Types Of Edible Mushrooms & Their Poisonous Look-Alikes

Types Of Edible Mushrooms & Their Dangerous Doppelgangers

(Image credit: Ekaterina Morozova / Getty Images)

Wild foraging is a wonderful way to expand your palate and save money. Many wild foods require a permit to harvest them, and there may be restrictions. Mushrooms are one of the best foraged foods. There are many types of edible mushrooms but a few are quite poisonous. Before you go wild foraging for mushrooms, be sure you’re armed with knowledge on identification and variety to prevent injury or even death. The difference between edible and poisonous mushroom species is sometimes very subtle, and only an expert can tell the difference.

How to Identify Edible Mushroom Varieties

Edible mushroom identification is based on body and cap forms, color, gills, size, spore print, texture, and more. Even where the fungi grow can be a clue as to the mushroom variety. There are around 10,000 species of the fungi in the United States, but less than 5 percent are poisonous. Around 30 common kinds of edible mushrooms are native in North America. The rule of thumb in gathering mushrooms is if you don’t know what it is, don’t eat it.

What to Look For

Edible and toxic mushrooms tend to live on dead and decaying matter. They also prefer a moist environment. Look around stumps and snags and at the base of trees. Organic soils, burnt or disturbed sites, and along waterways are great places to find mushrooms.

Identification is the most important part of mushroom foraging. Some mushrooms, such as morel, are very recognizable. And most edible mushrooms do not have a common doppelganger. But lurking in the forests and fields, some very toxic species can be found.

Don’t Fall for Folklore

Poisonous mushrooms were once called toadstools. In essence, they look no different than any variety of edible mushroom. Most have stems, caps, gills, and other similar features.

Old folk tales told us that if an animal eats it, it is safe, and that waiting for some time with no ill effects means the ingested fungus was safe. Neither is true! Nor is the fallacy that cooking a toxic mushroom will render it safe. Other old-school tests are also not fully true. Some claimed a toxic mushroom will tarnish silver, or that white mushrooms are safe to eat. Others assert that If a mushroom grows on wood, or in meadows or pastures, it is not poisonous. There is even a rumor that peeling a toxic mushroom makes it inert. None of these are true and only proper education and identification can truly indicate which species are safe to consume.

Common Types of Edible Mushrooms

Morel Mushrooms

Morels are instantly recognizable even to a novice forager. They have pert caps with a honeycomb texture. The meat is white and the mushroom is hollow inside. They are difficult to find, but the effort is worth it. There are 18 different species of morel in hues of black, tan, yellow, and gray. They are prized for their buttery flavor.

Poisonous Morel Mushroom Look-alikes:

  • A common fungus, the false morel is almost the spitting image of its edible cousin except it is not hollow inside and contains cottony material.
  • Big red is similar except it has reddish tones and the cap is more brain-like.
  • Wrinkled thimble cap truly looks like a morel except its wrinkled cap hangs over the stem.
  • Bell morel is smaller and the cap, although similar, is much less textured and it has a cottony interior.

Chanterelle Mushrooms

This mushroom forms a symbiotic relationship with trees. It is a delicious variety with several species in shades of pink, orange, yellow, and cream. It is shaped like a goblet, or cup. They bear blunt false gills that run under the cap. Chanterelles are a very popular culinary treat.

Poisonous Chanterelle Mushroom Look-alikes:

  • Jack-O-Lantern Mushrooms
  • Rust Gill Fungi
  • False Chanterelles

Oyster Mushrooms

This fungus grows in groups, with short off-center stems. They come in hues of gray, pink, and light brown with white gills. In most areas oyster mushrooms can be found in every season but summer.

Poisonous Oyster Mushroom Look-alikes:

  • The olive oysterling has yellow gills and a smaller, shorter cap than oyster mushrooms.

Lion’s Mane Mushrooms

Like a cascade of icicles, a lion's mane has a waterfall of creamy white material instead of a cap.

Poisonous Lion’s Mane Mushroom Look-alikes:

  • This distinctive mushroom has no look-alikes.

Puffball Mushrooms

The cap is rounded, ball-like, and white. It may or may not have a stem. The interior is fleshy when young.

Poisonous Puffball Mushroom Look-alikes:

  • Stinkhorn- when immature the interior will be gooey
  • Amanita- when young it is very round, white, and egg-like

Shiitake Mushrooms

Shiitakes have caps shaped like umbrellas. They are brown with some white speckling and a slender stem.

Poisonous Shiitake Mushroom Look-alikes

  • The aptly named Funeral Bell looks very similar to shiitake with the same form and basic coloring, but it has a faint ring of lighter brown on the cap.

Shaggy Mane Mushrooms

This fungus has a tall, narrow cap adorned with shaggy skin. It is white or black, and stands on a slender stalk.

Poisonous Shaggy Mane Mushroom Look-alikes:

  • The Green Spored Parasol mushroom also has shaggy skin but the cap is rounder, it grows lower to the ground, and the stem is thicker.

Stropharia Mushrooms

King Stropharia, or the Garden Giant, has a reddish brown cap, gray gills, and fibrous stem. The stem has a rough edge around the top like a crown. Also called Wine Cap.

Poisonous Stropharia Mushroom Look-alikes:

  • It is difficult to mistake Stropharia when they are mature and the wine-colored cap is evident. Very novice foragers could mix it up with mushrooms in the genus Agaricus, although these have pink gills.

Note: This article is for educational purposes only and should not be used as a comprehensive guide. Always seek personal, hands-on expert advice before eating wild foraged mushrooms.

Bonnie L. Grant

Bonnie Grant is a professional landscaper with a Certification in Urban Gardening. She has been gardening and writing for 15 years. A former professional chef, she has a passion for edible landscaping.