How to Tell the Difference Between Poisonous and Edible Mushrooms

The simple answer to this is that you can’t tell the difference without identifying the individual mushroom you have found. Some poisonous mushrooms can kill, so you must be able to accurately name the fungus and be 100% sure of what it is before consumption.

There are some apparent rules for picking safe mushrooms but these are just fanciful if not downright dangerous;

  1. ‘It’s ok if you can peel the cap.’ It is easy to peel a Death Cap.
  2. ‘Mushrooms growing on wood are safe.’ No not all of them are and some are deadly, like the Funeral Bell.
  3. ‘If you see other animals eating them they are ok.’ This rule is not true, many animals can eat poisonous fungi with no ill effects.

Some good rules apply for avoiding poisonous mushrooms if you are a novice;Destroying Angel, Amanita virosa

  1. Avoid mushrooms with white gills, a skirt or ring on the stem and a bulbous or sack like base called a volva. You may be missing out on some good edible fungi but it means you will be avoiding the deadly members of the Amanita family.
  2. Avoid mushrooms with red on the cap or stem. Again you will be missing out on some good mushrooms but more importantly you won’t be picking poisonous ones.
  3. Fly Agaric, Amanita muscariaFinally don’t consume any mushrooms unless you are 100% sure of what they are. I know I have already mentioned this but it is by far the most important rule.


These rules don’t mean all other mushrooms are safe but help rule out some of the nastier types.

Some UK mushrooms are easy to identify so quite safe to eat, the Giant Puffball, Beefsteak FungusPorcelain Fungus, Cauliflower Fungus, Dryads Saddle, the Hedgehog Fungus, if you are very lucky the Truffle, Wood Ears (as long as they are growing on elder) and Chicken of the Woods (as long as it is not growing on a Yew tree). So for the novice forager these are the ones to go for, there are no dangerous lookalikes, so just learn what these mushrooms look like and you should be able to forage for them safely.

Mushrooms for Beginners

A good way to help identify mushrooms is by learning which family the fungus belongs to.

Agarics
The edible members of the Agaric family all have pink to brown/black gills, a white cap and usually a stout stem with a skirt. There are however toxic members of this family that look very similar. Once you have established that you have an Agaric bruise the cap, if it stains bright chrome yellow it is probably poisonous, if it stains pale yellow, pink or red it is probably edible but there is a further test to establish toxicity. You must smell the mushroom, edible Agarics smell pleasantly of mushroom, some with hints of aniseed or almond, the toxic mushrooms smell of Indian ink or iodine or just chemically and unpleasant.

Identifying Agarics


Boletes
Bay Boletus, Boletus badius showing its spongy poresFor example the Boletus, Suillus and Leccinum families are easy to identify as they don’t have gills but sponge like pores and generally stout stems.
There are two checks to make once you have identified a mushroom as a Bolete to determine its edibility. First, is there any red anywhere on the mushroom including the cap, stem or pores. If there is treat the mushroom as poisonous. Secondly cut the mushroom in half vertically, if the flesh immediately or rapidly stains blue, again treat it as poisonous. If the Bolete in question passes the above tests it isn’t a toxic mushroom. Sticking to the above rules means you will be missing out on some good edible mushrooms but more importantly avoiding any poisonous Boletes.

Identifying Boletes

MilkcapsOak Milk Cap, Lactarius quietus expressing a milk like substance
Milkcaps are from the Lactarius family and they mostly exude a milky substance from the gills when touched or damaged. This milk can be very acrid and/or hot so should not be tasted unless you know your Milkcaps or can eat hot chillies raw.
Most of the Milkcaps are toxic so until you learn to recognise individual members of this family, stay away from any fungi that ‘lactates’ from the gills. Unfortunately older Milkcaps tend not to lactate so younger mushrooms usually need to be found to aid identification.

Russulas
The Brittlegills or Russulas have very brittle gills and stems.
Russula, showing the brittle nature of the gillsThere are many different members of this family, some poisonous some delicious and some that just don’t taste very nice.
It is difficult to identify individual Russulas without studying them in depth. A good test for edibility however is the taste test, if a tiny amount is placed on the tongue and chewed a burn like chilli means the mushroom is poisonous, a pleasant mushroomy taste means it is edible and an unpleasant taste means you wouldn’t want to eat the mushroom anyway. This test should only be attempted when you are certain you have a mushroom from the Russula family.

Identifying Russulas

Amanitas
The Amanita family all have white gillsDeath Cap, Amanita phalloides, note the sack like volva at the base. and spores and more importantly most grow from a sack like or bulbous structure called a volva which can be hidden by leaf litter or under the soil surface so it is vital to check the base of any mushroom you are trying to identify.
There are a few edible Amanitas but the most poisonous mushrooms in the UK are in this family, the Destroying Angel and the Death Cap, so this family should definitely be avoided by the novice forager.

Identifying Amanitas

 

There are many different ways to identify a mushroom and all should be employed when out foraging.

