I will go ahead and say it: I am not a terribly good mushroom photographer! This post is intended to help novice wild mushroom hunters understand which features they might wish to photograph if the intent is to get help identifying a wild mushroom. There are many and more mushroom nuts who are far better than I at taking wild mushroom pics, and examples of their work are readily available on Mushroom Observer and other sites. Go look at them!
Yours in Fungal Fancy,
Intro to Wild Mushroom Photography
As I promised in a recent post about wild mushroom hunting and identification, here is a brief rundown on how to take wild mushroom photographs. Of course, if you want to just take pictures of wild mushrooms that you find for your own pleasure then feel free to totally ignore everything in this post!
There are loads of great wild mushroom identification forums, Facebook groups, and email lists with lots of knowledgeable, active users who are more than happy to supply wild mushroom information and help identify the fungi you find, but in order to make the best use of these resources, it’s important to take pictures that show the critical features of the mushroom in question.
Wild Mushroom Photographs – More Than Just Snapping a Picture of the Cap
Wild mushroom photography for the sake of identification is (a wee bit) challenging because the fruiting body itself only represents one dimension of the parent fungus’ behavior and survival strategy.
Mycorrhizal fungi live in partnership with a plant or tree partner, sharing resources and swapping photosynthetic sugars for moisture, minerals, and antimicrobial protection, amongst other things. Both organisms benefit from this mutualistic arrangement; the mycelium gets food and a root-shaped scaffolding upon which to grow, and the plant gets critical immune system enhancements, mineral supplementation, and extra moisture that supports healthy growth, even during drought conditions.
Saprophytic mushrooms are decomposers of wood, leaf litter, and other debris.
Saprophytic fungi churn out potent digestive enzymes and pump them into nearby repositories of dead organic material, which are dissolved and then drawn back into the mycelial network and used as food. Parasitic fungi find a suitable host, colonize it, and slowly (or swiftly) strangle it, leaching resources and stealing life from plants, insects, and other fungal organisms.
Given the diverse lifestyles and symbiotic relationships of mycelium, it is difficult to identify these organisms using a single photograph of a single fruiting body that serves only to aid mycelial reproduction. Think of it this way: if you took a picture of your hand or neck (or, to make this analogy truly appropriate, another more sensitive part of your body) and asked people what your face looks like, they’d probably be stumped, although if they were bold enough they might throw out some suggestions. So too with wild mushroom pictures: because most of the actual fungal organism is not visible, it’s important to gather visual information that will help you discern the mycelium’s behaviors, relationships, and physical traits.
Tips and Pointers for Taking Wild Mushroom Pics
- Photograph the wild mushroom from different angles! This one is super-important! When photographing a wild mushroom you want identified, make sure to get a picture of the whole mushroom from different angles. This helps establish perspective, and also assists would-be identification helpers to rule out certain features that are simply the consequence of environmental factors, rather than a species-specific trait. For example, if you are photographing a mushroom growing out of a decomposing stump and the picture does not show that the mushroom has a stem (which might be hidden between the bark and wood), someone might mistakenly think the mushroom has no stem.
- Photograph the wild mushroom’s fertile tissue! Make sure you get a shot of the mushroom’s fertile tissue, which is usually on the underside of its cap. This tissue is the area of the mushroom that produces spores, and it can take one of
several different forms. In the case of many mushrooms, the gills are the fertile tissue. Boletes and related species have a spongy layer under their caps that eject spores as the mushroom matures. With polypores like reishi, turkey tail (Trametes versicolor), chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulfureus, Laetiporus cincinnatus), and hen of the woods (Grifola frondosa), the fertile tissue is largely smooth, with a profusion of teensy-weensy holes that drop spores. In some wild mushrooms, the fertile tissue is not limited to a specific part of the cap. For example, morel mushrooms grow spores on several surfaces on the cap in microscopic, flask-shaped structures called asci, and jelly fungi like witch’s butter (Tremella mesenterica) do not have a specific fertile region. Some mushrooms, like the delicious and cool-looking hedgehog mushroom (Hydnum rapandum and Hydnum umbilicatum) have little fertile teeth under their caps that look like miniature fungus-icicles! Short story long, a picture of the fertile tissue of a mushroom goes a LONG way when it comes to getting an accurate wild mushroom identification, because you can rule out a lot of genera by just looking at a mushroom’s gills/sponge/polyporous surface/teeth/whatever. As an added bonus, some mushroom photographs that focus on the fertile tissue will reveal a trace (or a huge pile!) of wild mushroom spores, which is great, because it’s basically a pre-made spore print that will help you identify the mushroom! The ringless honey mushroom, (Armillaria tabescens), for example, usually drops huge numbers of whitish spores that are really evident on a cluster of these mushrooms because the honey mushrooms themselves are a light, clover-honey brown, and the white spores stick out like a sore thumb!
