Forest Mushrooms: Part II – Common Edible Species

This article is the second of a series of articles in the S&W Report on forest mushrooms.  Topics covered in the series include mushroom anatomy, life cycle, habitat, and key identification features of some of Ontario’s common forest mushrooms.

In Part II, we will look at some of the more common wild edible mushrooms found in Ontario. This article will provide the reader with information on the habitat, key identification features and a representative photograph for a dozen different species. 

Warning!  Edible mushrooms are often very similar in appearance to poisonous kinds.  This information is intended simply as an introduction to mushroom identification, and the information provided in this article should not be used alone in the identification of mushrooms intended for consumption.

Mushroom Identification

Black morel (Morchella conica)

Habitat – the black morel is both a mycorrhizal and a saprobic at different points of its life cycle. It is a common northern species that can be found growing on poorer soils, often under hardwood and conifers. Black morels can be difficult to find because they will often be concealed under low shrubs or under dead fallen bracken fern.  It is found in late March to mid May.

Mushroom Anatomy

The anatomical features of mushrooms are used to characterize and identify mushrooms. However, it is important to note that many species develop only a few of these features and some groups have different anatomy.

The following is a description of the basic anatomical features of a mushroom:

Cap - the cap (or pileus) is the top part of the mushroom.

Scales - the scales are the remnants of the veil and appear as rough patches on the surface of the cap.

Black morels are a common northern species that can be found growing on poorer soils, often under conifers. 1


Description — the fruiting bodies are found on the forest floor and can be up to 20 cm tall and have been described as a pine cone perched on a stem.  They often feature a rim at the point where the cap attaches to the stem.  Both the cap and stem are hollow.

The cap of the fruiting body is honeycombed with pits and ridges, measures about 10 cm tall, 3-9 cm in diameter and is narrowly conical shaped.  The ridges range from a dark brown to a brownish-black colour, and the pits can be a pale brown to brownish colour. The pits and ridges are primarily arranged in a vertical fashion. 

The stalks are 2-8 cm, off-white to cream in colour, and their surface is smooth or finely granular. The spore print is cream to yellowish or orange.






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Gills or Pores - the reproductive structure of a mushroom takes the form of gills, pores or in some cases, as teeth or spines.  They form on the underside of the cap and house the spores.

Ring - the present or absence of a ring (or annulus) is an important feature used when identifying mushrooms. Not all mushrooms have a ring.

Stem - the stem (or stipe) is the main support structure of many mushrooms. It may be attached to the cap in the centre, off-centre or at the side.  Not all mushrooms have a stem.

Cup - the basal cup (or volva) is a remnant of the veil and forms a cup shaped structure at the base of the mushroom.  Not all mushrooms have a cup. 

Important note: mushrooms with both a cup and a ring generally belong to the genus Amanita, a group of mushrooms that are extremely poisonous.

Figure 1.   Anatomy and life cycle of a typical mushroom, showing many anatomical features that are used to characterize and identify mushrooms.  Many species develop only a few of these features and some groups have different anatomy.  2

Is it a mycorrhizal, saprobic or a parasite? 

Fungi are unique; unlike plants, fungi cannot make their own food.

Mushrooms that are parasitic consume the living tissues of other organisms, sometimes killing them in the process.

Mushrooms that are mycorrhizal are involved in a symbiotic (mutually beneficial) relationship with the roots of plants — usually trees.

Mushrooms that are saprobes survive by decomposing dead or decaying organic material.
Yellow morel (Morchella esculenta)

Habitat — the yellow morel is both a mycorrhizal and a saprobic at different points of its life cycle.  It can be found on the forest floor in hardwood and conifer forests and is found widespread throughout southern Ontario, typically in richer, well-drained soils. It fruits in late March to mid-May.

Black and yellow morels are often abundant around dying elms and in forests following a disturbance such as a fire or after harvesting.  Their abundance is likely due to the morels benefiting from the surge of nutrients stemming from the disturbance (e.g., decaying debris left over from a harvesting operation).
When yellow morels are found in abundance it is likely due to the surge of nutrients stemming from the disturbance (e.g., decaying debris left over from a harvesting operation). 2

Description – the fruiting bodies can be up to 15 cm tall.  The cap (2-17 cm across) is a pale brown to yellow-brown colour, is irregularly shaped and broadly conical with a rounded peak.   Its surface is honeycombed with yellow-brown coloured ribs and has well-defined irregular pits that are yellow in colour and darken with age.

