I’m not a very good forager, but I love going out mushroom hunting. The main tool I use for mushroom identification comes from browsing through Mushroom Identification groups on Facebook, such as Mushroom Spotters UK and even Melfies. MSUK has a great community, reliable data bank and a quick response time. Having high quality photos appear in your social media feed also helps, as they act as flash cards.
In recent years, I’ve began using books for identification. They’re more reliable than identification apps, they don’t run out of battery and often give you a much more comprehensive understanding of the mushroom and its life cycle. I’ll preface this with a warning. Unless you’re 100% sure of the mushroom you have found, don’t eat it. There are dozens of poisonous mushrooms in the UK some of which look very similar to edible ones. Below are three different mushrooms, Wood Blewit, Amethyst Deceiver and Lilac Fibrecap. Identification can get tricky.
The first mushroom identification book I bought was the book ‘Mushrooms’ by Patrick Harding published by the well-known ‘Collins Gem’. It’s a small field guide consisting of around 248 pages, briefly explaining the most common species you’ll find. It includes a clear picture and illustration of the species, a brief description, the size, habitat, similar species, smell, taste, and season. For around £5, it’s an absolute bargain.
The size of the book makes it perfect to keep in the pocket of your foraging coat. With its glossy cover it can resist small droplets of rain, giving you enough time to stuff it back in your pocket without soaking it through to the pages. This book doesn’t overwhelm you with information, it just provides the key points in an easy to digest format, allowing you to identify and move onto the next specimen whilst retaining information from the last one.
The book also features a handy similar-species description, letting you know similar mushrooms that may or may not be poisonous! The final gem this book contains is a handy key that gives you steps to follow to narrow down your search. I’d suggest giving this book a go for a decent overview of the 240 most commonly found mushrooms in the UK, again, for £5 this book is a very good deal.
Next is Roger Philips’ book, also called ‘Mushrooms (A comprehensive guide to mushroom identification)’ is the best identification book for mushroom foraging in the UK. It contains wonderful photos of the highest quality, detailed information about environment, season, companion species, edibility, and mushroom rarity. A great quirk of the book that I really like is the illustrations are given as a % of the real mushroom, most of the mushrooms photographed in the book are at maturity, so it gives you a good reference point for actual size!
The book goes into detail about each aspect of the mushroom, Stem, Flesh, Tubes/Gills/Pores/Teeth, Spores, Habitat and Edibility, as well as offering advice on the best way to prepare and even preserve the mushroom.
However, this isn’t what I would consider to be a ‘field guide’. This book is something you refer back to if you roughly know what species you’re looking for. Recently a friend of mine found a mushroom in the genus Russula. Little did I know until I opened the book there are at least 200 different types in the UK, the last thing you would want is to be sat there for 10 or 15 minutes trying to figure out which species it is! So, using the Collins Gem for an overview before bringing the mushroom home to go through Roger Philips’ mushroom identification book makes these two a good combination.
That is the down side of this book, there is no key to identification so you need a rough idea where you’re starting or you may just end up thumbing through hundreds of pages until you stumble upon a genus that looks similar and work backwards. The book does, however, contain a detailed glossary, huge index, and a short visual guide of some common species.
As a beginner Philips’ book may feel formidable, having this much information available to you and no flow chart to follow like the one in the Collins Gem book, may leave you wondering where to start. However, once you begin to understand different genus characteristics this book becomes invaluable in aiding quick and correct mushroom identification.
Another few books I recommend aren’t for identification, however, they are books that have taught me and helped expand my understanding of the world of Fungi. I’m not a great reader, I have a short attention span and am easily distracted, so it takes me a long time to finish a book. However, with audiobooks I can finish them within a few days.
The following 2 books are available on hardback as well as an audiobook. For audiobooks, I use Audible by Amazon. I must have over 100 books on there. I listen to them when I’m working, building, foraging, doing lab work, editing and sometimes even when writing. If you use my referral link you get a free 30-day trial and 1 free audiobook. After the 30 days it’s around £7 a month for one book depending on the package. Even if you don’t keep your subscription, you still get to keep the book.
The first of these two is a new book called ‘Entangled Life’ by Merlin Sheldrake. This book covers, in essence, everything that fungi have done, are doing and will do for Humans and the planet. Covering a wide range of fungi, from gourmet and parasitic, to slime moulds and yeasts, this book goes over each and every topic in vividly explained detail alongside some of the authors personal experiences with mycology.
I see Mycology and Physics similar in some ways, it’s a lot of difficult science, maths, collection of data and outrageous concepts that to the layman, may seem overwhelming and hard to fathom. I think Merlin is a lot like the Brian Cox of mycology. He explains very complicated processes in a digestible and relatable way.
The book, it’s notes and references in the back have given me a greater insight into the life and symbiosis of fungi. As well as a deeper understanding of my cultivation practices and the impact that they will have on my yield.
I’m a direct person, so I did find some bits carried on longer than I would like and rather seemed like padding, however, the fact is that the book is a discussion of fungi and not a ‘how2’ book is probably why I felt this way. He does, however, go over about Peter McCoy of Radical Mycology, another fantastic book I would suggest. It’s a very easy book to listen or read, I would urge you to get yourself a copy!
This next book is even further from Identification, though it does contain an interview section on foraging with Paul Stamets, is called ‘How To Change Your Mind’ by Michael Pollan. It’s more to do with the naughty side of mushrooms and psychedelics in general, however, I won’t go into too much detail since this blog is more to do with gourmet and medicinal mushrooms. It is definitely worth picking up a copy on Amazon or Audible, even if it doesn’t ‘Change Your Mind’ it may help to change your perspective!
A few more books that come highly recommended for foraging are;
My advice for those who are just starting out mushroom foraging in the UK is to use these books in conjunction with one another as well as other identification tools. You’ll get very good at Googling, which I think beats any app-based identification method currently available. Searching google images for ‘White, black gilled mushroom, 5cm’ will yield results that you can chase down the rabbit hole and hopefully find, at the least, a genus where to start. Then using that information, refer back to your Rodger Phillips mushroom identification book to narrow down the species!
Mushroom identification groups on the internet are fantastic, however, providing little to no information alongside low quality pictures will provoke little response. It’s far quicker and more helpful to identify the mushroom if you provide detailed photos of the top, side, gills, and maybe even a cross-section cut as well as where and when it was found.
Everyone had to start with zero knowledge at some point, so don’t be discouraged, once you start noticing similar trait’s among mushrooms, you’ll be able to search the index of the book much quicker. An example is in the Amanita family, they often have a big bulbus root at the base of the stem, once you start making these connections and recognising mushroom characteristics, you’ll be well on your way to identifying some truly amazing and delicious species, but don’t eat Amanitas.