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A Beginner’s Guide To Identifying Mushrooms

Mushrooms can be notoriously difficult to ID and have developed a reputation for being a dangerous wild food. And while this is true for some, there are many edible and delicious mushrooms out there! Here are a few very basic hints and tips to help you on your way to correctly identifying any mushrooms you might come across.

One of the first questions that might come to mind when you come across a new mushroom is of course 'Can I eat it?' But to help you distinguish your mushroom from literally hundreds of others, there are a couple of other questions which will help you to determine which one it is you have found and whether or not it is safe to eat.

  1. What does it look like?

  2. What does it smell like?

  3. Where is it growing?

  4. At what time of the year did you find it?

  5. What do the spores look like?

1. What does it look like? When you're trying to identify a mushroom that you've never come across before, you're going to find it really useful to know a little bit about the anatomy of mushrooms. Words like cap, spores and gills are going to appear frequently when you're trawling through ID books and websites looking for the information you need to decide on the ID of your mushroom.

Most mushrooms have a cap (the top of the mushroom), and a stem (sometimes referred to as a stipe). On the underside of the cap you'll find gills, which is where the mushroom will release its spores. Spores are microscopic deposits which are how mushrooms reproduce - you could say they are like the seeds of the mushroom. As the mushroom reaches maturity, the spores are released and the mushroom, with its job done, begins to decompose. The colour, shape and size of these features are usually the first things to look at when trying to ID a mushroom. I should say that not all mushroom have gills on the undersides of the cap, but instead have folds or pores.

Mushroom anatomy

Mushroom Anatomy Dryad's Saddle, showing the cap, pores and stem

2. What does it smell like?

There are a few mushrooms which have very distinctive and unique scents. Dryad's Saddle (pictured above) smells very much like watermelon, or cucumbers. Chanterelle mushrooms are supposed to smell similar to apricots, and there are many mushrooms which simply just have the same mushroom-y smell as the white, closed cup mushrooms you can buy from a supermarket. It won't always be a key identification feature, but it can help you in confirming or denying your suspicions.

3. Where is it growing?

Mushrooms tend to mainly grow in either woodland or grassland, occasionally both. Where you found your mushroom can really help with ruling out mushrooms which only grow in one or the other. Is it growing on a living tree or dead wood? Is it growing straight out of the soil? Or is it growing near a specific species of tree? These are all really useful questions to take note of when you're trying to ID a new mushroom. You will only find Oysters or Velvet Shanks growing on dead or living wood for example, not out of the ground, and Giant Puffballs tend to grow in open grassland. You may be surprised at just how many species of mushrooms favour a particular species of tree - Chicken of the Woods, although not exclusively, tends to grow on old Oak Trees, and Morels are said to favour apple trees.

Velvet shanks growing on a living ash tree
Velvet Shanks on a living Ash tree
Giant Puffballs
Giant Puffballs found in open grassland

4. When is it growing?

Just like plants, certain mushrooms only grow at certain times of the year. This can vary slightly depending on the weather though; if there hasn't been much rain, then the mushrooms are probably going to be slow to appear. It’s a common misconception that mushrooms only grow during the Autumn, there are in fact mushrooms which only grow during Spring and Summer. Morels tend to start to appear in April, and the St. George mushroom tends to appear around St. George's day. Chances are if you come across a white capped mushroom, with white gills around St. George's day, then it's likely to be the St. George, but it’s still best to check all of the other identification features to make sure as there are poisonous lookalikes which appear at other times of the year.

St. George Mushroom growing in open grassland
St. George Mushroom

5. What do the spores look like?

Mushrooms with gills drop their spores which makes them really easy to use as an identification feature. The colours vary from mushroom to mushroom, with many producing spores of the same colour. It’s not always going to produce a reliable ID, but it can often help with distinguishing between mushrooms. To avoid making this post too long, I'm going to be giving detailed instructions of how to 'collect' the spores and use them to make a spore print in another post. Its a really quick and fun activity, and its a little bit of nature magic to get children involved with too!

I hope you've found these tips helpful, and they provide you with a few initial steps to identifying any mushrooms you might come across when out and about. It’s always a good idea to cross reference any books, websites and apps you're using to find your information to make sure its as accurate as possible. And remember that even if you have the smallest shred of doubt about an ID, never eat a mushroom (or anything for that matter!). It’s best just to leave it well alone, its certainly not worth risking your life over.


These are two of the best websites I can recommend when it comes to identifying mushrooms. You can use them to cross reference information and photos, and they give information about how to find particular mushrooms and how to eat them!

I'd recommend the app Shroomify as well, but it's not always reliable but is handy to use for a rough check, but it shouldn't be your only source of clarification.

There are also a number of brilliant field guide books out there too - but by far the best one I have come across is from Wild Food UK (the link above) and covers all kinds of wild food, not just mushrooms.



The Cramlington Forager

Here I share my own recipes which I use to make the most of seasonal wild food. You'll find handy foraging guides and plant profiles to help get to know the plants which grow all around us, and to start you down your own foraging journey.


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