Fungi are all around us. It’s estimated that millions of species are within the fungal kingdom, and about 150,000 species have been described. Species that produce visible fruiting bodies, macrofungi, make up around 14,000 of those described species, and new ones are continually discovered, mainly thanks to advances in and wider accessibility to DNA sequencing. Much of the mushroom community across the world is made up of amateur mycologists and enthusiasts who go on forays to collect specimens for study, marvel at the diversity and mystery, and spend time in the outdoors. One of the many unique aspects of mycology is that many authoritative sources of identification are actually amateur mycologists, those without formal education/training. One of the most extensive online sources for identification is mushroomexpert.com, which was created by Michael Kuo, a retired English teacher turned mushroom expert. Increasingly in recent decades, individuals, often with other day jobs, have worked tirelessly to describe and document the diversity of mushrooms in an effort to conserve them and the land they exist within. And of course, in addition to conservation, the fanaticism behind foraging and cooking with wild edibles has exploded in recent years. The fascination with the mystery of mushrooms is contagious.
According to iNaturalist observations, around 2,500 species of macrofungi (including lichens) have been observed in New York State, and 525 observed within Columbia County (using research grade and casual observations). iNaturalist is a nonprofit organization that aims to create a centralized network of observations and documentation of biodiversity worldwide, that allows users to learn from and teach each other. iNaturalist relies on individuals just like you to identify geographic and temporal trends in biodiversity. You never know how submitting an observation today could help someone in the future or now. For example, a paper coauthored by Anna and Conrad was published using a historical data set made up of phenological data collected by students in the mid-19th century across New York state. FEP has found iNaturalist to be a nice reference for how often certain species are observed, such as uncommon skippers and rare plants. We have created a “project” on iNat called Life in Our Farmscape: the Biodiversity of Columbia County which automatically incorporates any observations made within Columbia County, NY.
One of the most important understandings in the beginning is that you don’t have to identify at the species level. There are species which once you have met them, your intuition can be enough to guide you. For example, the unique scruffiness and coloring of a bolete called “Old Man of the Woods,” is hard to forget or mistake for another. However, many mushrooms require careful observation and practice. Being able to identify genera or families can be just as satisfying as pinning down a species. Once you get those levels of ID down, or maybe once you begin to gravitate towards a certain group, you can key in on the more nuanced differences.
Using regional field guides helps narrow down possibilities greatly. The Audubon Field Guide is great to use if you have a ballpark idea, but looking through a book with only species in your region can save lots of time and frustration if you are unsure about what family or genus you have. For the northeast, I recommend using Mushrooms of the Northeast and Eastern Canada by Timothy Baroni. This book is not as exhaustive as the Audubon in the number of species included, but it narrows down to regional possibilities, is organized by spore print color and general morphology, and includes a simplified, user-friendly key to genus at the beginning of each section. The new Audubon Society book, Mushrooms of North America is larger than the field guide version and includes more photos. We haven't worked with this one enough yet to speak on it, but the number of photos included is exciting.
If you would really like to dig in and hone your skills, here is a datasheet created to make a detailed observation that accompanies photos. It is a great help to sit down with a mushroom, ideally in the field, and note down as much as you can. This includes the overall structure, cap shape, margin, gill attachment if applicable, texture of flesh, habitat, etc. Once you describe it to the best you can, using books and online resources to identify alongside notes can make all the difference. This is a GREAT way to practice vocabulary. Check out this link for an online glossary.
Tracking what mushrooms you find throughout the year can be a contribution to citizen science (iNat) or a fun way to practice ID and be able to look back at what you have found in the past. See below for some tips on overall ID and how to make useful observations.
Take either a series of photos or one photo that shows different parts of the mushroom using multiple specimens.
For gilled or pored mushrooms, capture the side profile, the top of the cap, the underside, and the flesh color/texture when cut open (mostly for gilled mushrooms).
For other kinds of mushrooms, capture multiple angles, what the flesh looks like, and anything else that stands out or seems unique.
It is also helpful to document the mushroom in its natural habitat before picking for when you need to know the habitat it was found in.
It’s important to know if it's growing out of the ground, out of a live or dead tree, or out of something unique like a pine cone. Some genera are mycorrhizal, growing out of the ground, and some are saprophytic, growing out of dead wood that is breaking down. This will help narrow down the identity.
Additionally, being familiar with the kind of forest or species of trees you are near can also help distinguish possibilities.
Progress of the Seasons Blog Postings
Mushroom Description Data Sheet
Monitored iNaturalist Project
MushroomExpert.com -- This is one of our favorite resources for corroborating a suspicion or using a key. Michael Kuo, the creator of this site and author of a few books, is a retired English teacher and an amateur mycologist. His thoughtful and honest descriptions not only help with narrowing down and recommending look-a-likes to check against but also lay out what it takes (or if it is possible) to be confident in an identification. He even has a page on trees to help identify habitats!
Mushrooms of the Northeastern United States and Eastern Canada (A Timber Press Field Guide) -- Timothy Baroni
Macrofungi Associated with Oaks of Eastern North America -- Binion, Stephenson, Roody...
Mushrooms of North America -- National Audubon Society [includes all of North America but has more informative information and clearer images than the Audubon Field Guide]