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Top 10 Edible Mushrooms for Beginner Foragers
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Top 10 Edible Mushrooms for Beginner Foragers

Seraiah Alexander
Seraiah Alexander
June 18, 2024
13 min

If you want to begin foraging for mushrooms but don’t know where to start, look no further. Mushroom foraging may seem intimidating at first glance, especially with the risk of accidentally gathering toxic look-alikes. However, when you know what to look for, foraging can actually be an enjoyable and exciting hobby. When you’re first getting started, it’s essential to familiarize yourself with the most easy-to-identify fungi so that you can take your first baby steps into the world of foraging. Let’s explore the most approachable, least risky mushrooms for beginners so you can safely build your foraging confidence without the risk of toxic confusion.

1.Morel mushrooms (Morchella spp.)

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Season: Typically found early to mid-spring as temperatures begin to rise and soil defrosts. 

Habitat: Grows in moist, wooded areas, especially in recently burned forests. If you’re lucky, you also may find them growing in woodchips in urban areas.

Physical characteristics: Morels have a very distinct, honeycomb-like cap that sets them apart from other species. The cap can be yellow, grey, black, or brown and is directly attached to the stem. If you cut the mushroom in half, the stem is white to pale yellow and hollow.

Toxic look-alikes: False morels can look slightly similar to real morels and can be found growing in similar conditions. While these look-alikes can be incredibly toxic, there are distinct features specific to true morel mushrooms that make them much different from their poisonous counterparts. Recognizing these characteristics is crucial to avoiding the dangers posed by false morals. True morels will have a fully integrated cap with the stem, making it look like it’s growing straight from the stem without any hanging parts. In contrast, many fake morels have caps that are only attached to the very top of the stem or have a very noticeable skirt hanging from under their cap. When cut in half, true morels will have a hollow interior, and the entire mushroom from the cap to stem is one continuous cavity. Furthermore, the distinctive honeycomb pattern on true morels is a key identifier, as this unique texture is not found in false morels, which are more brain-like and bumpy.

Note: The appearance of morels can vary slightly depending on where you find them. Yellow morels are usually seen in eastern North America, while black morels can be commonly found in Western regions.

2. Chicken of the woods (Laetiporus spp.)

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Season: Usually found around late summer to fall, but can sometimes be seen during the spring in some regions. It is most abundant during warmer, wetter months.

Habitat: Chicken of the woods prefers living on dead or dying hardwood trees like oak, cherry, and beech. 

Physical characteristics: Chicken of the woods grows in overlapping, fan-shaped clusters with a bright orange to yellow cap. Its vibrant color will make it easy to identify. The underside of chicken of the woods has no gills but instead a smooth and poreless surface.

Toxic look-alikes: There are a few similar fungi to chicken of the woods, including the black staining polypore, the dyer’s polypore, and the jack o’lantern mushroom. However, the vibrant nature of chicken of the woods and it’s lack of gills are a telltale sign that makes it stand out from the others.

Note: Some individuals experience mild gastrointestinal upset after eating chicken of the woods, especially if they’ve never consumed them before. If you have never had chicken of the woods, you should try a small amount first to see how your body reacts. Furthermore, it’s advisable to cook the mushroom thoroughly to improve its texture and digestibility.

3. Puffballs (Lycoperdon spp., Calvatia spp.)

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Season: Late summer to early fall, but have been spotted in spring in certain climates/regions. Peak harvest tends to be around the cooler months, though.

Habitat: Puffballs grow in various environments, including lawns, meadows, grassy fields, and open woods. They can also be found in disturbed areas like pathways and gardens. 

Physical characteristics: Puffball mushrooms have a very distinctive round shape and are usually large. Depending on the species, they can range from as small as a golf ball to as large as a basketball. Young puffballs are smooth and spongy to the touch, yet they may develop scales or cracks on their surface as they age. When fresh and edible, these mushrooms are white all throughout, and when cut open, their interior is uniform, with no signs of gills or other structures.

Toxic look-alikes: While some Amanita species are in their juvenile button stage, they can resemble small puffball mushrooms. The Amanita genus contains some of the most toxic mushrooms in the world, so you should always cut them open to determine whether they have gills or a stem inside since these traits are not present in true puffball mushrooms.

Note: When you harvest a puffball, you should use it relatively quickly since they tend to lose quality over time. They can be kept in the refrigerator for a few days, or you can slice and dry them to allow for long-term storage.

4. Chanterelles (Cantharellus spp.)

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Season: Late summer to early fall. In milder climates, chanterelles can be found in late spring or early winter. They prefer periods of rain and warm, humid weather.

Habitat: Usually found in mixed hardwood forests around oaks, conifers, and birches. They’re often seen in scattered groups around leaf litter and mossy areas.

