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Questions and Answers

By Marlyn Shaw

A recent question came by e-mail:   “Where on the web can I find photos of edible wild Colorado mushrooms?”  My reply: “Nowhere, I hope.   This very question alarms me.   Why?  Because mushroom identification is not that simple.  We discourage “picture-matching”, even with a good field guide in hand.  Even the best and most extensive field guides (e.g. Arora’s Mushrooms Demystified, 2000+ species) cover only an infinitesimal percent of the mushrooms you might come across. A good photograph can show only a few of the features critical to identification. You must also read and understand the complete written description. A good field guide would provide information about other species with which the mushroom might be confused. It should also include any warnings about the possible adverse effects that have occurred, even with mushrooms that are widely considered safe.

I would recommend that you obtain Vera Evenson’s excellent and recent field guide Mushrooms of Colorado and the Southern Rocky Mountains as a way to get started. But, you must realize that even with this field guide, you will be unable to identify most mushrooms you find.

Start with one or two of the most easily identified kinds (oyster mushrooms, chanterelles, king boletes), read the descriptions, study repeated collections until you really know them,  then work toward adding one or two more species each year.  Read the cautions at the beginning of Vera Evenson’s book about how to try a mushroom for the first time.  Always save one whole, uncooked, good-condition mushroom in waxed paper or a brown paper bag in your refrigerator for identification by an expert, in case you have made a mistake.  And, as a favor to me, try them for breakfast rather than for dinner.  That way I’ll get the call in the middle of the day instead of the middle of the night. Good Luck!  Marilyn

PS:   I know you all get weary of hearing me say this, but be wary of what you may find on the Internet.  While there is some reliable information available there, there is a lot that is questionable or even downright wrong and it’s often hard to tell the difference.  This applies to impressive looking web pages as well as chat rooms.  For more on this, please see my article in the March 1999 issue of Spores.”

A little later, around Income Tax Day, my telephone rang. “I’m heading up in the mountains right now,” (obviously on a cell phone) “where should I go to find king boletes and amanitas?”

My answer to this question was a question: “Where are you from?”


Strangely enough, I could have guessed that. Why? Because California is out of sync with the rest of the country, mycologically, if not otherwise. While our main season runs from about mid-July through August, in northern California it occurs during the winter. The Mycological Society of San Francisco holds its fair in December!  Summers there tend to be hot and dry and most years there are no mushrooms until the winter rains begin. (The good news is that if you’re really obsessed with mushrooming, you can probably find some place to go to pursue the objects of your desire almost any time of the year.)

But, back to the call.  Don’t get me wrong,  I’m not making fun of this caller.  I made the same mistake, but in reverse, several years ago.  I went to spend Easter weekend with my son and his wife in Palo Alto, the main objective being to photograph Amanita verna for our club file.  (How some people get their kicks!)  On arriving, I opened David Arora’s Mushrooms Demystified and found that I was out of sync with California. But, “verna” means spring.  Well, A. verna had not yet been reported in California. Similar deadly amanitas, I was told, are more common earlier in the year or in the late fall and winter. Ah, well, it was a good excuse to go back for Thanksgiving. I did, and bingo! In Tomales State Park (a piece of southern California that is now west of the Golden Gate Bridge by Marin County) we found not only a permanent bronze plaque warning about “some of the world’s most poisonous mushrooms” which grow there, but dozens of A. phalloides, the real thing.

The moral (morel?) of this story is to check out local field guides before you start on a foray to far away places. Unless you want an excuse to go there anyway

Spores Afield - June 2000

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