Wild Mushrooms

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Wild mushrooms. They’ve become quite The Thing these past few years, with more and more foraging tours, identification groups and recipe crazes popping up each year. So how can you get involved without putting yourself at risk of poisoning?
It’s estimated that Australia is home to over 250,000 species of fungi, yet only around 5,000 have been described. Within that, only a minute portion have been assessed as safely edible. It’s therefore advised to consider any mushroom you find as toxic until undeniably proven otherwise. Whilst that may seem overly cautious, it’s worth knowing how real the risks are.

Deadly mistakes

Amanita phalloides, known commonly as the Death Cap, is responsible for a staggering 90% of mushroom-related deaths around the world, and has caused 4 deaths in Australia since 2002. Eating just one of these unassuming white mushrooms puts you at high risk of suffering fatal organ failure within a week.
Whilst not as deadly as the Death Cap, Agaricus xanthodermus (Yellow Stainer) has been responsible for the greatest number of Australian mushroom poisonings, hospitalising scores of people every year, and poses a serious threat to the immuno-compromised. Its prolific growth in suburban areas and resemblance to store-bought white mushrooms make it a genuine pitfall species for novice foragers.
The potential for fatal errors is what’s held us back from foraging white mushrooms for now, although we hope to spend time learning more about them over the next few years. That may seem like a long time, but realistically, it’s not uncommon for foragers to spend several years learning to feel confident in their identification skills. Prolonged field experience is a far better teacher than any one person or text, so no matter where and how you learn about foraging, be prepared: it’s a lifelong skill building exercise!
Mushroom identification is serious business, and not something to be rushed, as the potential risks are simply too high. It’s not an overstatement to say that you’re taking your life into your own hands every time you decide to eat wild foraged mushrooms, but a solid understanding of the factors you need to consider when making an accurate identification can reduce the chances that you’ll make an error.
Australia has quite a few different species of edible mushrooms, and fortunately for us foragers, there are a small handful (Saffron Milkcaps, Weeping Boletes and Slippery Jacks to name three) that have no really close toxic lookalikes. There are many other edible species as well, but some of these have doppelgangers with the ability to cause you some real harm if you eat them.

Basic mushroom anatomy

Knowing the basic anatomy of fungi is imperative for any would-be forager. Understanding the difference between pores, gills and teeth is vital, as every reputable guidebook will use this terminology.
The diagram below is a hypothetical Franken-shroom showing basic defining features of different fungi. You’ll never find a mushroom with all of these features at once, but simply knowing they exist as possible ID features to look out for is a great place to start. Keep this handy when reading ID notes in field guides.

How to identify wild mushrooms

Once you understand that mushroom foraging can be risky, and you realise that you’ll need to learn a fair bit before cooking up a storm, you’ll want to get your hands on some reputable reference texts. Relying on ‘the internet’ as your primary source of information just doesn’t cut it with mushrooms. Sure, use well-respected foraging sites and botanical institutes to help hone your knowledge, but to begin with, you’ll need specific field-guides to help you learn to confidently ID different species.
Australia has a limited number of fungi field guides written with reference to edibility of the named species, which you can find listed at the bottom of this article. Of them, the most recent – “Wild mushrooming: a guide for foragers”) by Alison Pouliot and Tom May – has the most user-friendly layout and useful content for beginning foragers, and is an invaluable guide to have on hand.
We like to use Australian texts like this one to help us confidently ID a species, and then we’ll look that species up in texts and reference websites from around the world. Many of the edible species we have in Australia originally came from Europe, and as they’ve been foraging for centuries over there, there’s a lot more informative material to be found outside of Australian references.
A word of warning: once you’ve started being able to identify different species, be prepared to feel even more unsure than before! Sometimes finding out what you don’t know can be disheartening, but remember that applying your ID skills will become easier with time and practice.

How to hunt

  • Make sure you’re headed to a safe, legal zone.
  • Bring a sharp knife and small brush to cut and clean mushrooms, and guidebooks to help ID specimens. If in doubt, leave it out! (Meaning, if you wouldn’t confidently feed it to your best friends’ children, don’t eat it yourself.)
  • Pay attention to where the mushrooms are growing: this helps inform an ID.
  • Look for ‘shrumps’ (mushroom humps) in grass or leaf litter: there’s often a mushroom underneath.
  • Tread lightly: leave the environment undamaged; take only what you can eat/preserve within a day; leave behind more than you take.
  • Carry collected mushrooms cap-side up in a basket (so they spread spores throughout the area as you move).
  • Perform a spore print test of any specimens you’re unsure of: spore colour is useful in ID.

Questions to ask

With your field guide in hand, here are some of the things to consider when seeking to identify a mushroom. There are many more elements to each point than we’ve listed, but this gives you an idea of what you’re in for if you say you want to learn to forage mushrooms!

Colour & appearance of stem:

Is the stem short or long; hollow or solid? Does it have markings on it? Pock marks, a grainy texture, cracks? Is there a ‘skirt’ present on the stem?

Colour & appearance cap:

Is the cap conical, rounded, flat, parasol-shaped? Do the edges curl under, curl up, ruffle, crack, disintegrate? Does the cap have markings – warts, striations, rings, pock marks, scales? Is the skin slimy, coarse, smooth, powdery?

Colour & appearance spore-carrying structure:

Is the underside of the cap covered in gills, pores or teeth? Are those structures small or large? Do they stop at the stem, or trail down the stem? Are they evenly spaced or haphazard? Is there evidence of powdery spores, or liquid spores?

Size and thickness

How big is the whole mushroom? What are the proportions of the cap to the stem? How thick is the cap, stem?


