Fungi Fundamentals

Learn the basics of Missouri mushrooms

By Moe Godat


Before You Forage

If you want to forage for mushrooms to eat, it’s important to remember how easy it can be to harvest a similar-looking yet potentially dangerous mushroom to the one you’re searching for.

Many types of mushrooms look alike, so unless you’re totally familiar with the type of mushroom you’re harvesting, it’s better to leave it than eat it. When in doubt, throw it out.

Puffball (Lycoperdon, Calvatia)

Description: Puffballs are white, rounded to turban-shaped balls with a pore at the top. They can have spiny warts as well, though these aren’t necessary. The exteriors can change color depending on the mushroom’s age, ranging from yellow to pink and brown. When they are fully mature, the pore on the top will open to release spores.

Size: Puffballs can greatly vary in size and can be mistaken for either golf balls, baseballs or volleyballs. Most commonly found in Missouri are a smaller variety, growing from between one to three inches tall.

When and where: You can find this mushroom popping up in late summer or fall, usually between July and October. They can grow singly or in clusters, and are usually found in open areas such as lawns, open woods or on barren areas with soil or decaying wood.

Cautions: If the mushrooms shows any sign of a developing cap or stem inside, it is not a puffball and should not be eaten. Slice each puffball from top to bottom; the interior should be completely white and featureless, resembling a marshmallow.

Morels (Morchella)

Description: Morel mushrooms are the most widely recognized edible mushroom in Missouri; they have an elongated, conical honeycomb cap with brownish-black ridges and yellowish brown pits. The stem is completely hollow and sometimes enlarged at the base.

Size: The size of morel mushrooms can vary, ranging from two to 12 inches tall.

When and where: Springing up between March and May, morels thrive best in moist woodlands or in river bottoms; they are commonly associated with ash trees, dying elms and apple trees, though they can grow around any type of tree. They grow mostly as scattered individuals.

Chanterelles (Cantharellus)

Description: Chanterelles are funnel or trumpet-shaped with wavy edges ranging in color from yellow to orange or reddish-orange, and many carry a fresh, fruity fragrance. They also have a network of wrinkles or gill-like edges with blunt edges running down the stem.

Size: Chanterelle size varies greatly depending on growing conditions and species, ranging anywhere from half an inch to six inches wide and tall.

When and where: They are found in hardwood forests during the summer and fall, especially May through September. You can find chanterelles growing in large numbers of scattered individuals on the ground in grass or leaf litter.

Caution: While all chanterelles are edible, there are some poisonous mushrooms that look similar, such as Jack-o’-lantern mushrooms (Omphalotus illudens). These look-alikes have true gills, orange inner flesh or orange to rust-colored spore print, and usually grow in tightly compacted clusters instead of scattered individuals.

Oyster Mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus, P. pulmonarius)

Description: Oyster mushrooms are known for their white, gray or tan cap with gills and an off-center stalk. The name comes from the semicircular cap shape that resembles an oyster shell. The gills are narrow, and they attach along a short, thick stalk.

Size: The cap is one-to-eight inches wide with a stalk up to one and one fourth inches long and three fourths of an inch wide.

When and where: Oyster mushrooms will grow year-round, but they will always be found on wood; though they may appear to grow on the ground, they are actually attached to tree roots beneath the soil’s surface. You can find them growing in large clusters of overlapping, shelf-like caps.

Caution: Most species that get misidentified as oyster mushrooms are not dangerous, but they may be woody or unpleasant tasting. Be totally sure about the mushroom’s species by making a spore print and cross referencing it online.

Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus)

Description: The easiest of all Missouri edible mushrooms to spot, Chicken of the woods has bright orange, shelf-like caps with a fleshy texture and no stalk. With age, they can fade from bright orange to a peach or salmon color.

Size: This mushroom can vary in size from two to twelve inches wide.

When and where: Found in summer and fall, especially May through November, Chicken of the woods like growing on living, dead or dying hardwood trees, stumps or buried roots. They are very rarely found in spring, unless we’re experiencing warmer temperatures earlier in the season. They typically grow in large clusters of overlapping caps.

Caution: Some people do experience a mild allergic reaction (swollen lips) to this mushroom. When trying it for the first time, cook a small amount to determine if it will cause a reaction.

Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa)

Description: The spoon-shaped, grayish-brown caps of Hen of the woods mushrooms got their name from their appearance, often looking like a large, ruffled chicken sitting under a tree; their look comes from their habit of clustering with a short, off-center stalk.

Size: This mushroom is usually measured by the cluster. They can grow up to three feet wide and weigh up to 100 pounds.

When and where: You will always find this mushroom clustering at the base of trees and stumps, though they are most often found at the base of oak trees. They appear in hardwood forests in the fall, usually staying around from September to November. Once you find a cluster, keep revisiting the site as they will often reappear.

Caution: Hen of the woods has no poisonous look-alikes, but there are many that are tough and unpleasant to eat. If you harvest a mushroom that tastes leathery, you probably didn’t pick a hen of the woods.

Bring these things with you to make your foraging expedition easier!

• Digging tool

• Roll of wax paper (not plastic wrap, which hastens decay)

• Flat-bottomed basket wide enough to allow for separation

• Notebook to record conditions (where the mushroom was growing, what it was growing on, if it was alone or in a cluster, colors and distinctive features like staining or bruising).