Identifying Wild Mushrooms: What to Eat, What to Avoid

A Quick Guide to Safe Mushroom Foraging

color illustration showing four toxic mushrooms to avoid eating from treehugger website

Treehugger / Alex Dos Diaz

Mushroom collecting is a practice that helps people discover local food sources. Of the many different species in North America, almost all of the mushrooms are technically edible, but many are too fibrous to consume. Only about 250 are considered significantly poisonous.

The consequences of making a wrong guess or a misidentification about whether a mushroom is edible can be severe. What's even more challenging is some edible and poisonous mushrooms look almost exactly alike.

In this guide, we'll help you identify some common edible mushrooms and highlight which ones are poisonous and should be avoided.

Treehugger Tip

When searching for mushrooms in the wild, inexperienced foragers should search for mushrooms alongside an experienced and trusted mycologist.

Chanterelles vs. Jack-O’-Lanterns

Chanterelles and Jack-o'-latern mushrooms look a lot alike; however, Jack-o'-lanterns should not be eaten as they are poisonous.

Chanterelles (Edible)

Chanterelles in a basket
Erik Rank / Getty Images

The gold-yellowish or brilliant orange color of chanterelles makes them easy to spot during a walk in the woods. Chefs love to cook with chanterelles because of their unique peppery, peachy, apricot flavor and because they are found only in the wild.

Where they grow: Chanterelles are found on the East and West coasts. At maturity, East Coast chanterelles tend to be smaller (about the size of a fist) than those on the West Coast, which can weigh up to two pounds.

When to forage: You can forage East Coast chanterelles during the summer and early fall, and West Coast chanterelles from September to February.

Habitat: Chanterelles tend to grow in small clusters among hardwoods, conifers, shrubs, and bushes. They are also often found in leaf litters of mountainous forests and among grasses and mosses.

Jack-o'-lanterns (Poisonous)

Jack-o-lantern mushrooms growing on the forest floor
photoguy15237 / Getty Images 

The jack-o’-lantern mushroom is a common mushroom with two varieties in the United States. East of the Rocky Mountains, Omphalotus illudens is bright orange. West of the Rockies, Omphalotus olivascens grows in southern and central California. Omphalotus olivascens is olive in color, mixed with orange. Jack-o’-lanterns can be found in urban settings in large clusters at the base of trees, on stumps, or on buried wood.

How to differentiate them from a chanterelle: There are two primary differences between chanterelles and jack-o’-lanterns. The jack-o’-lantern has true, sharp, non-forking gills that descend the stalk. Chanterelles have blunt, gill-like ridges on the cap to the stem. When the stem of a jack-o’-lantern is peeled, the inside is orange. In chanterelles, the interior of the stem is paler than the exterior.

Morels vs. False Morels

Two more mushrooms that are difficult to tell apart are morels and their toxic identical twin.

Morels (Edible)

Yellow Morel Mushrooms growing in the forest
Matt Meadows / Getty Images

Morels are one of America’s most popular and highly regarded mushrooms. They range in color from cream to almost black, and their honeycomb pattern makes them easy to spot.

Where they grow: Morels grow in almost every state. Exceptions are Florida and Arizona, which are too hot and arid for these mushrooms to thrive.

When to forage: You can forage morels in the early spring before trees leaf out.

Habitat: Morels thrive in moist areas and on specific tree types: Ash, tulip, oak, hickory, sycamore, cottonwood, maple, beech, conifers, and apples.

False Morel Mushroom growing in some moss
tomasztc / Getty Images 

False Morels (Poisonous)

There are approximately a dozen species of false morels that grow in the United States. False morels fruit in the spring at the same time as morels as well as in the summer and fall.

How to differentiate from an edible morel: Though people sometimes confuse the two, they are actually quite different. The caps of false morels have a wrinkled, brain-like, or saddle-shaped structure rather than a honeycomb look. Also, when sliced down the middle lengthwise from the top, morels have hollow interiors, whereas false morels have a cotton-ball-looking substance inside their stems.

The Deadliest Mushrooms

Mushrooms in the genus Amanita are among the deadliest in the world. Here are some ways to recognize two of these.

