How to Forage for Mushrooms without Dying

An Absolute Beginner's Guide to Identifying 29 Wild, Edible Mushrooms


By Frank Hyman

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With the surging interest in foraging for mushrooms, those new to the art need a reliable guide to distinguishing the safe fungi from the toxic. But for beginner foragers who just want to answer the question “Can I eat it?”, most of the books on the subject are dry, dense, and written by mycologists for other mycologists.
Frank Hyman to the rescue! How to Forage for Mushrooms without Dying is the book for anyone who walks in the woods and would like to learn how to identify just the 29 edible mushrooms they’re likely to come across. In it, Hyman offers his expert mushroom foraging advice, distilling down the most important information for the reader in colorful, folksy language that’s easy to remember when in the field. Want an easy way to determine if a mushroom is a delicious morel or a toxic false morel? Slice it in half – “if it’s hollow, you can swallow,” Hyman says. With Frank Hyman’s expert advice and easy-to-follow guidelines, readers will be confident in identifying which mushrooms they can safely eat and which ones they should definitely avoid.


This book is dedicated to the memory of Beatrix Potter,
a forager and feminist ahead of her time.

And to my niece, fellow forager, and favorite wood sprite, Avery Crochetière, whom I know to be fully capable of picking up Potter's torch and carrying on.



What's Different about This Book?

Chapter 1: What the Heck are Mushrooms, Anyway?

Chapter 2: Safe & Responsible Foraging

Chapter 3: Money Doesn't Grow on Trees, but Gourmet Mushrooms Do

Mushrooms without Gills That Grow on Trees

Treeborne Mushrooms with Gills

Chapter 4: The Fungal Fleet at Your Feet

Mushrooms without Gills That Grow on the Ground

Mushrooms with Gills That Grow on the Ground

Steer Clear of These Killers and Sickeners

Chapter 5: Cooking & Preserving Mushrooms

Chapter 6: Getting All Tooled Up

Chapter 7: Growing as a Mushroom Hunter



Metric Conversion Charts


Interior Photography Credits

Learn More About Wild Foods with these other Storey Books

Share Your Experience!

What's Different about This Book?

This book is not like other mushroom ID books. But that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with it. Actually, this is the book that I wish I'd had when I first started foraging.

  • It's compact.
  • It only covers common mushrooms that you'll want to eat, use, or avoid.
  • The descriptions focus on important details that differentiate each mushroom from its look-alikes.
  • Latin names are translated.
  • It omits subjective mushroom characteristics that aren't critical, that vary in the field, and that are subjective, like aroma.
  • The mushrooms aren't arranged alphabetically (novices don't know their names yet!) but by what the novice forager does know: the season, the mushrooms' location (on wood or on the ground), and whether or not they have gills.
  • Almost all the mushrooms in this book can be safely identified in the field without knowing the spore print color. I've still included the spore print color in the What, Where & When sections, for your own knowledge.
  • It provides a few stories for the sake of sharing the flavor of what it's like to be a forager.
  • It contains links to professional foragers' recipes (see Links to Recipes) and techniques for preparing and storing fungi (see chapter 5).
  • And it has a sense of humor. I hope.

Another thing that's different about this book is that it's written by a mushroom hunter for other mushroom hunters. I've been foraging since 2004. I've learned my trade from foragers in eight US states and six countries, and I'm certified to safely sell wild mushrooms to the public in three US states. But I don't have a degree in mycology (the branch of biology dealing with fungi). Most of the tens of millions of people who successfully forage wild mushrooms on this planet don't have a degree in mycology. And to safely hunt edible mushrooms, you don't need one either.

What's for Dinner?

Throughout the book, we've included the following icons to serve as quick indicators of whether or not a mushroom can be safely eaten. Be sure also to read the text that accompanies the mushroom in question, in case there are additional factors to consider.

