Interest in mushrooms, particularly wild mushrooms, has skyrocketed in recent years. Some people, the real serious mycologists, devote all their free time to the pursuit of wild mushrooms. While edible mushrooms account for most of the interest, medicinal mushrooms also have a growing number of adherents.

The late, great Euell Gibbons wrote of the “Cult of the Mycophagists” — whose greatest interest is in the gathering, cooking and eating edible fungi. Although I enjoy eating wild mushrooms, I more appropriately would belong to a Cult of Mycologists — those who study them.

So why this almost cult-like interest in wild mushrooms? Well, it appears to me that the more society in general strays from old-time practices and values, the more tempting it becomes to re-learn the old, self-sufficient ways. That only makes sense. If things go south, then people in the know will be able to take care of themselves and their families.

Also, remember that at one time, mushrooms were considered to have little or no nutritional value. All that has changed. We now know that mushrooms supply much-needed additions to our diet. Eating

White matsutake mushrooms, a highly sought species of mushroom that grows in East Asia, Europe and North America. Courtesy of Tom Seymour

mushrooms promotes good health. Medicinal mushrooms are said to have long, meandering lists of health benefits. So it’s no wonder that people wish to learn more about the wild fungi growing all around them.

Learning your wild mushrooms is fun and can help cut down on the grocery bill. But it comes with a caveat. There are probably more inedible, even toxic, mushrooms than there are good, edible ones. The trick is to distinguish between the two. This is no trivial matter, either. A mistake might end up in a trip to the hospital or worse.

It is of the utmost importance, then, to learn proper identification. The best way is to go afield with a knowledgeable person, someone who can show you the good, the bad and the ugly (some wild mushrooms look really yucky) of wild mushrooms.

It is possible to teach yourself, via mushroom field guides. But even here, some discretion is called for. Not all field guides are the same, in that some have poor photos that make it difficult to compare a wild mushroom to. The litmus test of a field guide, then, is that it must contain good, sharp images of the various mushrooms.

I have a field guide to mushrooms from Britain that contains no photos but does have excellent line drawings. I would rather have one good line drawing than 100 fuzzy photos. Interestingly, many of the mushrooms found in Britain are also found here. This brings up another point.

You can’t have too many good field guides. When identifying a new mushroom, I consult all my various field guides. Each one contains some little gem of wisdom that the others might not have.

While the following advice isn’t necessarily carved-in-stone-gospel, it does make lots of sense. Instead of going whole-hog and trying to identify every mushroom in the woods, a task that may take years, try boning up on one mushroom at a time. Learn it inside out. Learn the feel, the smell, the type of area where it grows.

Learn to identify mushrooms at all stages of their development. Mushrooms, like any other growing things, do not just suddenly appear in their finished form. There are a few exceptions to that rule, but generally, most mushrooms go through various stages in development.

This is important to learn because it helps in making a positive identification. For instance, meadow mushrooms, those cap-style mushrooms that grow on lawns and along driveways, begin in the “button” stage. That is, the cap is almost round and there is no separation between cap and stalk. But as the mushroom grows, the cap widens and the thin, outside covering splits, leaving a fringe-like veil on the edge of the cap.

So for proper mushroom identification, it is the sum total of the little things that lead us to our final conclusion.

Look locally

As a forager, I don’t concentrate upon any one thing. Instead, I take what the seasons offer and when they are around, I take advantage of wild mushrooms. I may occasionally go afield in search of new mushroom spots but usually, I’ll just content myself with what grows nearby.

So for the new mushroom hunter, go easy at first. Learn your mushrooms properly and you’ll make no mistakes. As mentioned above, guidebooks help. I can recommend several, two of which I penned. Here they are:

Wild Plants of Maine, T. Seymour, Just Write Books, Topsham, ME 2010, 2014, 2018.

Foraging Mushrooms, Maine, T. Seymour, A Falcon Guide, Globe Pequot Press, 2017

National Audubon Society Pocket Guide to Familiar Mushrooms, Peter Katsaros, KNOPF, 1990