FARMINGTON — Foraging for wild edible plants is gaining in popularity and can add variety to the diet. It is vital to correctly identify wild mushrooms before eating them.

Growing conditions over the last month have been ideal for mushroom proliferation. Along a short walk to Cascade Brook Cascades mushrooms of different sizes, shapes and colors are growing just off the trail.

A return trip a week later with Cynthia Stancioff of Chesterville revealed ones not seen previously. Stancioff has given mushroom talks. Her main motivation is to find edible mushrooms.

“The vast majority aren’t edible. Most don’t taste good or are poisonous. Avoid little brown ones,” she said. “I’m constantly refreshing my memory. Mushroom hunting isn’t for people who aren’t detail oriented.”

Stancioff recommends using several detailed guide books as there can be variations among them.

“I can keep busy from May to the end of October looking for mushrooms,” she said.


Seanna Annis is an associate professor of mycology at the University of Maine. She has led fungal forays and taught undergraduate and graduate classes in mycology since 1999 at UMaine. She identifies fungi for the UMaine Cooperative Extension, the Poison Control Center and the public.

Depending on the species mushrooms can grow in soil or on dead or dying wooden surfaces. Some have interesting caps or top surfaces, such as the one seen here which may be a Coltricia perennis. Mushrooms can only be identified by studying all parts and performing spore and other tests. (Pam Harnden/Franklin Journal)

She says there is no magic trick to finding edibles or to identifying mushrooms.  You need to collect mushrooms and identify them and make sure you know exactly what you have. It takes study and practice.

“I am still learning new fungi all the time. I recommend if someone identifies something they think is an edible, that they check it with an expert BEFORE eating it,” Annis said.

She said there are a few good edibles and some are easy to identify once you know what you are doing. There are a lot of mushrooms which will cause vomiting and diarrhea which can be severe enough to require hospitalization. Some mushrooms have toxins that will kill liver and kidney cells, others cause respiratory problems or neurological problems.

Foraging for mushrooms is gaining in popularity. Extreme care is needed when identifying mushrooms as some species can cause mild to severe illness or even death. The mushrooms seen here were harvested by Cynthia Stancioff of Chesterville on the path leading to the Cascade Brook Cascades in Farmington. (Pam Harnden/Franklin Journal)


Annis said some toxic mushrooms can kill without a kidney or liver transplant.  Many are so toxic, eating a single one is fatal.

“My recommendation is do not eat it unless you are absolutely sure.  I have identified some mushrooms over many years before I was sure enough of my identification to try eating them,” Annis said.

This interesting mushroom was found near the Cascade Brook Cascades in Farmington. More than the cap, the top part of the mushroom seen here, is needed to identify the variety. (Pam Harnden/Franklin Journal)

She said all edible wild mushrooms need to be thoroughly cooked.  They cannot be eaten raw, again they will cause gastric upset. She suggests eating a little bit initially to see if you like it and it agrees with you. Some people have reactions (typically gastric) to even edible mushrooms.

Annis said when identifying mushrooms, the specimen has to match the description exactly. If the specimen is too tall, not the right color or growing in the wrong place it is probably not the same thing. People who mistake look-a-like poisonous fungi for edibles, usually do so by not being exact enough in matching the description.

Just because something else has eaten part of a mushroom doesn’t mean it is safe for humans to consume. Caution must be taken when eating wild mushrooms as some varieties can cause illness, shut down internal organs or be fatal. (Pam Harnden/Franklin Journal)

Thoughts by Seanna Annis on collecting and identifying mushrooms

Collect firm specimens and if several some younger (smaller) and older specimens. Some characteristics only show up on one stage of a mushroom. When you dig out the fungus try to get some of the substrate it is in. Keep samples that look like different species separate. Wrap the fungus in wax paper or put in a paper bag. NEVER USE PLASTIC! Most fungi will decompose rapidly to mush in plastic.

Notes to take in the field when fungus is found

Date and location. Where it is found, abundance, singular or in clusters, growth habit (what kind of landscape). Substrate found on: soil, wood, dung, other?  Type of soil?  Type of wood, is it living or dead? 

To do at home

Look at fresh material as quickly as possible. Make a spore print that day.  If you cannot look at the rest of the mushroom material put it in the fridge or lay them out in a cool, dry place. Look at them within a day or two since the size, color and other characters can change with drying or rotting.

Note the following: 

Size, shape and color of cap, stem, gills, pores, or other structures and flesh.

Color changes if you cut or press the flesh.

Texture and consistency (sticky, slimy?) of all of the above

Gills/pores or others – spacing, thickness, depth, way attached to stem and cap or other structures, color of young and old specimens.

It is also good to take a photo of the different aspects of a fungus to have a record of color for identification.

Spore prints

Spore color is a KEY feature in identifying fungi. You should always try to make a spore print of mushrooms, boletes and anything else you find. Use a specimen in good condition, and cut off the stem just at the level of the gills or pores. If you only have one specimen, you can cut off a quarter to half of the cap and use that to make a spore print. Place the cap on a piece of white paper or use black and white paper over-lapped. Loosely cover the cap with a container (cup, Tupperware, etc) to prevent disturbance. The mushroom cap needs to be moist to release spores, but if it is too moist the cap will turn to mush. Leave for a couple of hours; up to 8 hours maximum. Spore prints can be stored between sheets of paper or in envelopes. Spray with hairspray to make them permanent. Do not store them in plastic, they will come off of the paper.

Books Annis recommend to students

Barron, G. 1999. Mushrooms of Northeast North America. Lone Pine, Renton, Washington.

Lincoff, G.H. 1981. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Foud in libraries)

Roody, W.C. 2003. Mushrooms of West Virginia and the Central Appalachians. University of Kentucky press

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