Beginner Part 3: Families of Fungi
Updated: Aug 29, 2020
Since I was about 18, when walking through a forest I didn’t just see a sea of green leaves propped up by huge brown masts. Well, I mean I did see that, but I also saw individuals: the wide open bear hugging arms of a burr oak, the upside down lightning bolt of a sycamore tree, or the massive presence of a large cottonwood tree. Walking through the woods, I noticed the kinds of trees growing around me. I can’t always easily pick out the difference between a scarlet oak and a pin oak at a glance, or between a black walnut and a butternut, but I notice the main types growing around me--maple, oak, aspen, pine, birch, fir, cottonwood, willow, etc.
One thing I often notice in a novice mushroom hunter, is that they will want to stop to examine every mushroom they see, whereas a more experienced hunter will just hike right on by. Part of it is because without even bending over, an experienced hunter can quickly approximate the family a mushroom is in and with very little thought be able to discern whether it’s worth taking a closer look.
As I learned more about fungi, the more I realized how helpful it is to think of mushrooms the same way that I and many of us experience trees out in the woods. For each mushroom I come across, I try to acknowledge it as belonging to one of a few handfuls of some of the larger families of fungi. Memorization of some of the key characteristics of these fungal families makes mushroom hunting, and identification, much more efficient. So I thought I’d jot down some of the more common families of fungi I’ve seen and a few key traits. Hope this helps!
Think about Portobellos, creminis, and your regular store bought white button mushroom. These are all of the Agaricus family. These mushrooms are typically white to tan to brown, have white to pinkish gills when young which mature to be brown, and yield a brown spore print. They also have a partial veil that covers the gills when young and typically leaves a ring around the stalk. Many of them are edibles, some are considered to be very delicious, though a few of them will make you sick.
Amanitas are the mushroom that gives all other mushrooms a bad rep. This family includes some of the most poisonous mushrooms, such as the Death Cap and the Destroying Angel. Amanitas are characterized most definitively by growing out of a universal veil, which is basically like an egg, and remnants of this egg can typically be found throughout the fungi’s life, such as the volva at the base of the stem, the ring on the stalk, and often patches on top of the cap. All amanitas also have a white spore print. Though the Amanita family includes some of the most deadly poisonous mushrooms, it also includes some choice edibles, and most of these fungi are very common and very beautiful. This is an important family to be very familiar with--see my post on Amanitas here.
A bolete refers to a number of families of mushrooms which look much like a typical store bought agaricus, only instead of having gills on the bottom of the cap, they have tubes, appearing as a sponge-like surface. Boletes include the boletus, leccinum, tilopilus and the suillus families. There are a large number of pored mushrooms, so check out the following article for a more comprehensive discussion, but there are some general rules of thumb. If the mushroom stains blue, which means when you cut it or bruise it if it leaves a bluish imprint, then it is usually among a handful of poisonous boletes.
Chanterelles and other mushrooms in its family have a number of presentations but their biggest commonality is that they all have “false gills”, meaning that their spore disseminating structure beneath the cap are not true gills as other gilled fungi have. Instead, they have wrinkly-like skin that can sometimes resemble gills or wavy ridges and sometimes is completely flat. In the case of golden chanterelles, they mostly look like a typical mushroom with an early “button” stage but mature into large vaselike mushrooms. Other chanterelles, like the Black Trumpet, more resembles a leathery funnel growing from the ground. Many chanterelles are edible, some of them highly prized for their delicate, fruity taste and aroma, most common of which is the golden chanterelle.
Coral fungi take their name from their shape which appears much like a coral. Most of these grow from wood and are saprophytic, though some are mycorrhizal and grow symbiotically with tree’s or other plant’s roots systems. Some of these are choice edibles but others are poisonous, so it is important to be cautious. I would also include within the category of “coral fungi” the subcategory “jelly fungi”, though they are not necessarily related to one another!