An edible species

An medicinal species

A species you should not eat, either because it could make you sick, its edibility is unknown, or it just doesn't taste good

A species that could kill you if you eat it

What Those Other Books Have

Many, if not most, mushroom ID books are written by degreed mycologists to appeal to other degreed mycologists and very ­serious hobbyists. And that's all well and good. Truly. For inter­mediate and advanced mushroom hunters, that can be useful. I own and enjoy many of those books myself. But some—not all—of those books have tendencies that aren't always helpful to the novice and intermediate mushroom hunter:

  • They frequently use Latin terminology in places where plain English would suffice.
  • When Latin names are given, the species names aren't translated.
  • Many descriptions include details that don't help separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.
  • Many descriptions leave out salient identification details that would differentiate an unappealing or poisonous look-alike.
  • They read like a textbook. Which they are. Which is fine. But that's not necessarily the best format for every beginner.

There are many books written by mycologists that I can ­recommend for those ready to attain intermediate or expert status (see Resources). Consider this compact volume your Foraging 101 book. If you want to go further, pick up some more books.

Meanwhile, stash this book in your back pocket, glove box, purse, or bag and get outside where the mushrooms are. You can't eat 'em if you don't find 'em. And you can't find 'em if you're not ­outside. I know that's where I'll be.

Chapter 1

What the Heck Are Mushrooms, Anyway?

There are many thousands of species of fungi. But we're only interested in a handful of them: those with visible fruiting parts that might be edible, medicinal, or poisonous. These fruiting parts are what the average person typically calls "a mushroom."

Where Did Mushrooms Come From?

If you crammed the 4.5-billion-year history of the Earth into one 24-hour day, the birth of Earth would start at midnight. At that point, there's only bare rock, meteorites, and thunderstorms. Rain rubs the stones into clay, silt, and sand particles that cook up thick, minerally, muddy stews and watery, salty soups.

Finally after a half-billion years of these random molecules mixing, some of them click together like a Rubik's Cube to become the first living things: one-celled microbes. It's 4 a.m. For another half-billion or so years these microbes evolve into a variety of one-celled creatures to match conditions on Earth. Or maybe it should be called Ocean. That is what covers most of the surface and is where all the life-forms can be found partying at this point. It finally occurs to these microbes to start leaving graffiti in the form of fossils around 6 a.m.

A couple billion years later, single-celled algae show up and invent photosynthesis. It's around 2 p.m. The pace picks up. Sort of. Things move along swimmingly at sea with the arrival of jellyfish just before 9 p.m. We've been waiting for forests for about 4 billion years now. Land plants show up just before 10 p.m. Giant ferns' living bodies come into being by combining (1) a Goodyear Blimp–worth of carbon dioxide, (2) busloads of liquid water, and (3) some loose pocket change of minerals. But plants, and eventually trees, die, fall to the ground, and pile up into vast untapped bank accounts of nutrients. Unable to decompose properly, those prefungal jungles—composed mostly of carbon—compress into coal and oil.

By 11 p.m. some of the microbes evolve into simple fungi with a special hunger. They attack these sheaves of dead jungle matter and suck the marrow of energy from them. Without these fungi, we'd be neck deep in the dead plants of the last half-billion years. That or swimming in oil. A few other fungi species go full-on gangster and assassinate trees to make their living. A third group of fungi choose to go underground to become the nursing mothers of teeming forests.

At 11:59 p.m. humans find themselves in a thick Eden and they're hungry. They discover the mysterious fungi. They learn from trial and error. And just as not everything that glitters is gold, they learn that not everything that tastes or smells good is food. Which brings us to right now, with you reading this book.

There are thousands more species of mushrooms than birds, and their forms are even more varied. But we don't need to learn all of them.

What Is Their M.O. (Modus Operandi)?

Knowing how and why mushrooms do what they do helps the novice mushroom detective discover the secret identities of these mysterious creatures.

Saprobes like these Oysters hollow out the dead heartwood of live trees or devour dead trees whole.