Physical characteristics: Chanterelles have a unique funnel shape with a deeply ridged cap. They range from vibrant yellow to golden orange, depending on the species. Underneath the cap, you’ll find shallow ridges that run down the stem and are the same color as the cap. Unlike true gills, these ridges do not separate easily from the cap but are more deeply attached to its structure.

Toxic look-alikes: Jack O’Lantern mushrooms are also bright orange and look slightly similar to chanterelles. However, these mushrooms have true gills and grow in dense clusters at the base of trees. False chanterelles also carry a similar resemblance in color and shape but also have true gills that are thin and easily separable from the cap.

Note: Another good identifier for chanterelles is their distinctive aroma, which is almost fruity and smells lightly of apricots or peaches. This trait can be another helpful feature in determining them from their look-alikes.

5. Black trumpet mushrooms (Craterellus cornucopioides)

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Season: Late summer through fall, but can also be found during winter months in milder climates. These mushrooms are most commonly found after heavy rains.

Habitat: Black trumpets usually grow in moist forests with lots of leaf litter, especially in deciduous woodlands. They’re often harvested along mossy areas or under broadleaf trees like beech and oak, but they also can be found on the sides of hills or in depressions where moisture can accumulate. Look in areas with lots of shade and organic material on the ground since these conditions keep moisture in.

Physical characteristics: Like the chanterelle mushroom, black trumpets have a funnel-like appearance that narrows towards the stem. However, they are more hollow and tubular. They have smaller caps ranging from one to three inches and are dark brown or black, often with a slight gray or blue hue. The edges of the cap tend to be wavy.

Toxic look-alikes: Black trumpets don’t have any toxic look-alikes since their appearance is so distinct. False black trumpets have a lighter color, usually gray or brown, and more prevalent veins on their underside. These mushrooms are not toxic and are considered edible, but many claim they are not as delicious as black trumpets. Dark-colored chanterelles can also resemble black trumpets, but they are lighter in color and have more of a wavy cap. However, these, too, are non-toxic and edible.

Note: Since black trumpets are so dark, they tend to blend really well into the forest floor. However, once you find a patch, you’ll likely go home with bags full of them since they grow in large groups and spread out over significant areas.

6. King boletes, or porcinis (Boletus edulis)

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Season: Late summer to early fall, but depending on the climate, they can also be found in the spring in certain regions. They usually grow after heavy rains and warm, humid conditions.

Habitat: Can be found in both deciduous and coniferous forests as they grow symbiotically with certain trees like oaks, beech, pines, and spruces. They grow close to the base of their host trees in leaf litter or grassy areas.

Physical characteristics: King boletes have large and convex caps that are deep reddish brown to dark brown in color. As the mushroom ages, the caps tend to become more rounded and can sometimes slightly crack on the surface. Beneath the cap is a spongy layer of pores that can be anywhere from white to yellow, depending on age. The mushroom’s stem is thick and bulbous and has a white net-like reticulation pattern on the top where it meets the cap. When cut open, the mushroom’s white flesh should not change color significantly.

Toxic look-alikes: If you are unsure about the identification of your king boletes, always cut them open to see if they stain. If the flesh stains blue, it could be the highly toxic satan’s bolete or Boletus sensibilis. This feature is a telltale sign of inedibility for bolete species. The bitter bolete is another look-alike; however, it is not toxic and only has a bitter taste. This mushroom does not have the reticulation pattern seen on King boletes and is usually more pinkish in color.

Note: King boletes grow in the same areas year after year, so if you ever find a patch, save the location so you always have a foraging place to return to. 

7. Lion’s mane mushrooms (Hericium erinaceus)

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Season: Commonly found in the late summer through fall but can also be seen in spring and early winter in more temperate regions. They prefer cool, damp conditions and are often found after significant rainfall.

Habitat: Found on dead or dying hardwood trees like oak, beech, and maple. They can also be found on fallen logs. They thrive in moist, shaded environments.

Physical characteristics: Lion’s mane is perhaps one of the most distinctive mushroom species to identify because of its unique cascading spines resembling a lion’s mane. When young and fresh, it is entirely white, yet as it ages, it gradually turns yellowish. It can grow in large, rounded clusters that can reach up to 10 or more inches in diameter.

Toxic look-alikes: Fortunately, there are no toxic look-alikes for lion’s mane. There are only a few similar species to consider, such as the comb tooth mushroom and the bear’s head tooth mushroom, which are very similar in appearance and taste.

Note: While Lion’s mane is arguably one of the more tasty edible mushrooms out there, it can also be used medicinally, especially for its benefits in cognitive enhancement and nerve regeneration.

