I am not a mushroom expert, nor have I ever played one on T.V. So, when a patron walked into the nature center, plopped down a small bag of large mystery mushrooms, and asked for some identification help, I was hesitant. He primarily wanted to find out if they were edible. “Everything is edible,” I said, “but it’s what happens after the eating that causes problems.” That was my way of saying that I was not going to be responsible for his death. “I can only recommend morels, puffballs, and pink-bottoms.” I did promise to look into it, however, and give him a call if I found out a positive I.D. I kept one for closer examination.
These were big mushrooms – over 7 inches tall with yellow conical caps nearly 4 inches wide. Small elves could have sought shelter beneath their canopy and have plenty of space for a ceiling fan. The most striking part about them was their potato-like basal structure.
There are several ways to identify ‘shrooms. The wrong way – my preferred method – is to look at a bunch of pictures and see what matches. Unfortunately, mushrooms vary quite a bit depending on their mojo and the Chinese calendar (not really, but they are an arbitrary bunch of organisms). You can get some sense of color, shape, and growth habit with this method but it is only a starting point. The proper way to identify a mushroom is to survey its fine details and then combine the results of this visual checklist with habitat and seasonal information in order to take it through the steps of an identification key. This is a lot of work and the primary reason that I only eat morels and puffballs, and let other people eat pinkbottoms.
My actual method in this circumstance combined the above procedures. My theory is that a wrong and a right combine to make a “mostly right” (as long as the wrong is only misguided and not morally wrong or fatal!). At any rate, my method ultimately led to a nearly certain identification of these fungi as some sort of Amanita. This turned out to be mostly wrong and potentially fatal.
One of the first structural features to note on any mushroom are the spore-producing structures located on the underside. These examples were “gilled” (see above). In other words they are divided into multiple hanging partitions that radiate from the center. There are many types of gills, but let it suffice that these were of the “gilled tribe.” The central support stem was a relatively smooth column lacking any sort of collar (this was important) and the cap was smooth and relatively dry (another potentially important detail).
By far the most striking feature was the large basal structure evident on two of the mushrooms. Fortunately this fellow picked a perfect trio showing the stages of growth. This part is called a volva. It is a sac-like covering that protects the emerging cap and stem. These volvas were massive and surely would help me on my pathway of learning. All of these features, including the low brow visual method, led me to think Amanitis. There was but one more thing to do.
I removed one of the caps and placed it on a white sheet of paper overnight in order to produce a spore print. The microscopic spores will rain down onto the surface and produce a near photographic image of the underside of the mushroom. One of the primary reasons for doing this is to see what color the spores are. Spore color is also an important diagnostic trait and one which you can’t really determine any other way. My spore print (see below and detail here) turned out to be a magnificent shade of cinnamon brown. The pattern recorded the intricate details of the gills and of the inner air flow within the cap (the result, no doubt of the tiny ceiling fan within).
The only problem is that Amanitis have white spores. This is not a variable trait; it is listed as one of THE traits of this large mushroom group. I was left with a wild series of gilled brown-spored possibilities including Hypholomas, Bolbitius, Stropharia, and on and on. None matched at nicely as the Amanitis. If I had only stopped before the spore print I would have achieved ignorant happiness.
Now I am unhappily ignorant and, frankly, don’t give a rip about the true identity of these things. I will not call this fellow back nor will I recommend eating them. I like the spore print, though, and feel that is reward enough for time well spent. I can take solace in being mostly right can’t I?