Eaters of the Dead: Saprobes

The fungi that devour dead plant and animal matter are called saprobes or saprophytes. Some of the mushrooms growing on the ground are saprobes, breaking down organic matter of grasses (such as Puffballs) or dropped branches on or in the ground (such as Devil's Urn). Many of the mushrooms that grow on tree trunks are also saprobes (such as Lion's Mane), which are eating the dead wood of downed trees or the dead heartwood of standing trees with a still-living sapwood. The most common cultivated mushrooms are saprobes: Oysters, Shiitake, Hen of the Woods, and others.

As you may remember from middle-school biology, the cells under a tree's bark are alive and called the cambium and the sapwood. Those layers are composed of vertical tubes that send water and nutrients up from the roots and parallel tubes that bring down sugar created by the photosynthetic leaves.

The oldest cells at the center of the tree form what's called the heartwood. These cells have died from old age and are empty (that's where the saprophytic fungi might be found on a live tree). The living cells are producing waste material, which has to go somewhere. So horizontal tubes carry that waste from the living cells to store it in the empty, dead, heartwood cells. So when you smell the fragrance of the heartwood of cedar, you are actually sniffing tree poop (think about that next time you stick your head into a cedar-lined closet).

Cedar tree poop is so strong that most fungi don't like to eat it. That's why cedar trees are used for fence posts; they resist fungal rot. But the heartwood of other trees doesn't do such a great job of fending off fungi. So when you find a hollow tree, what you're seeing is the heartwood that has been eaten by saprophytic fungi. Which begs the question, "What is the sapwood doing with all its waste products if it can't dump them in the heartwood anymore?" I have a theory, but that is clearly beyond the scope of this book! Ask a tree surgeon!

Eaters of the Living: Parasites

A much smaller number of fungi species attack living wood and eat those cells. These types of fungi are called parasites, a term from medieval French meaning a person who eats from the table of another. Ringed Honey Mushrooms are one example.

A tree being consumed by a saprobe can live indefinitely, since it's only losing its dead cells. But a tree infected by a parasite like a Honey Mushroom has an expiration date. One easy sign that a mature tree is in poor health, possibly from a fungal parasite, is bare twigs and branches at the outer edge of the canopy.

If you want to try to help such a tree on your property, you will find people happy to sell you fungicidal products, but these don't actually kill any fungus. They simply inhibit its reproduction a bit and have to be used for a long time. A. Long. Time. And even then, the likelihood of success is low.

When a tree (or a garden plant) is stricken by a fungus on its leaves, that's often a temporary problem that can be diminished, if not resolved, by moving the plant (if small enough) to a place with more sunlight and better air movement. Or by spraying diluted milk on the leaves periodically (yes, really). But when a parasitic fungus is in the roots or in the trunk, the game is up. However, that doesn't mean you necessarily have an emergency. It helps to think of trees as living and dying in slow motion compared to animals.

If the infected tree can fall on a house, get some estimates for removal and then start saving up. Or move. Or at least keep your insurance paid up. And then when you see Honey Mushrooms nearby, whether you eat them or not, bag them up for the trash ASAP to minimize the spread of their spores.

Married Mushrooms: Mycorrhizal

The third type of fungi connects and collaborates with the roots of trees. These are called mycorrhizal. The term "myco" means fungus. The term "rhyza" refers to the roots of plants.

As in any good marriage, each participant provides what it does well. Trees share the sugars they make from photosynthesis in the leaves. Fungi share surplus moisture and nutrients that they are better able to extract from the soil.

And as in human marriages, there are variations in practices and in degree of mutuality between mycorrhizal fungi and their woody partners. Those details are not necessary to learn mushroom ID, but what is good to know is that learning tree species can help a forager find mycorrhizal mushrooms like Morels. They grow in the company of elms, ashes, tulip poplars, cottonwoods, and apple trees. Who knows what those tree species have in common that suits Morels? But if none of those are around, then you certainly won't find Morels. Other mycorrhizal fungi like Chanterelles are more promiscuous. They might shack up with a wide variety of deciduous trees or evergreens.

Mycorrhizal fungi (like Morels) and trees collaborate to turbocharge each other.