Death Caps

2 death cap mushrooms on the ground
De Agostini / R. Ostuni / Getty Images 

This highly toxic mushroom (Amanita phalloides) is blamed for the most mushroom poisonings in the world. While native to Europe, death caps also form on the east and west coasts of the United States.

Description: Death caps have a 6-inch-wide cap, often sticky to the touch, that can be yellowish, brownish, whitish or greenish in color. The cap has white gills and grows on a stalk about 5 inches tall with a white cup at its base.

Can be confused with: Young death caps can resemble puffballs, including genera Calvatia, Calbovista, and Lycoperdon.

When seen: Death caps can appear from September to November.

Habitat: Under pines, oaks, dogwoods, and other trees.

Destroying Angels

Underside of a destroying angel mushroom growing in a forest
Σ64 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

Destroying angels get their name from their pure white stalks and caps. Like the death caps, they belong to the genus Amanita, with several species occurring in different regions of the country. All varieties have a similar white fruiting body.

Description: An attractive white cap, stalk, and gills.

Can be confused with: In their button stage, destroying angels can be confused with button mushrooms, meadow mushrooms, horse mushrooms, and puffballs.

When seen: Destroying angles appear in the summer and autumn months.

Habitat: All Amanita species form relationships with the roots of certain trees. Destroying angels can be found in or near woodlands or near shrubs and trees in suburban lawns or meadows.

Three Common Edible Mushrooms

There are plenty of edible mushrooms that are safe to eat. We've highlighted three you might find on your next search.

Lion's Mane

Lion's mane mushroom growing on a tree
AlbyDeTweede / Getty Images

Also known as the bearded tooth, hedgehog or pom pom mushroom, the distinctive Hericium erinaceus can be found growing on hardwood trees in late summer and fall. Its distinctive shape, which resembles the mane of a male lion or a pom pom, is unlike any other mushroom. Its taste is also unique and often compared to seafood.

How to recognize it: Beech trees are frequent hosts. Another identifying characteristic is that it tends to grow its spines from one group rather than from branches. It can also grow very high in the trees, as much as 40 feet up the trunk.

Maitake Mushrooms

Two maitake mushrooms growing on a mossy log
ueapun / Getty Images

Also known as hen of the woods, ram’s or sheep’s head, maitake mushrooms (Grifola frondosa) grow at the base of hardwood trees like oaks. This mushroom is prolific in the Northeast but has been found as far west as Idaho. Because they can grow quite large and become too tough to eat, they should be harvested when they are young. Older specimens can be dried, powdered, and used for soups and sauces, also for a unique breading adjunct.

How to recognize it: Maitakes have small, overlapping tongues or fan-shaped caps.

Oyster Mushrooms

oyster mushrooms growing on a tree
Neil Beckerman / Getty Images

Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) belong to a genus of some of the most commonly eaten mushrooms. They can be found in every season of the year but are most prolific in cooler weather. Be sure to clean carefully to remove any insects that may be hiding in the gills. Also make sure to discard the stems, which tend to be woody.

How to recognize it: Look for their scalloped caps on dying hardwood trees such as oaks, maples, and dogwoods, especially after the first rains of the fall. The caps are a whitish-gray, sometimes tan. Cultivated varieties found in grocery stores may have blue, yellow, or pink caps.

Treehugger Tips

Tradd Cotter located a fungi research lab and growing operation on his Mushroom Mountain woodland in Liberty, South Carolina. He shared these tips with readers on mushroom foraging:

  1. Join a local mycological (fungi) group. They are located all over the United States. A list is available at the North American Mycological Association.
  2. Buy a regional field guide to learn what mushrooms grow wild near you.
  3. Seek to identify at least the genus of the mushroom you have found. Identification keys include the stem, a spore print, what the mushroom is growing on, and the structure of the stem base, which could be below ground.
  4. Take two collecting baskets when foraging. Put mushrooms positively identified as edible in one. Put mushrooms you are uncertain about in the other.
  5. Be extremely careful if you are a pet owner or want to take your dog on a foraging trip.
View Article Sources
  1. Maxwell Moor-Smith, BSc, Raymond Li, BSc(Pharm), MSc, Omar Ahmad, MD, FRCPC. The world’s most poisonous mushroom, Amanita phalloides, is growing in BC. BCMJ, Vol. 61, No. 1, January, February, 2019, Page(s) 20-24 - Clinical Articles.