Q How do you identify edible mushrooms?

— Brian King, Madison

A Anne Pringle, professor of botany and bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a mycologist studying the ecology and evolution of mushrooms:

To identify an edible mushroom vs. a poisonous one, you need to first identify the specific mushroom. In the same way you learn to identify the difference between a grapefruit and an orange — using size, color, smell — you can build up a mental database of different types of mushrooms.

There’s not one rule that applies to mushrooms. You need to know your biodiversity to know which species are edible and which species are not edible.

If you look at a button mushroom, you can see that it’s white and relatively small and has a really classic mushroom shape. Wood ear mushrooms look very different with their brownish color and thin shape, but they’re just as edible.

Both edible and poisonous mushrooms can take different shapes and sizes. Just as when you’re walking in a forest and identifying edible plants from non-edible plants, there’s not a simple rule. You need to know the thing that you’re holding and give it a name, and then you can understand if it’s edible or not.

The best way to understand is to talk to people who already know the difference between a porcini and a chanterelle and a morel and a poisonous Amanita bisporigera. Looking at photographs on the web is a great start, but the best way to learn more is by talking with neighborhood experts or a local mushroom club and going into the woods with people who can share their expertise.

Blue Sky Science is a collaboration of the Wisconsin State Journal and the Morgridge Institute for Research.

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