One last thing that's helpful to know is that cultivating mycorrhizal mushrooms is even more difficult than successfully arranging a human marriage between strangers. In fact, no one that I'm aware of has managed it.

Fungal Anatomy

In many mushroom ID books, this can be one of the least fun parts for novices to pick up. Especially if you struggled in science classes. So, to help you get off the ground in your education on mushrooms, I'm going to strip down and simplify things in a way that some mycologists may not like. You don't have to know the names of every part of a mushroom or every phase of its growth to be a successful mushroom hunter. That's why I'll just be addressing those things that answer basic questions and help with identification. But you'll have a great grounding in how mushrooms do their work and play their roles because I'm going to explain them in terms of things you already have some familiarity with: plants and animals.

  1. A. Cap
  2. B. Gills
  3. C. Stalk
  1. D. Mycelium
  2. E. Hyphae
  3. F. Spores

How Are They Like Plants?

Mushrooms have a number of different parts that help them collect necessary nutrients, grow, and reproduce. In order to understand how these different parts work, it's useful to think of them in terms of their plant analogues: roots, trunk and branches, fruits, and seeds.

Roots: Hyphae

What would be called roots in a plant are called hyphae in a mushroom. In all the fungi in this book, the hyphae are doing work similar to plant roots: extracting moisture and nutrients. In mycorrhizal fungi, the hyphae connect and collaborate with their counterparts (tree roots) to acquire sugar. Those connected hyphae are bartering for the sugar with nutrients and moisture gathered by other hyphae. In saprobes and parasites, hyphae devour cells, either dead (saprobes) or living (parasites), to gather energy, moisture, and nutrients.

Trunk and Branches: Mycelium

A mushroom's mycelium can be thought of as functioning like the growing, spreading trunk and branches of a tree. Mycologists consider mycelium to be the vegetative part of the fungus. Mycelia are composed of hyphae. If you've ever broken off some bark and seen a sticky, thready, white network of fungus underneath, that's mostly mycelium with hyphae forming the outer threads. The term "mycelium" derives from the Greek word for fungus: mýkitas.

Fruit: The Mushroom Itself

If, and only if, the fungi have the right amount of nutrients, energy, and moisture and if the season and temperature are just right, then they will send out the edible mushrooms that we seek. This is called fruiting. Whether we're talking about a fungal shelf on a tree or a stalk and cap coming out of the ground, the mushrooms described in this book are considered fruits. And even though not all fungal fruits are edible, they still function much like the fruit of a tree.

One important difference is that plants like to flower and set fruit on a pretty reliable timeline that reflects day length and soil temperature. Even in suboptimal conditions, plants produce some kind of fruit on a predictable schedule. Fungi, on the other hand, will take the year off or come earlier or later depending on environmental conditions. For me, a recent drought in the months of August and September caused Hen of the Woods to skip a year entirely.

Sometimes the speed with which fungal fruit grows shocks ­people. Many times, the fruits "mushroom" to full size overnight. The explanation for that speed is that before the fruit comes forth, the fungus has created all of the fruit's cells, but in miniature. When ready, the mycelium fills those tiny cells with water, and they inflate like a balloon to a mature size in a matter of hours or days. The initial stage of growth is called the pin. When it's very young and fresh it's called a button. When mature it's called the fruit.

The fruit of the fungus (often called the "fruiting body") produces spores. Sometimes you can see the spores coloring their surroundings.

Seeds: Spores

Tree fruits are a delivery mechanism for getting seeds out into the world to produce the next generation. Likewise, fungal fruits are a way to get spores out into the world to produce the next generation. Spores are the dusty specks that drop out of gills, false gills, pores, and other structures. Their large numbers are an indication that only a small percentage of spores are expected to be successful.

Spores function like seeds in several ways. Many of them expect to be blown on the wind to new territory. But the infamous Stinkhorn smells like dog poop for a reason. Flies are attracted to it, and after saying "I coulda swore I smelled some dog poop over here," they fly away disappointed yet covered in Stinkhorn spores—much like a bee covered in pollen.

