Edible Vs Poisonous Mushrooms – What Is The Difference?

Mushrooms have fascinated humans for centuries. These plant-like things aren’t really plants, but fungi, though that makes little difference to many.

Edible Vs Poisonous Mushrooms – What Is The Difference?

They are frequently eaten, and can be bought at your local supermarket for a small price.

However, many of us will be aware that there are hundreds of mushroom species. Some of them are safe to eat, while others can be lethal.

Some mushrooms even have hallucinogenic properties! Overall, they are incredible, but should always be approached with extreme caution. 

It’s no surprise that there are people out there who like to go mushroom picking.

This can be an incredibly useful skill to have if you were to find yourself in a survival situation, but many like to do it for fun.

Whether you want to spend a week in the wilderness or want to go mushroom picking as a hobby, there is a lot that you need to be aware of to start your journey. 

Something To Know Before We Get Started

This article in no way is promoting mushroom picking without adequate knowledge. If you are someone who intends on picking mushrooms in the wild, you should first undergo extensive training.

You should always work with an expert in the field who is local to your area before attempting to participate in this hobby. 

It’s important to note that there will be mushrooms that look incredibly similar in different parts of the world.

An edible mushroom in one climatic zone may look exactly the same as a lethal one in another.

As such, it’s always recommended to work with professionals who are local and will be able to differentiate. 

Before picking a mushroom, you should be sure that they are harmless beyond all reasonable doubt. Even the slightest bit of uncertainty, and you should leave it alone.

Being “adventurous” with mushrooms is not worth your life, because some are deadly enough to end it. Your safety and wellbeing is always the most important thing.

With that being said, if you would like to start learning about mushrooms, keep reading! Consider this the beginning of your journey, but know that you have a long road ahead of you.

Understanding The Types Of Mushrooms

There are two very broad classifications that are used to categorize mushrooms: edible and poisonous. Let’s take a look at these two categories below.

Edible Mushrooms

As the name suggests, edible mushrooms can be eaten safely. However, it’s important to know that, as humans, there will be diverse reactions to eating different foods.

As such, a mushroom might be fine for one person to eat, but not actually be edible for everyone. 

In North America, there are around 250 species of mushrooms.

When we are talking about edible mushrooms, we are referring to the fungi that pose no health concerns at all if they are consumed. That is, unless someone has an allergy. 

The best (and safest) way of knowing which mushrooms are edible and which are not is through expert mushroom collectors.

They will be able to determine the species, and therefore know whether it’s safe to eat or not. 

Books are also options to use, but you can never trust that 100%. Using a book only has proven catastrophic in some cases, as you can never get the full idea from pages. 

Not only that, but using empirical identification methods (e.g. taste and smell) are known to be incredibly dangerous.

There are deadly mushrooms out there that not only smell pleasant, but they taste pleasant, too. As such, it would be easy to get poisoned by one by using these methods. 

Poisonous Mushrooms

Similarly, the name of this mushroom likely tells you plenty. Poisonous mushrooms are mushroom species that can or will cause health complications if they are ingested.

Some of these mushrooms can look almost identical to edible species, which is partly what makes them such a danger. 

Some mushroom species take hours (sometimes up to 48 hours) before the individual who ate them begins to suffer.

Depending on the type of mushroom, the severity of the reaction can vary greatly.

Not only that, but the individual themselves can have a huge impact on the effect and time needed for a reaction to occur. 

It’s crucial for medical attention to be sought out as quickly as possible after ingesting a poisonous mushroom. Some of these fungi can lead to death in as little as 3-6 days after consumption. 

Common signs of mushroom poisoning to look out for are as follows:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness
  • Dehydration
  • Breathing issues

Some of the most poisonous mushroom species include:

  • Amanita virosa (destroying angel)
  • Amanita phalloides 
  • Cortinariusrubellus
  • Amanita muscaria (fly agaric)
  • Death cap

It should go without saying, but just because a video game character ate a mushroom (e.g. Eivor from Assassin’s Creed Valhalla eating fly agaric), does not mean you should. Never attempt it.