Is the mushroom flesh firm, soft, spongey, rubbery? Does it have a consistent structure? Does it change colour when you bruise/cut it?

Growth location

Which country are you in? Which state/territory/province? What’s the altitude? What is the predominant surrounding habitat? What plants are immediately near the mushroom?


What is the mushroom growing from? Wood, soil, rotten timber/leaves, animal dung?

Growth habit

Is the mushroom alone, or in clumps? If clumps, how many in a group? Is it growing in a ring? Around a tree? On a tree??

Time of year/weather

What season is it? What’s the weather been like in that location for the past week?


Does it have an odour? What about if you break it? Is the smell sweet, fruity, funky, dirty, acrid, rancid, chemical? Putting the mushroom in a closed container for half an hour or so will help amplify the odour, thus allowing you to smell it more clearly.

Difference in appearance between young & old

What changes do you notice in colour, shape, size, texture between young and old specimens?

Overnight spore print

When you do a spore print test overnight, what colour are the spores that fall on the plate/paper?
Even armed with all these facts, if you want to head down the path of ‘absolute certainty’, it’s widely acknowledged that the only way to be completely sure of a mushroom ID is to answer all the above questions, AND look at the mushroom spores under a microscope. For most foragers, this isn’t possible or realistic, so it becomes all the more important to hone your other observation skills.

So, how do I get started?


What to look for and where

According to a quick survey of Australian foragers, Saffron Milkcap (Lactarius deliciosus) is the standout favourite edible, but other tasty species mentioned include Birch Bolete, Wood Ear, Wood Blewit and Lawyers Wig. Each of these grows in different climates and environments, so hit the books for more info on these species and their distribution.
The easiest edible species for novices to master in Australia–Saffron Milkcap, Slippery Jack (Suillus luteus), and Weeping Bolete (S. granulatus) – grow predominantly with the roots of Pinus radiata, so foraging around pine plantations is fairly common. Heading to regions where prime agriculture was introduced in the early 1900’s is a good idea, as many affluent homesteads belonged to Europeans with wealth behind them, and one of the things they did was to plant their properties with ‘exotic’ species from Europe and Asia, and often these brought existing fungi colonies with them.

When to go hunting

Many edible fungi species require a combination of moderate temperatures and consistent moisture to grow the reproductive body we know as a ‘mushroom’. That means there’s usually a flush of mushroom growth in south-eastern Australia during autumn and winter. Occurrences in other northern and western states will depend more specifically on growth habitats and types of fungi. In recent years, we’ve been seeing species that traditionally pop up in autumn turn up all through the year, simply because climate and weather patterns are changing so drastically.
Put simply, if you’re hunting for the more commonly known edible species, a decent general rule to go by is: when it’s cool enough to wear a jumper at night, and you have to wipe your feet before coming inside, it’s time to check your local pine trees!

Species to look for

This obviously depends on the season, your location, the surrounding habitat etc, so you’ll need to do some more research, but here are a list of species to keep an eye out for in the difference states of Australia. The Atlas of Living Australia is a great resource to use when working out how common (or not) a species is, so before you head out spotting, use this resource to find out which regions each species has been sighted in so you know what you might be able to expect.

Frequent Ask Questions On Wild Mushrooms

Is it safe to pick mushrooms in Australia?

Wild mushrooms are springing up earlier around Australia after a wet Summer, so today the Food Safety Information Council warned people not to pick wild mushrooms because of the deadly deathcap mushroom poisoning risk.

Where do mushrooms grow in the wild?

Size: These mushrooms are medium to large in size when they reach maturity. Habitat: Can be found growing right on the ground, sometimes as a group in open woods and forests and often under trees. Range: It can be found throughout the western states and Alaska. Morel mushrooms are some of the most prized edible mushrooms.

What is wild mushrooming for foragers?

Wild Mushrooming: A Guide for Foragers is co-authored by leading experts Alison Pouliot and Tom May and delivers expert advice on best ways to go about finding, identifying and collecting the right mushrooms.

Are there poisonous wild mushrooms?

There are many types of poisonous wild mushrooms that should be avoided. Never eat a mushroom that you aren’t completely sure is edible. For your safety, it’s critical that you only hunt mushrooms if you are experienced in identifying edible varieties.


Which mushrooms are safe to eat in Australia?

The easiest edible species for novices to master in Australia–Saffron Milkcap, Slippery Jack (Suillus luteus), and Weeping Bolete (S. granulatus) – grow predominantly with the roots of Pinus radiata, so foraging around pine plantations is fairly common.

Can I eat the mushrooms that grow in my garden?

Luckily, a few types of wild mushrooms are edible. Morels (Morchella) and shaggy mane or inky caps (Coprinus comatus) are fine to eat, as are a type of chicken mushroom or sulphur shelf mushroom (Laetiporus sulphureus) and puffballs (Calvatia, Lycoperdon).

Can I eat the mushrooms which have appeared in my garden?

Common in healthy lawn turf, lawn mushrooms are not generally poisonous to humans but as a precaution, it’s wise not to try eating them unless you are 100% sure that you can identify them accurately.

What happens if you eat mushrooms from the garden?

Only about 3% of known mushroom varieties are poisonous, and the symptoms of poisoning can vary from gastrointestinal discomfort to liver failure and death, depending on the type of toxin ingested. Acute liver failure from mushroom poisoning is relatively less common, but it does happen.

Are mushrooms that grow in grass poisonous?

Despite any horror stories you may have heard, most lawn mushrooms are completely harmless. That doesn’t mean that you or your children should be eating them, but if your pet
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