The Cortinarius family is one of my favorites. It yields a number of big and beautiful mushrooms with purple hued features. These attractive gilled mushrooms are a family of fungi with orangish to tan to cinnamon brown colored spore prints, issued from gills on this mycorrhizal fungi which grow from a universal veil. The "corts" family features some very familiar mushrooms that also are some of the most toxic. Like amanitas, a couple of cortinarius fungi are deadly, most are at least mildly poisonous. Only a couple are decent edibles, but my personal recommendation is to avoid collecting them to eat unless with an extremely knowledgeable or experienced forager. Please do, however, collect a few specimens of whatever you find for building knowledge, confidence and skill in the hunt for a positive identification. Check out more on corts here.
Milk Caps (Lactarius)
Lactarius mushrooms (commonly called “milk caps”) derive their name from the fact that they emit a milky latex like substance from their gills and sometimes flesh when cut or broken. This substance typically has a peppery taste and some lactarius are considered edible, though most of them are considered too bitter to be edible and some may be poisonous. Aside from lactating, these species all have white or creamy colored gills with brittle flesh and a pale spore print, typically white to cream to pink. Technically, Lactarius is an order within the Russula family (see below).
“Little Brown Mushrooms”
Little Brown Mushrooms (LBM’s) is a term coined by David Arora for numerous mushrooms so copious in variety and occurrence that to know of all them would require an obsessive level of memorization and devotion. Beyond that, many of them are exceedingly difficult to identify due to the variability of some key identifying characteristics and to accurately identify these often you have to examine the spores under a microscope. Families of mushrooms in this category include hygrocybes, mycena, marasmius, and countless others. Some of the daintier mushrooms, though often difficult to identify make for beautiful photography, so it’s not always a mushroom that warrants passing up closer examination!
Morels and other Ascomycetes
Ascomycetes, broadly, is differentiated from Basidiomycota (including all of the normal “mushroom” shaped fungi, as well as some others), in that it tends to be more unusually shaped. The most familiar of these, of course, is the morel. A morel mushroom, at a glance, may appear similar to some of the basidiomycota, however, it is distinguished in that it drops spores of sacs called “asci” whereas basidiomycota drops spores from structures (think gills, teeth, pores/tubes, etc.) called “basidia”. The morels “asci” are all of the little pocket like craters which cover the surface of its cap. Other ascomycota include cup fungi, such as the blue stain fungus, as well as molds and yeasts, like the ones we use to make penicillin and beer, respectively.
If you’ve ever been out walking around in the woods and you saw a volleyball kinda just sitting there in the woods, you’ve met a puffball mushroom (unless it was, in fact, an actual volleyball). Giant Puffballs (calvatea gigantea) are one of the most commonly eaten wild mushrooms, as there aren’t any look alikes aside from sports accessories. Aside from the giant puffball, however, not many people are aware of the countless other delicious (in fact far superior) puffballs out there that can be eaten. Most puffballs are saprophytic, growing on dead or decaying wood. No puffball without pure pearly white flesh on the inside should be considered edible. Beyond that, there are a few poisonous puffballs out there as well, so it is still important, whenever you find or consider eating any puffball to 100% positively identify it!
Polypores are mushrooms that, like boletes, contain pores, rather than gills or teeth, on the underside of their cap. Unlike boletes, polypores are typically a shelf fungi, growing much like a ledge or shelf on the side of a tree. Some polypores, like a grifola frondosa or sparassis crispa, grow almost like a big clump of cauliflower and are considered choice edibles. Another choice polypore is the chicken of the woods (depicted at right). Most polypores, however, are woody and dense and would be very difficult to mistake for something that one would have any interest in eating.
Russulas, which are also known as “brittlegills”, tend to have a crumbly flesh and a stem which will break in the appearing like a piece of chalk. The stem and gills, like chalk are pure white with spores which are typically white to pale cream or pinkish. The most notable and striking feature of many russulas are the caps which can become quite large (often with diameter of 5 or 6 inches across) and are frequently a bright shade of red or pink, pale orange or dark green, deep purple or blue. A few russulas are considered decent edibles, but many are inedible and bitter, a few are poisonous, and none are considered to be “choice” edibles.