Edible Vs Poisonous Mushrooms – What Is The Difference?

Identifying Mushroom Species

There are a number of ways to try and identify mushrooms. If you are out mushroom hunting (with a professional), all methods should be used to try and determine the mushroom species.

These methods of identification are as follows:

  • Does the mushroom have a distinct smell?
  • Does the mushroom’s color change if they are cut or bruised?
  • Looking at the cap, what size, shape, color, and texture is it?
  • Looking at the stem, what is its size, shape, and texture? 
  • Does the mushroom have a ring or skirt around the stem, and are there any visible markings on it?
  • Looking at the base, is it bulbous, narrow, sack-like, or does it have rooting?
  • Does the mushroom have any pores, gills, or spikes beneath the cap?
  • If there are gills, do they form? How close are they? Are the gills linked to the stem? Are the gills soft, brittle, or pliable?
  • What texture does the flesh have? Is it covered in hairs, brittle, or soft?
  • What time of year are you seeing the mushroom?

When confirming these things, always use a number of pictures and guides to help with identification.

Mushrooms can look different depending on how old they are, the climate they are growing in, and their overall location.

There are many things to take into account, so always do your due diligence. 

The Difference Between Edible Mushrooms And Toadstools

It should be clear now that there are hundreds of mushroom species out there, and some are edible while others deadly.

Unfortunately, there is actually no one rule that fits all for mushrooms, and no one test that can be done to differentiate between them.

Testing and consuming mushrooms that you cannot properly identify will always be risky, and the risk is never worth your life. 

Sure, the majority of people will be very familiar with a number of common mushroom species.

There are mushrooms in grocery stores, which means that mushroom hunting in the wild probably isn’t very common. We pay for convenience, after all, right? 

The people who do choose to go mushroom picking should always have the appropriate knowledge to go alongside their hobby.

There needs to be training and a lot of practice in mushroom identification to do this safely. 

There are many factors that need to be considered when you’re trying to identify mushrooms in the great outdoors.

Some things will be far more noticeable, like the shape or color of fungi. Other factors, like the smell and texture, might be more difficult to notice or make sense of. 

Let’s take a look at the four broad categories to consider when you are out in the wild and come across a rogue mushroom.

Here, we will take a look at the physical characteristics, habitat, toxins, and the smell. 

When you can make sense of these four broad things, the real work begins. 

Physical Characteristics 

The first thing you are going to notice about any mushroom – the appearance.

Below is a list of common characteristics that you can use to differentiate edible mushrooms from poisonous ones:

1. Scales Or Warts On The Cap 

These kinds of patches or raised dots are usually on mushrooms when they are young.

Edible mushrooms will have relatively smooth, essentially white caps with no noticeable scales or raised warts. 

Poisonous mushrooms, however, will typically have a cat that is a different color and noticeable scales or dots.

For example, a fly agaric will usually be red with white raised spots. 

However, some may be more noticeable than others. 

2. The Shape Of The Cap

The majority of edible mushrooms will have convex or bun-shaped caps. They may have a wide, low hump, too.

Some other edible mushrooms, like the chanterelle, will have caps that are concave and uneven, possibly even trumpet-shaped. 

Poisonous mushrooms typically have convex caps when they are young, but they will flatten as the fungus matures. 

Many edible mushrooms have caps that stretch from the stem as it develops, and a ring of tissue grows around the stem. This is known as the annulus. 

Poisonous mushrooms or toadstools will not have this ring around their stems. 

Edible Vs Poisonous Mushrooms – What Is The Difference?

3. The Base Stem

Some mushrooms have a universal veil remnant in the form of a rounded cup, known as a “volva”.

In order to determine if a mushroom has this, it will need to be dug up and examined.

Edible mushrooms will have a base that is narrow, or at least not thick as the rest of the stalk. 

Poisonous mushrooms, on the other hand, tend to have a very noticeable swollen base. For example, the Amanita muscaria has a very bulbous base, which is a key element to identifying it. 

