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.

 

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

  1. Mark asselin says:

    I went mushroom hunting with my sister and she knows some of the mushrooms you can eat I ended up picking up one and showed it to her she says no good throw it away that’s poisonous so I didn’t wash my hands and I touched my lips in my eyes I rub them I got very sick for 5 days was it the mushroom or something else

    1. Poppy Ives says:

      Unless you have a severe allergy to mushrooms, it was something else.

  2. Cheryle Thomas says:

    “Thank you” for your article.
    EXTREMELY HELPFUL!
    After reading your info, I’m convinced I do NOT know what I’m doing, I’ll stick to buying at the supermarket.

    1. Izzy says:

      Can poisonus mushrooms grow in your back yard

      1. Eric Biggane says:

        Hi Izzy, poisonous mushrooms could grow almost anywhere, including your backyard.

  3. barry e swartz says:

    Edible mushrooms are found in grassy, sun lite meadows. Poisonous mushrooms are found in the stomachs of dead people.

    1. Fretherne says:

      “Poisonous mushrooms are found in the stomachs of dead people.”
      Unfortunately that isn’t true. Mushroom poisoning takes place about eight hours after eating the mushrooms. This is after the mushrooms have left the stomach and the toxins are absorbed in the intestines. it means that pumping the stomach contents after the symptons have started is too late which is why mushroom poisoning is so dangerous and difficult to treat.

  4. Alice Greene says:

    The mushrooms that grow around my house grow mostly on trees

  5. Joy says:

    Thank you for a very helpful article. I’m in the U.S and we probably have many different mushrooms her than in the UK, but the guidelines would be the same. I’ve seen sever field guides on mushrooms, but so far haven’t found one with a binomial key.

  6. Betty Roarty says:

    Is it true that if you put a silver quarter in pot of water with mushrooms and the quarter turns black the mushrooms are no good to eat

    1. Poppy Ives says:

      Never heard of that one, and I don’t think I trust it!

    2. Susie says:

      That is an old wive’s tale that is unreliable.

      1. fretherne says:

        Some sulpher compounds turn silver black. An example is the blackening of silver spoons used to eat boiled eggs especially if the egg is not fresh. This does not work for detecting poisonous fungi.

  7. Lord Daniel says:

    You have made picking mushrooms even more confusing

    1. Poppy Ives says:

      Sorry Daniel, that wasn’t our intention!

    2. Eloz says:

      exactly!..This article doesn’t help at all

  8. Hussein says:

    I touch a fungi mushroom and the next day I am sick
    Is that the reason to being sick?

    1. Poppy Ives says:

      Almost definitely not. Touching poisonous mushrooms isn’t dangerous. Eating them is!

  9. 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

      1. Blake says:

        I went mushroom searching in my buddies cow pasture and came back with a decent amount and assortment. Can I email you pictures of what I found? In Texas, US

        1. Poppy Ives says:

          We can try if you send us photos by email. We specialise in edible fungus growing in the UK though so may not be able to help.

  10. Clark serex says:

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

  11. Lis Kitchener says:

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

  12. 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.

    2. Jo Oneill says:

      My mother was European and she said that if you put a clove of garlic in with the mushrooms when cooking and it turns black it is poisonous. I’m going to try the silver coin.

      1. Eric Biggane says:

        Hi Jo, there is no way to tell a poisonous mushroom with garlic or silver, there are many wives tails out there. The only way is to learn about mushrooms.

  13. 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.

  14. 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

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. ROLA says:

    It is the best thing

  18. francesmagro54@gmail.com says:

    I found mushrooms that are white on the outside but have large black centers that smell like anise. I live in Vero beach Fl. I think I’ll try cooking them & see how it goes.

    1. Poppy Ives says:

      I’m afraid that we are only familiar with mushrooms found in the UK, there could be some poisonous mushrooms in Florida that look the same as edible ones in the UK. Therefore all the information on this site is only relevant to the UK and should not be referred to when trying to ID mushrooms from other countries. Please never eat a mushroom that you are not 100% sure is edible.

  19. Angel says:

    Where do poisonous mushrooms mostly grow

    1. Poppy Ives says:

      You can find poisonous mushrooms in almost any UK habitat.