How Are They Like Animals?

The fruits of edible mushrooms are partly made of chitin. In animals, chitin forms the shells of insects and crustaceans. (A similar material, keratin, forms hair, fur, claws, and nails on other animals.) Humans can't digest chitin in mushrooms without cooking it—one of several reasons it's best to cook edible mushrooms before eating them.

Beefsteak mushrooms look like meat. And all mushrooms should be stored like meat: in the fridge.

Another important similarity between animals and edible mushrooms is that, like animal meat, edible mushrooms must be handled and stored with care. You can leave vegetables unrefrigerated overnight and they may get a little older, but they rarely go bad. If mushrooms are left at room temperature overnight or in the back seat of a hot car all afternoon, they will likely grow a nasty layer of bacteria on their surface, as meat would. Many cases of sickness attributed to mushrooms are actually instances of correctly identified edible mushrooms that have been poorly handled and caused food poisoning. It's just as if you'd left raw hamburger on the counter overnight before cooking it.

Always store edible mushrooms (whether wild or store-bought) in paper bags rather than plastic (see here for more on why) and toss them in the fridge or on ice as soon as you can.

Mushrooms left unrefrigerated can make you as sick as raw meat left on the counter overnight.

Caps or Cups? What's that Part Called?


  • "Using vivid photos, the book explains how to identify, clean, preserve and cook 29 varieties of edible mushrooms, while celebrating the glorious range of mushroom scents (watermelon rind, fish, lemon) and flavors (hints of crabmeat, chicken, egg noodles, vanilla)." -- Peter Saenger, Wall Street Journal 

    "While most mushroom books are by mycologists for mycologists, Hyman writes as an experienced mushroom forager who’s excited to bring others into the fold…or field or forest, as the case may be."
    --Foreword, starred review

    "Arming readers with knowledge and a bit of caution, Hyman does a spectacular job uncovering the joys of this woodland wonder." --Publishers Weekly

     Novice mushroom hunters who may have a taste for fungi but aren’t seeking scientific training will appreciate this work. Likely to see most use in rural libraries and by sharp-eyed city-dwellers and hobbyist mushroom farmers." --Library Journal

    "With this beginner's field guide in hand, even the most hesitant mushroom foragers can ramble through the woods, confidently gathering fungi that are assuredly safe to eat." --Booklist

    "Photos are clear, descriptions are detailed, and the author has a great sense of humor. It’s small enough to slip into your pocket or pack for on-the-go identification." --Backpacker 

    "How to Forage for Mushrooms without Dying
    is one antidote to mycophobia: Hyman, who is also a designer, laid the pocket-sized book out with impressive visual appeal. After a few healthy introductions to mushroom parts and mushroom basics, Hyman guides readers through 29 different edible mushroom types, sprinkling digestible essays throughout." -- Sarah Edwards, Indy Week

    ""Hyman's book provides an in-depth guide to every step of the foraging process. Foragers of all skill levels can use this guide, even in the field, to bring them success the next time they hunt for mushrooms."  ​-- Charlotte Crook, Washington Gardener

    "This mushroom guide differs from others I have seen in tremendous ways. The photography is gorgeous. It contains so much good information about each of the species of mushrooms. A great book for beginner and seasoned mushroom hunters." --Olga Katic, Mushroom Mountain

    "This is a must-have book for anyone wanting to learn the art of mushrooming safely. Realistic pictures (not too glossy, not too dull), a bit of humor where it is needed and a shared knowledge that can only be given by one that has paid his dues." -- Woody Collins, Certified Mushroom Collector

On Sale
Oct 12, 2021
Page Count
256 pages

Frank Hyman

About the Author

Frank Hyman is a professional mushroom hunter, certified to sell wild mushrooms to the public. He teaches workshops across the country on mushroom foraging and identification and has written about mushroom foraging for publications such as Paleo magazine, Hobby Farms, and Modern Farmer. He is a member of the North American Mycological Association, lives in Durham, North Carolina, and forages everywhere he travels.

Learn more about this author