The stalks are white, about 2-5 cm long and are enlarged at the base.  Contrary to the black morel, yellow morels either lack the rim entirely or feature a very small rim at the point where the cap attaches to the stem.

The spore print is creamy yellow to orange.

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Honey mushroom (Armillaria mellea)

Habitat – a parasite, the honey mushroom parasitizes the roots of a variety of trees.  This mushroom typically grows in clusters on hardwoods, but can occasionally be found on conifers.  It can be found growing on stumps, fallen logs or standing trees (that have been weakened from another disease or injury).

The fruiting bodies appear in late summer and fall (abundantly after a heavy rainfall), producing billions of spores that will be carried by the wind to infect distant areas.

Honey mushrooms typically grow in clusters on hardwoods but can occasionally be found on conifers. 5

Description – the scaly cap is convex to flat when mature and measures 3-15 cm across.  Its colour is variable ranging from a honey-colour to beige-brown. Honey mushrooms frequently fruit in clusters.

The stem tapers downward to the base due to its cluster growth pattern and measure about 5-20 cm in length, 0.5-3 cm thick.  Near its apex it is smooth and has a distinctive flaring ring that stands out like a collar that will later collapse and may disappear. 

The gills are attached and begin to run down the stem, are whitish in colour with sometimes bruising to a darker colour. The spore print is white.

Shaggy Mane (Coprinus comatus)

Habitat — a saprobic, the shaggy mane is generally associated with disturbed sites (i.e., grass, wood chips, on the edge of dirt roads, etc.).  Shaggy mane can be found growing alone, in clusters, or in a line, and it will fruit in the summer and fall of the year.

The shaggy mane is conical to bell shaped and covered with brown to blackish recurved scales. 2

Description — the caps measure 5-15 cm across, are conical to bell shaped and covered with brown to blackish recurved scales. The gills are free from the stem, crowded and are white to beige in colour turning to black ink as they mature.

The stem may be up to 15 cm tall by 2 cm in width, have a smooth surface and are hollow.  They are frequently tapering to the apex, are easily separated from the cap and have a white ring.  The flesh is soft and white throughout.

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Lobster mushroom (Hypomyces lactifluorum)

Habitat — a parasitic, the lobster mushroom actually parasitizes other fungi (Russlula or Lactarius spp.) and will completely cover it, often transforming its shape into that of its host.  It can be found growing alone or gregariously in various forested habitats.

Description — the fruiting body is a bright orange or orange-red, has a hard surface that is dotted with tiny pimples.  The gills may develop or may be deformed and form low ridges.

Chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus)

Habitat — a parasitic and saprobic, the chicken of the woods (or sulphur fungus) may appear alone, but often will be found in large clusters.  It can be found on living hardwood and conifer trees, decaying logs and stumps. It fruits in summer and the fall.

The chicken of the woods (or sulphur fungus) may appear alone, but often will be found in large clusters. 6

Description — the fruiting body is 5-60 cm broad, up to 4 cm thick, is bracket-like and generally shaped in the form of a fan, and is sulfur yellow to yellowish-orange in colour.  The surface is smooth to wrinkled and the flesh is thick, soft and watery when young.  The spore print is white.

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Oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus)

Habitat — a saprobic, the oyster mushroom will grow on hardwoods, often found on dead or living sugar maple or aspen trees or their fallen rotting trunks or stumps. They can be found growing in shelf-like clusters and fruit from June to October.

Oyster mushrooms will grow on hardwoods, often found on dead or living sugar maple or aspen trees or their fallen rotting trunks or stumps. 4

Description — the caps are 5-20 cm across, convex to flat, shell-shaped to semi-circular, have a smooth surface and range in colour from a whitish to greyish brown.  The flesh is thick and white.

The gills are decurrent, running down the stem, close and are whitish in colour, sometimes with a gray tinge.  The stems are lateral, short, stout, white and hairy near the base, and may be absent when found growing from the side of a log or tree. The spore print is white.

Hedgehog mushroom (Hydnum repandum)

Habitat — a mycorrhizal, the hedgehog that is found in hardwood and conifer forests.  They generally grow alone and fruit in the summer and fall.

The hedgehog mushroom has brittle spines or teeth versus gills that run down the stalk. 1

Description — the caps are 2-17 cm across, broadly convex, becoming flat with central depressions, fairly smooth, dull orange-tan colour (occasionally a darker reddish-brown).