  20. Alan says:

    Can you find an app on your phone that can identify which are safe and which are poisonous as I have PlantSnap for plants on my iPhone

    1. Poppy Ives says:

      We haven’t tried any so can’t really tell you. If you find a good one let us know 🙂

  21. Jackie says:

    Hi can anyone help?
    Can anyone identify this mushroom as I took my dog on a countryside walk this afternoon (off his lead) and there is a good chance he may have eaten one.
    Any comments welcome – thank you.

    1. Poppy Ives says:

      Hi Jackie, if you email some photos to admin@wildfooduk.com we will take a look at them and get back to you as soon as we can.

  22. Patti Wheless says:

    What mushrooms that grow wild in geargia are safe to eat?

    1. Poppy Ives says:

      Sorry, having never been we don’t really know. You do get Morels much more frequently there, which are one of our favourites but sadly quite rare in the UK

  23. Mary Wong says:

    When I was a uni student in Melbourne i often picked wild mushrooms in the paddocks near cattle poo, for some 5-6 years. They were safe to eat.

  24. Emily Storey says:

    I have a mushroom that needs to be identified please. StoreyBookJewlery@gmail.com

    1. Poppy Ives says:

      Hi Emily, if you need help identifying a mushroom then please send photos of it to admin@wildfooduk.com then we can take a look and let you know what we think it is. We can never be 100% sure from photos alone but we can point you in the right direction.

  25. Daryoush says:

    Hi your article is usefull but using mashroom as edible should be with experience .in Iran in early spring we can pick up wild mushrooms that grow in top vallyves of Zagros and Alborz
    mountains but native people can recognize edible mushrooms.but. every year we have some poisoning cases by tourists that are not familiar with local mushroom. experience is very important .

  26. Julie Kaighin says:

    Hi Poppy
    Thanks for writing this article. I am in ghana and growing bell peppers in window boxes but keep finding mushrooms growing in the box and want to identify them please. Could you help? Many thanks
    Julie

    1. Poppy Ives says:

      We can try if you send us photos by email. We specialise in edible fungus growing in the UK though so may not be able to help.

  27. Sky London says:

    I’ve got mushrooms growing where my strawberries were but are they editable

    1. Poppy Ives says:

      Hi Sky, if you send us some photos of the mushrooms we can take a look and let you know what we think they are. You can send them on our contact us page or via email to admin@wildfooduk.com

  28. charles says:

    what i have learn is all poisonous mushrooms are soft and break easy is this true

    1. Poppy Ives says:

      No, this is not true. You can have both poisonous and edible mushrooms that are soft and break easily and ones that do not.

  29. Joyce Rooker says:

    I am from the U.S. I used to pick field mushrooms on a farm I grew up on. We picked them in the field the cattle grazed in. We called them field mushrooms. I was always told that if the vail is growing up it’s safe if it’s growing down it is poison and
    If the gills are white leave it alone. I usually stuck to the white field mushrooms. They are like the white mushrooms you get in the store. My dad used to eat mushroom that were inky blue , he called them inky manes. Thanks for the helpful info.

  30. Gavin Walker says:

    Can I eat the dark spongy underside of a CEP?

    1. Eric Biggane says:

      Hi Gavin, I only leave the underside of a Cep if it has turned yellow and gone soft otherwise I eat as much of them as I can. Eric.

  31. Kaitlyn says:

    Whats your email? Id like to send you a picture if thats okay:)

    1. Poppy Ives says:

      Hi Kaitlyn, you can send a picture to admin@wildfooduk.com or you can upload and send them using the contact form on our contact us page.

    2. Eric Biggane says:

      Hi Kaitlyn, you can send photos to admin@wildfooduk.com. We’ll need photos of the stem, cap and gills and a note of where they are growing and any smells they have. Eric.

  32. Stoyan says:

    I have found in a gracy field that is an eextension of a soccer feald an Amonetas growing in a ring around a big pine tree some of them wher growing close to each other some on a distance.
    Most of them were about 5 inches big.
    The biggest was around 7 inches.
    The gilds had yellowish wight color.
    When bruised thay turned bluish.
    Thay also had like a ring on the stem almost in an inch below the cap.
    The gilds wher soft.
    The smell was plesent almost sweet.
    The stem when cut from top to bottom had brownish coller and it was hallow in the center of the stem was flash that looked like silk connecting the roots with the cap.
    The root was bulky with dirt on it.
    Soft small torns like wher sticking out from the bulky root.
    Is it an edible or poisinus?

    1. Eric Biggane says:

      Hi Stoyan, sorry but I would never try to ID a mushroom from just a description, especially not from the sometimes deadly Amanita family.

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