8. Turkey tail mushrooms (Trametes versicolor)

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Season: Found year-round, but tends to grow more in the late fall and winter months,  especially when the weather is cooler and wetter.

Habitat: Can be found growing on dead or decaying hardwood trees, logs, stumps, and branches. They’re usually found on deciduous trees but can also grow on conifers as well.

Physical characteristics: Turkey tail are easily identified by their bands of colors, which include different shades of brown, white, blue, green, orange, and tan. The thin, fan-shaped caps have wavy edges that can resemble a turkey’s tail. The cap can also be slightly fuzzy when fresh but becomes smooth as the mushroom ages. Under the cap are tiny, uniform pores, usually white or light cream.

Toxic look-alikes: False turkey tail can look incredibly similar to true turkey tail, yet beneath its cap, it has a smooth underside instead of the small pores of turkey tail. This mushroom is not toxic, however.

Note: Turkey tail is not commonly eaten because of its rough texture, but it can be turned into a tea or tincture and used medicinally instead. Turkey tail mushrooms, due to their rich polysaccharides, are known for their immune-boosting properties.

9. Wood ear mushrooms (Auricularia auricula-judae)

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Season: Found year-round, but most prolific during the spring and fall when the environment is damp and humid, especially after periods of rain.

Habitat: Grows on dead or dying hardwood trees, especially elder, beech, and sycamore. They thrive in shaded, moist forested areas.

Physical characteristics: Wood ear mushrooms resemble a human ear due to their lobed, wrinkled appearance. They can range from light brown to dark brown and sometimes even reddish brown. When wet, they appear more translucent, but when dry, they become more opaque. The surface of the cap is smooth and gelatinous when fresh and can have a slightly fuzzy texture on the outside.

Toxic look-alikes: This mushroom has no directly toxic look-alikes. Edible species like black witch’s butter and cloud ear have the same gelatinous appearance and similar color but are both completely edible.

Note: Although wood ear mushrooms don’t have a very notable flavor, their cartilage-like and gelatinous texture makes them a popular addition to dishes. These mushrooms are also known to have medicinal qualities and are used in traditional Chinese medicine to promote longevity and improve health.

10. Hedgehog mushrooms (Hydnum repandum)

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Season: Found late summer through early winter, especially during the cooler, wetter months. However, they are most abundant in the fall, especially after periods of rain.

Habitat: Found in various types of forests, including deciduous, coniferous, and mixed woodlands. They usually grow in mossy or leaf-littered areas on the forest floor in scattered groups or small clusters.

Physical characteristics: Hedgehog mushroom caps are generally pale to yellowish orange with a slightly wavy or irregular edge. The surface is smooth, with sometimes a velvety texture that darkens slightly as the mushroom matures. Beneath the cap are small spines or “teeth,” that are light in color and can be easily detached. The stem is solid and usually matches the cap in color or is slightly paler.

Toxic look-alikes: Because of their distinctive, spiny undersides, hedgehog mushrooms don’t have any toxic look-alikes. Other species in the Hydnum genus are also edible and share similar features, but they may have differences in size and color.

Note: Hedgehog mushrooms often grow near other mycorrhizal mushrooms like chanterelles and black trumpets. The spines on the underside of the mushroom are edible but can be brushed off if you desire.

Essential features to look out for when identifying mushrooms

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Identifying a mushroom based on its initial appearance may not be enough to ensure it is safe for consumption. There are several essential features you should examine when identifying mushrooms in the wild:

  • Cap shape and texture

Mushrooms have a wide variety of cap shapes that can change over time as they mature. It’s important to understand the usual cap shape of a specific species during the different stages of its life for proper identification. Mushroom caps can be convex like a young king bolete or can be funnel-shaped like a chanterelle. The texture of the cap can also be an identifier. Check whether the cap is velvety, slimy, scaly, or cracked. This texture can vary as the mushroom ages or as environmental conditions change.

When identifying a mushroom, always note the color of each part. This means observing the cap, stem, and beneath the cap to ensure that the colors are consistent with the species you are trying to identify. Although some mushrooms maintain a consistent color, others may change as they age.

There are several different structures that can be found beneath a mushroom cap, including gills, pores, and spines. Gills can be closely or widely spaced depending on the mushrooms, while pores tend to be very small and packed closely together. Spines are usually less common but are a very distinctive feature for identifying mushrooms like lion’s mane or hedgehog mushrooms. Also, keep in mind how the underside structures attach to the stem. Sometimes, these structures run down the stem, while others are detached.

Although some mushrooms don’t have notable stems, the shape and size of mushroom stems are key characteristics to look out for. You should also examine the stem’s texture to see if it’s smooth, fibrous, scaly, or has a distinctive pattern like the reticulated pattern on a king bolete stem.

