supermarkets, and they’re used for just about everything, from salads to soups to hearty meat dishes.
- Crimini/Portobello Mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus) Though darker in color than white button mushrooms, crimini (or “baby bella”) mushrooms are actually the same species! In its mature state, the mushroom is sold as a portobello, which is commonly used as a substitute for meat in vegetarian recipes.
- Enoki Mushrooms (Flammulina velutipes) These clusters of tiny white mushrooms on thin stems are a staple in Japanese cuisine. They’re crisp and lightly flavored, perfect for soups.
- King Trumpet Mushroom (Pleurotus eryngii) Also known as King Oyster or French horn mushroom, this one is a bit odd-looking. It has very little cap, and a thick stem. It’s mild in flavor, especially when raw, so it is most typically cooked.
- Shiitake Mushroom (Lentinula edodes) Native to Japan, but now widely cultivated, shiitake are full-bodied mushrooms, brown in color, that are commonly used in steamed, stir-fried, or simmered Asian dishes. Their flavor is lighter in fresh mushrooms, and very concentrated and earthy when dried.
- Oyster Mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) Another very commonly cultivated species, oyster mushrooms are usually greyish in color and grow in layered clusters. They are very tender and are often shredded by hand when used in cooking rather than sliced.
- Shimeji Mushrooms (Lyophyllum shimeji) These mushrooms almost look like a cross between enoki and oyster mushrooms. They’re darker in color than enoki, and larger in size, but often grow in a similar clustered pattern. They taste quite bitter when raw, so are used in cooked dishes.
With so many species out there, these lists don’t include everything, so let me reiterate once again—if you’re not sure, don’t eat it!