As a botanist, I am often asked what a particular plant is “good for.” Could it cure headaches or toothaches, perhaps help an upset stomach, or treat wounds. Sometimes people are more interested in wildlife or landscaping uses. People want to know if a plant will attract birds and butterflies, if it is beneficial to deer and turkey, or easy to care for in a flower bed. People often question the origin of a plant species and show concern for potential invasive tendencies.
Part of my job is to step outside my familiarity with the plant kingdom and identify macrofungi (fungus that produces mushrooms). Beyond knowing the name of a mushroom, there is almost always only one of two questions that follow: “Is it edible?” or “Is it poisonous?” Aside from identifying the optimists from the pessimists, these questions clearly show most interest in mushrooms is related to consumption and its aftermath.
I was once more on the pessimistic side, probably due to what I was told as a child. Upon encountering any mushroom, I’d usually hear someone tell me not to touch it since it might be poisonous. This led to a long-term belief that simply touching a mushroom could result in poisoning myself. Like most kids growing up in Missouri, I was very familiar with the tasty morel mushrooms but anything else was surely poisonous. Answering questions about edible and poisonous mushrooms have laid to rest several myths I understood as a child. I’ve learned there are many other edible mushrooms that grow in Missouri that can be just as tasty as morels. Another myth is that poisoning can occur by touching mushrooms. The mushrooms we have in Missouri that cause mild to severe distress are the result of ingesting the mushroom, and not absorption through skin.
Even with these myths debunked, the underlying caution of eating poisonous mushrooms is well founded. Several mushrooms found commonly in Missouri can make a person very sick when ingested and a few are considered potentially lethal. For that reason, there are some general guidelines to follow when eating wild mushrooms.
Check and Double-Check
Don’t rely on folk methods to determine if a mushroom is edible or poisonous. To be completely confident that a mushroom is edible, pay attention to all the features of the mushroom: the cap, stem, pore surface (where the spores are released), spore color, growth habit and size, habitat, and time of year the mushroom was observed. If even just one of these features does not match the description of an edible mushroom, it may be a similar-looking, yet poisonous, mushroom.
Never Eat a Raw Mushroom
Wild mushrooms are not growing in a sterile environment. Cooking the mushroom first will kill any harmful bacteria that might be present. It is also a good idea to prep mushrooms by slicing them lengthwise and soaking them in salted water. This should rid the mushrooms of any insects.
Try a Small Amount First
Before you eat a new species of mushroom for the first time, cook it and try a small amount. Mushrooms affect people differently, so wait at least 24 hours before eating more. Morels are a well-known and widely enjoyed edible mushroom, yet they can cause illness for some people. Be sure you do not have an adverse reaction to a species before consuming more than a small amount.
To be safe, always be certain of your mushroom identification before consuming. For more information, consult A Guide to Missouri’s Edible and Poisonous Mushrooms at short.mdc.mo.gov/ZNf.
Eat Fresh and Inspect
Many edible mushrooms are good for a very short time, so eat only fresh mushrooms. If the mushroom is soggy, has a foul odor, or is darkening, leave it for the bugs and other wildlife to enjoy. Be sure to inspect every mushroom. It is easy when gathering mushrooms to inadvertently harvest a similar-looking, yet different and potentially dangerous, mushroom. Give each mushroom a thorough inspection. When in doubt, throw it out. If you are in the slightest doubt of the identification of a mushroom, don’t risk eating it.
In my experience, I have found that learning more about edible mushrooms has been a gateway to deeper interest in other types of fungi and their role in our world. Fungi play an incredibly important role in breaking down organic material and returning those nutrients to the soil. Many form mutually beneficial relationships with roots of trees and other plants, increasing capabilities to absorb water and nutrients that help them to survive and flourish. In fact, scientists have found that soil health is based to a large degree on the relationship between fungi and plants. Some find it surprising that seeing mushrooms in your yard, garden, or flowerbed can be a welcomed sight as an indicator of good soil quality.
Have fun exploring. Mushroom hunters spend a lot of time in the woods and generally spend more time observing and learning more about the plants, birds, insects, and other life in the forest than they do gathering edible mushrooms. It can also be therapeutic. It’s good exercise and I find it very difficult to walk in the woods in a bad mood. Some of the most enjoyable moments spent mushroom hunting might be the times you come back empty handed.
Many people are surprised at the variety of edible mushrooms found in Missouri. For most, mushroom hunting is an activity that goes along with spring turkey season and crappie fishing. But there are rewards for those willing to venture into the woods on hot and humid days of summer, as the first shades of fall leaves arrive, and as flakes of the first snow begin to fall.
Chanterelle mushrooms are shaped like small funnels or trumpets with wavy cap edges. Most are bright orange or yellow, although one type is a reddish-orange color. Some fresh chanterelles have a pleasant, fruity fragrance. To make sure you have a chanterelle, cut the mushroom in half lengthwise to reveal the center part of the mushroom. Chanterelles will be completely white in the center. They do not have true gills. Instead, they have a network of wrinkles or gill-like ridges running down the stem. The ridges have many forks and cross veins and are always blunt-edged, unlike true gills, which are sharp-edged and knifelike. They range in size from ½–6 inches wide and from ½–6 inches tall.