- Photograph nearby plants and trees! When you’re in the woods hunting mushrooms, it can be really easy to start fixating on the fungus, and not paying too much attention to the surrounding flora. Big mistake! When you want to get a wild mushroom identified, one of the critical factors is knowing what it was growing with! If you find a huge pile of mushrooms right at the base of a tree, take a picture of the tree as well as the mushroom. At the very least, place a leaf or piece of the local shrubbery next to the mushroom. This will, in my experience, also help you learn which trees to look out for when you’re after specific species. For instance, in North Carolina, my beloved hedgehog mushrooms adore beech trees, and so when it’s about time for hedgehogs to start popping up, I usually start my mushroom walk by cruising around really fast, looking for hedgehog mushrooms under all the beech trees in sight. Then I slow it down once I am satisfied that I have done a “perimeter check.” As for hedgehog’s larger cousin, Hydnum rapandum, I have
noticed that they really dig huckleberry. So it is that whenever I go mushroom hunting on the north coast of California or Oregon, I keep my eyes trained to look for the dark, shiny, emerald-piney green of huckleberry bushes. If you’re in doubt because you find a wild mushroom growing near a whole lot of different plants and trees, there is no harm in taking a few shots of the whole shebang. More information is usually better when you’re trying to get a wild mushroom identified!
- If possible, take a shot of a collection of specimens at varying stages of development! The best species-type collections of wild mushrooms always have a few mushrooms in different stages of development. As they age, mushrooms change radically, and so if possible, get a photo of a few different mushrooms in the same patch. For example, the delicious milk cap and many of its cousins in the genus Lactarius start out pumpkin orange and turn a lurid, pickle-green as theyage. When they’re young, the spring king porcini mushroom, Boletus rex veris, has a powdery-red cap and a white spongy layer under its cap. As it ages, the sponge turns yellow and the red fades to reddish-brown. The edible and beautiful North Carolina native Amanita caesaria, starts out as a little egg of whitish tissue, and as the mushroom emerges from its protective sheath, it looks like a brightly colored chestnut peeking out of the top of its egg. As it matures, Amanita caesaria grows into a gorgeous cap-and-stem mushroom with a cup of whitish tissue at its base that was once its hidey hole. One note, however: sometimes mushrooms that are growing right next to one another are not the fruit of the same mycelium. Nothing
reinforced this truth to me like the first occasion upon which I found a monster pile of hedgehog mushrooms of the species Hydnum rapandum…I was hunting in Oregon, and I spotted a Pacific Northwest golden chanterelle, Cantharellus formosus, from a distance of about 12 yards, deep in a thicket. I wiggled through the undergrowth to get to my prize, losing my hat and my head in the process because I was so excited. When I arrived at the spot, I saw something remarkable: the chanterelle appeared to have a number of paler specimens growing directly underneath it, and the mushrooms were sort of woven together like a little fungus orgy…I was delighted to have found so many chanterelles, let me tell you…and then I cut one of the lower mushrooms, flipped it over, and…TA-DA SURPRISE YOU DUMMY HUMAN…I’m not a chanterelle, I’m a hedgehog! Given that I like hedgehogs more than chanterelles, this was quite a pleasant surprise from a culinary perspective, but it also revealed to me that mushroom mycelium grows wherever it darn well pleases, and sometimes that can cause confusion if you’re not paying close attention. Of course, there is only so much you can do to assure that you’re taking photos of the same wild mushroom species. Suffice it to say it’s sensible to remember that some habitats are so fungally fecund that you can easily have multiple mycelia growing in the exact same spot! This is particularly true on logs in an advanced state of decomposition. For instance, the turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) and its lookalike the parchment fungus (Stereum ostrea) very commonly take up residence on the same felled logs and stumps in North Carolina’s woods. So yeah, just keep that in your brain, but still try to get a couple wild mushrooms of the same species to photograph for the purposes of identification!