The stem is 3-10 cm long, 1-3 cm thick, sometimes off-centre, whitish in colour and bruising to a brownish colour.  This mushroom has brittle spines or teeth versus gills that run down the stalk.  The spines are 2-7 mm in length and a dull orange in colour.

Its flesh is whitish and discolours to a yellowish colour when exposed or bruised.  The spore print is white.

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Pine mushroom (Tricholoma magnivelare)

Habitat — a mycorrhizal, the pine mushroom grows primarily under conifers.  They will appear scattered or gregariously and fruit in the summer and fall of the year.

Description — the cap is 5-20 cm across, convex becoming broadly convex or nearly flat, white in colour when young then developing brownish discolourations.  The gills are attached to the stem (sometimes by means of a notch), crowded, white in colour, developing brown or reddish stains and spots with age.

The stem is 4-15 cm long, up to 5 cm thick, and is more or less equal, or with a slightly tapered base.  Above the ring is white in colour and below the ring it is a colour similar to the cap.  This species features a prominent partial veil around the lower stem that is white and thick.  The spore print is white.

Golden chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius)

Habitat — a mycorrhizal, the golden chanterelle can grow alone, scattered or gregariously in either hardwood or conifer forests.  They fruit on the ground in the summer and fall.

Golden chanterelles have “false” gills that are decurrent, far apart and run deeply down the stem. 5

Description — the caps are 2-20 cm across, smooth, convex when young, becoming flat and depressed with a wavy margin as they mature.  They are a pale yellow to almost orange in colour.  The stem is up to 3-8 cm tall, extremely variable in thickness (1-3 cm), smooth below the gills and the same colour as the cap. The spore print is pale yellow to a creamy white.

Golden chanterelles have “false” gills that are decurrent, far apart and run deeply down the stem.  True gills are structurally separate from one another and form the flesh of the cap.  False gills are not structurally distinct units and represent folds in the mushroom’s undersurface.  Being able to identify true gills or false gills is important in identifying the poisonous jack-o'-lantern mushroom (a look-alike that has true gills).

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Horn of Plenty (Craterellus cornucopioides)

Habitat — the horn of plenty is classified as a mycorrhizal; however, some experts believe it may also be a saprobic.  It can be found growing scattered on the ground or sometimes in packed clusters in hardwood and mixed forests.

The horn of plenty has no clearly defined cap or stem 1

Description — the fruiting bodies are 5-12 cm tall, 2-7 cm wide, are tubular when young then becoming trumpet shaped with maturity. They have no clearly defined cap or stem, are smooth with a wavy wrinkled margin and are brown to smoky-black colour.  The flesh is thin and fibrous.

The gills are absent or not distinct and the spore print is salmon tinged, yellowish, or whitish.

King Bolete (Boletus edulis)

Habitat — a mycorrhizal, the king boletus fruits from the soil under conifers (especially spruce) and in mixed conifer/hardwood forests.  It can be found growing scattered or in groups.  The main fruiting occurs in the summer and fall

The King bolete has pores that look like a sponge, a feature not very common to other species of mushrooms. 3

Description — the cap measures 10-20 cm across, is convex, smooth and ochre to red in colour. The stem is 8-20 cm tall, 2-10 thick at the apex, has a bulbous base and is white to orange in colour.  The stem is best described as club shaped.

It has pores that look like a sponge, it is white when young becoming yellow to olive with maturity.  The flesh is white and non-staining.  The spore print is an olive brown colour.

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Recommended Reading

For mushroom identification you may want to purchase the following guides that are available at most bookstores or from the Forest Shop (613) 233-4283.

North American Mushrooms: A Field Guide to Edible and Inedible Fungi, by Dr. Orson Miller Jr.

Mushrooms of Ontario and Eastern Canada, by George Barron. 

In the Next Edition

In Part III, we will look at some common fungi that are found growing on dead, decaying and living trees.  The reader will be provided with information on the habitat, key identification features and some of the medicinal uses of mushrooms.

Photo Credits

1 Copyright © Malcolm Storey, 2001, www.bioimages.org.uk.

2 Dave Powell, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

3 Haruta Ovidiu, University of Oradea, Bugwood.org

4 Linda Haugen, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

5 USDA Forest Service, Northeastern Area Archives

6 Joseph O'Brien, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

This article appeared in the Fall/Winter 2007 (Volume 48) edition of the S&W Report, the newsletter of the Ontario Woodlot Association.

© 2008 Ontario Woodlot Association 

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