Chanterelles are found growing on the ground in grass or leaf litter in hardwood forests during the summer and fall (May to September). They are never found on decaying wood or trees and grow as scattered individuals rather than densely compacted clumps. Chanterelles are especially common when the weather has been hot and humid.
All chanterelle mushrooms are edible. However, there are some poisonous mushrooms that look similar. Jack-o’-lantern mushrooms (Omphalotus illudens) and big laughing gym (Gymnopilus spectabilis) are two poisonous mushrooms that can be mistaken for chanterelles. These look-alikes have true gills, orange inner flesh, and usually grow in tightly compacted clusters instead of scattered individuals. Chanterelles are susceptible to overharvest, so don’t pick more than half or you might not find many in that location again.
There are two species of mushrooms commonly referred to as chicken of the woods. They both have bright orange overlapping caps that can grow up to 12 inches wide, making them one of the easiest mushrooms to spot. The caps do not have a stalk, and are flat and shelflike, with a fleshy texture. Young mushrooms have vibrant color but fade to a peach or salmon color with age. If you were to lay one of the caps on a black piece of paper for about one day and gently lift it up, the white or yellow spores will appear like powder on the paper.
Chicken of the woods is found on dead or dying hardwood trees, stumps, buried roots, or living trees. They can be found in Missouri from May to November, although they most commonly occur in the fall.
The distinctive color and growth pattern of chicken of the woods makes it difficult to mistake them for any other poisonous mushroom. They can cause a mild allergic reaction (swollen lips) in some people. If you’re eating them for the first time, cook and try a small amount to determine if they will cause an allergic reaction.
Cook only the tender outer edges of the caps because the inner portions are tough and woody. Be sure to gather only the young, fresh mushrooms with vibrant color. As the mushroom ages and the color fades, the flavor and texture become less favorable. When cooked, this mushroom has the texture and often the taste of chicken and can be used as a chicken substitute in casseroles, enchiladas, and more.
Look at the underside color of the caps to identify the particular species — Laetiporus sulphureus has a sulfur-yellow color while the underside of L. cincinnatus will be white.
Lion’s mane is a round, beardlike mushroom that is an unbranched mass of long, hanging, toothlike spines. They may grow quite large, as much as a foot across with each spine ½ to 2 inches long. Also known as bearded tooth, this mushroom is white when young but yellows with age. They are found growing on trunks of living hardwood trees and on fallen trees and logs in Missouri from August to November.
Only young, white specimens should be eaten; older, yellowed ones are sour. Although they are a distinctive mushroom, comb tooth (Hericium coralloides) is a closely related and similar looking species but is more open, with branched spines. Fortunately, comb tooth is also a good edible when young and white.
Two species are referred to as oyster mushroom and both are edible. Pleurotus ostreatus is pale to dark brown and favors cooler weather in the spring and fall, while P. pulmonarius is white to pale tan and appears in the warm summer months. They are gilled mushrooms with a stubby, off-center stalk. The cap is 1 to 8 inches wide, semicircular to elongated like an oyster and is smooth, sometimes wavy on the edges. The gills are narrow, and their attachment descends along a short, thick stalk.
Oyster mushrooms are always found growing on wood in overlapping clusters. They sometimes appear to be growing out of the ground but are attached to tree roots beneath the soil surface.
Because there are several similar-looking species that grow on wood, confirm the identification of oyster mushrooms by making a spore print. Place the cap on a white piece of paper for about one day, gently lift the cap and the grayish-lilac spores will look like powder on the paper. Most species that get misidentified as oyster mushrooms are not dangerous, but they may be woody or unpleasant tasting. Watch out for the small black beetles that sometimes infest this mushroom.
These large, common mushrooms often appear in fairy rings on suburban lawns and cattle pastures. Perhaps due to their similar appearance to the mushrooms sold in grocery stores, they are one of the most commonly eaten poisonous mushrooms. Green-spored lepiotas cause violent gastrointestinal upset, including vomiting and diarrhea severe enough to require hospitalization.
False morels have also been called red morels, elephant ears, Arkansas morels, and elfin saddles. They should be considered poisonous, although many people have enjoyed eating them and some even consider them a favorite edible wild mushroom. However, false morels can cause serious illness and death. They contain various levels of gyromitrin, a toxin that when consumed, is hydrolyzed into the toxic compound monomethylhydrazine (MMH). This compound causes diarrhea, vomiting, severe headaches, and can occasionally be fatal. Because of different cooking techniques, level of toxicity, and individual sensitivities, false morels sicken some people but leave others seemingly unaffected. However, the toxin is known to accumulate in the body over time, perhaps delaying effects of the toxin.
Go on a mushroom hunt and get your daily Nature Boost! Listen to MDC’s Nature Boost podcast to hear more from Malissa Briggler about tasty mushrooms you can find in Missouri throughout the year. Stream Nature Boost on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.
Also In This Issue
This Issue's Staff
Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Associate Editor - Larry Archer
Photography Editor - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek
Designer - Shawn Carey
Designer - Marci Porter
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Circulation - Laura Scheuler