4. The Spore Print  

Identifying the spore print color is a key element to identifying mushrooms. Spores can range from black to white, with a variety of colors and shades.

For example, the Amanita have spore prints that are white. 

To determine this, you can remove the mushroom’s stem and put the gills on a white or dark piece of paper for a few hours.

When you know the spore color, you can speak to a mushroom guide and learn more about the species and whether it is edible or not.

5. The Gills

The majority of edible mushrooms have gills that are attached to the cap rather than to the stalk.

In other words, the gills will remain attached to the cap of the mushroom if you separated it from the stalk. 

In poisonous mushrooms, the gills are typically attached to the stalk. That means that the gills will stay there if you remove it from the base. 

The gills present on the cap of a young, edible mushroom will typically be pink and mature to black or grown.

In poisonous mushrooms, there will be white gills that will stay white, no matter their age or life cycle.

Their Habitat

Taking note of where the mushroom is growing is another key element of identifying the fungus. Look around you to see where it is growing – grassland, forests (Check out The Easiest Foods You Can Find In Eastern Forests) are two important things to look for.

On top of that, you need to take note of whether the mushroom is growing on or below a tree, and note down the tree itself. 

Check to see if the mushroom is growing alone, in tufts or in troops, or even in a ring. Every detail must be noted down in order to identify the mushroom. 

Edible mushrooms will usually grow on lawns and open paddocks. Toadstools, on the other hand, are usually found beneath shrubs or forested areas.

For mushrooms, like amanitas, typically start to appear in the summer and fall. They will typically be found on the floors of woodland areas, and are relatively common – so be careful!

The Toxins

Toxins will be present in toadstool mushrooms, and will not be present in edible mushrooms. These toxins will be produced by the fungi naturally, and cannot simply be “removed”.

So, whether you try freezing, canning, or cooking the mushroom, its toxins will remain. 

These toxins have been subdivided into four very broad categories. These are as follows:

  • Neurotoxins – these are compounds that can lead to a variety of neurological symptoms such as comas, convulsions, depression, spastic colon, excessive sweating, and hallucinations. 
  • Disulfiram-like toxins – these will only exhibit symptoms if alcohol has been consumed within three days of consumption. The individual will typically experience an acute toxic syndrome that is short-lived.
  • Protoplasmic – these toxins will destroy the cells of the body and ultimately lead to organ failure and death.
  • Gastrointestinal irritants – these toxins will cause symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, and abdominal cramping.

Their Smell

The smell is the final primary thing to take note of to differentiate between edible and poisonous mushrooms.

Some varieties of mushrooms will have unique smells, which can help you identify it. This is especially important when there are mushrooms that look very similar. 

For example, a chanterelle mushroom smells distinctly like apricots, so they have a fruity smell. An Agaricus xanthodermus (yellow-staining mushroom), on the other hand, will smell like almonds.

To test the smell of a mushroom, part of the mushroom’s cap must be crushed. You will find that many mushrooms don’t have a noticeable smell, while others will be prominent.

Always have a local mushroom guidebook to help you with this testing, or even better, the guide themselves. 

Bear in mind that there are descriptive words that are vague, or difficult to understand. For example, if a mushroom is described as having a “farinaceous” smell, it smells as if it contains starch.

How To Avoid Being Poisoned

To avoid being poisoned (and possibly killed) by mushrooms, you should never take risks.

You need to have the knowledge of the mushrooms in the area to stay safe and stay away from the risky fungi. 

Because there is no one thing you can do to identify a mushroom, you always need to take your time with it and be safe.

Use all the methods mentioned in this post for a start. If you aren’t sure if a mushroom you have collected is edible, you can properly refrigerate it until you can accurately identify it. 

To Summarize

The key thing to remember in all of this is that it’s never worth the risk if you don’t know. Learning about the various mushroom species is crucial, and if you act hastily, you can put yourself and others in danger. 

Take your time to properly learn how to identify different mushrooms, and you should be safe. If you have a local mushroom guide, the best thing you can do is enlist their help.

There’s nothing better than having someone who knows what they’re talking about with you in the field.

Tim Roth
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