  1. Where is the mushroom growing, in grassland or woods and what kind of tree they are growing on or under?
  2. Are the mushrooms growing singley or in a ring, troop or tuft?
  3. Do the mushrooms have a distinct smell?
  4. Does the mushroom change colour when cut or bruised?
  5. What is the size, shape, texture and colour of the cap?
  6. What is the size, shape and texture of the stem? Does it have a ring/skirt and are there any markings on it? Is the base bulbous or sack like or narrow and rooting?
  7. Does the mushroom have gills, pores or spikes under the cap? If it has gills how close are they? Do they fork? Are they attached to the stem? Are they brittle or soft and pliable?
  8. What texture is the flesh?
  9. What time of year is it?

Always check with a few different guides/pictures as mushrooms can look very different depending on where they are growing, their age and what the weather has thrown at them.

 

Spore Print

Field Mushroom Spore Print

Knowing the colour of the spore print can be very helpful as it helps narrow down your search by telling you what the mushroom isn’t. A spore print can be obtained simply by removing the stem and placing the mushroom gills down on a piece of clear glass or paper for a few hours, preferably overnight.

The colour of the spore print can be very useful to start following ‘keys’ in a mushroom guide.

It may seem like a long list of things to look out for but it soon becomes second nature to check these and be able to safely identify mushrooms in the field.

Finally, don’t be too upset if you can’t always identify a mushroom, I’ve been picking wild mushrooms all my life and still find the odd mushroom I can’t be 100% sure of.

 

14 comments for How to Tell the Difference Between Poisonous and Edible Mushrooms

  1. Patricia Duncan says:

    I have a vine house plant and it has white mushrooms coming up is it dangerous

    1. Poppy Ives says:

      If you send us some photos then we will take a look for you, you can do that here https://www.wildfooduk.com/contact-us/ or via email to admin@wildfooduk.com

  2. Clark serex says:

    Thank you very much for this post. It was helpfully to me. Thanks again.

  3. Lis Kitchener says:

    Great read. Simple to understand yet always better to be safe than sorry. Thanks

  4. Patricia steele says:

    My dog pug has just eaten s few tiny mushrooms in the grass in garden. Not had them before in garden fluted edges colour creamy beig hooded topthin stem fluited inside I’m worried he seems ok at moment

    1. Fabio Godinho says:

      Hi Patricia we hope he was ok in the end. It can be hard to identify mushrooms just from photos, even more from a vague description, especially if they are in the category of small mushrooms. There are hundreds of thousands of species of fungi in Britain, sadly your description could fit quite a few. The best thing to do is always to take some photos of the mushrooms in site and collect some and take them to the vet so they can be identified. Most mushrooms aren’t toxic at all, and then some that are toxic aren’t seriously dangerous, but very poisonous ones do exist. All animals have different metabolism so just because something is poisonous to humans or not it doesn’t mean it’s unsafe or safe for any other animals. As for their appearance fungi grow everywhere and especially in all sorts of natural habitats, but as they can be quite small and have a very short life cycle it’s easy to miss them.

  5. travis says:

    this was a very helpful article i am a avid hiker and have eaten many mushrooms in the wild but i feel i have been missing out on some good ones for lack of info.

  6. Bae says:

    Mushrooms sproutd after rain in my garden can i eat em are they safe

    1. Poppy Ives says:

      Hi Barabara, if you send us some photos we will take a look and let you know what we think they are, we can never 100% sure from photos alone though. You can send us photos here https://www.wildfooduk.com/contact-us/ or via email to admin@wildfooduk.com

  7. Gary says:

    I have been in this house for sixteen years and we have never had so many mushrooms come up. This has been a good year for rain I think that maybe the reason. I have photo can you tell me if they are poisonous?

    1. Poppy Ives says:

      Hi Gary, you can send us photos here https://www.wildfooduk.com/contact-us/ or email them to admin@wildfooduk.com and we will take a look for you, we can never be 100% sure from photos alone though.

  8. Grace Spelman says:

    So i found mushrooms in my backyard and its the end of october. Far from any trees. There are two types. One is like a dome shape that covers the whole stem and looks like a spike in the ground, its all white, has a long white stem and a bulb on the bottom, with no patterns. The other is very tall, has a white stem, a small black top, and what looks like small jellyfish tentacles hanging from its top. Also another one that looks like a cross between the two. It has a dome shape that covers half the stem, the stem is all white and the top has black edges and a blackish, brownish underside, it also has an unfamiliar sweet smell, i think its a cross breed of the other two lol. What kinds of mushrooms are these and are they edible?

    1. Poppy Ives says:

      Hi Grace, if you send us some photos of the mushrooms we will take a look for you. You can send them to us here https://www.wildfooduk.com/contact-us/ or email them to admin@wildfooduk.com, please only send one type of mushroom per email though.

  9. ROLA says:

    It is the best thing

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