A ring (or annulus) is a structure found on the stem of some mushrooms that can appear as a single band or as a skirt-like structure. The presence or absence of a ring can help differentiate between closely related species, especially those in the Amanita and Agaricus genera. Volvas are a cup-like, sometimes bulbous structure at the base of a mushroom stem. Some of the most common toxic mushrooms have prominent volvas, so it’s essential to unearth the base of the stem from the soil to ensure there’s no volva hidden beneath the surface.

It’s important to familiarize yourself with the ideal habitat of the mushroom species you’re searching for. Mushrooms grow on a variety of substrates and environmental conditions, so understanding their preferred growing conditions is essential to locating them. Additionally, many mushrooms form symbiotic relationships with certain types of trees, so if you can identify the trees in an area, you may have more luck finding certain species.

While some mushrooms are specific to the types of trees they grow on, others grow on a wide range of tree species. Mushrooms found growing on coniferous trees or eucalyptus can absorb compounds that could cause gastrointestinal upset or other health issues when consumed, so you should try to pay attention to the tree species associated with your finds.

Smell can be a great identification feature for many mushrooms since they have distinctive aromas that give hints about their identity and edibility. Some mushrooms smell fruity, while others smell earthy or even foul. However, these odors can change depending on the mushroom’s age.

Mushrooms can easily absorb toxins present in their environment, so it is crucial to ensure that the area where you are harvesting is not polluted by heavy metals, chemical runoff, and pesticides. These issues are more common in urban and agricultural areas.

Some mushrooms are known to change color when bruised or cut. Using this feature can help identify between different types of mushrooms and their edibility. Mushrooms that stain blue, red, black, and yellow can be an indication of toxicity. Yet this trait isn’t necessarily consistent within all mushroom species. When using this diagnostic feature to identify mushrooms, keep in mind that the reaction can occur almost immediately or take several minutes to develop.

When in doubt, take a spore print of the mushroom as an additional precautionary measure. Remove the cap from the stem and place the mushroom gills down on a piece of foil, mist it with a bit of water, then cover it with a cup or bowl to prevent airflow. After a few hours, the spores should fall and reveal their color. The color and texture of the spore print can help distinguish between species with similar macroscopic characteristics.

Sustainable harvesting tips

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  • Take only what you need and nothing more. Overharvesting can gradually deplete mushroom populations and disrupt their reproductive cycle. Always leave a few mushrooms behind rather than harvesting the entire area so that they have a chance to produce future harvests.
  • Always stay on established paths and avoid walking through sensitive areas. Trampling on vegetation can disrupt ecosystems, compact soil, and disturb animal habitats. Leave the area as undisturbed as possible. 
  • Avoid pulling or yanking mushrooms when you harvest them. Not only can this damage the mushroom, but it can also harm the mycelium and prevent regrowth.
  • When collecting mushrooms, always use mesh bags or baskets with holes so that the mushrooms’ spores can fall out and disperse as you walk through the forest. 
  • If you happen to find a good harvesting site, try rotating your locations every season to allow the mushroom populations to recover and continue providing sustainable yields.
  • Check your local laws and regulations on mushroom foraging. In some areas, you may require a permit to forage on public land. Furthermore, some areas may have limits on the quantity or species that can be collected, so always be aware of local regulations. 

Staying safe

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The thrill of discovering wild edible mushrooms can be incredibly rewarding, but safety should always be your top priority. You must be 100% certain of a mushroom’s identity before considering it for consumption. Misidentification can have serious, even life-threatening consequences, so don’t risk it. And remember the number one rule of forging: “When in doubt, throw it out.” To improve your foraging skills and confidence, don’t hesitate to seek guidance from experienced foragers or attend mushroom identification courses to enhance your foraging knowledge and ensure your safety.


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Seraiah Alexander

Seraiah Alexander

Content Editor

Table Of Contents

1
1.Morel mushrooms (Morchella spp.)
2
2. Chicken of the woods (Laetiporus spp.)
3
3. Puffballs (Lycoperdon spp., Calvatia spp.)
4
4. Chanterelles (Cantharellus spp.)
5
5. Black trumpet mushrooms (Craterellus cornucopioides)
6
6. King boletes, or porcinis (Boletus edulis)
7
7. Lion’s mane mushrooms (Hericium erinaceus)
8
8. Turkey tail mushrooms (Trametes versicolor)
9
9. Wood ear mushrooms (Auricularia auricula-judae)
10
10. Hedgehog mushrooms (Hydnum repandum)
11
Essential features to look out for when identifying mushrooms
12
Sustainable harvesting tips
13
Staying safe

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