- Photograph all the features you can see! Mushrooms of different species have specific physical features that can aid in identification. For example, some wild mushrooms have what’s called a partial veil, which manifests itself as a ring on the stem of a mature specimen. This partial veil starts as a delicate protective layer of tissue that covers the wild mushroom’s gills, and as the cap expands and opens up to expose the gills to deposit spores, the partial veil breaks and leaves a ring on the stalk (also known as an annulus). The shaggy parasol mushroom, Chlorophyllum rhacodes, is one of the many wild mushrooms that has this feature, as does the portobello mushroom (Agaricus bisporus). Other mushrooms have a “universal veil,” which is a protective egg or layer of tissue that shields the baby mushroom in its earliest phase of development. As it grows, the mushroom bursts free from the egg, and the remnants of universal veil tissue often remain behind in the form of flecks of tissue on the cap and a cup or “volva” at the base of
the stem. Lactarius mushrooms are so called because they have a milky substance that oozes from the gills when the fertile tissue is damaged. All of these features are really important for identifying wild mushrooms, so make sure that you capture each feature in your photograph, to the best of your ability!
A Caveat About Wild Mushroom Photography and Fungus Identification
Although many times a picture of a wild mushroom is more than sufficient to get down to a genus and species identification, this is not always possible. As I have explained in the past, there are many mushrooms that look and act alike that are, in fact, different species. This is one of the reasons that, for instance, some immigrant communities in the United States get into hot water with mushroom poisoning; the wild mushrooms they are accustomed to look very similar to North American species that are dangerous or deadly.
This is not to suggest that you cannot identify a wild mushroom from a photograph, it’s just important to bear in mind that visual information is just one (very important) element of mushroom identification. Below are a few other bits of data that, if possible, you should collect about any mushroom you wish to identify using your other senses.
- Smell your wild mushrooms! Although not always critically important, the smell of certain mushrooms is amazingly distinct. Chanterelles smell like apricots sometimes, the blue-green anise mushroom smells like…yeah, you guessed it…the candy cap smells like maple syrup when dried, the lobster mushroom smells like seafood…so on and so forth. Of course, not all mushrooms have a distinctive, species-specific aroma. Peer into any wild mushroom identification field guide and you will see a ton of descriptions that note that a particular wild mushroom smells “fungus-y” or “mushroom-ish” and leave it at that. However, I cannot stress this enough: smell your mushrooms! Not only are you possibly gathering good information that will help you identify your wild mushroom, but this can also help when you’re trying to decide whether or not the mushroom you’ve found might be past its prime and therefore not good to eat. Rotting mushrooms, I suspect, cause a lot more cases of “mushroom poisoning” than people outright eating poisonous species. Remember that wild mushroom tissue necrotizes very swiftly, picking up bacterial infections, fungal infections, and the like over the course of a few days. So yeah, there’s that.
- Feel your wild mushrooms! Lots of wild mushroom species feel a particular way, and that can really help you narrow down a cantankerous specimen that you’re trying to identify. For instance, the scaly chanterelle, Gomphus floccocus, feels furry on top (although it’s sort of a squishy fur in most cases), Zeller’s bolete (Boletus zellerii) tends to have a cracked and dry cap that feels a bit felty, and the shaggy mane (Coprinus comatus) has little flaky bits of flesh on its cap that will stick to your hands like little shreds of wet tissue paper.
- Taste (some) of your wild mushrooms! Some mushrooms have a distinctive flavor that can help you identify them. This is particularly the case with mushrooms in the massive genera Lactarius and Russula. Just chew a little bit of the cap then spit it out. I do not personally taste test many mushrooms, especially not Amanita mushrooms, but nonetheless, flavor can help in some instances when you’re trying to identify a wild mushroom.
- Listen to your wild mushrooms! OK, you don’t really have to listen to your wild mushrooms…although according to some mycophiles I know, different mushrooms make quite different noises when they emerge into the world. Porcini make a “blooooomppp!” sound when they pop up, morels make a noise somewhat like a small whoopie cushion, the cat’s tongue mushroom (Pseudohydnum gelatinosum) sounds a bit like a kazoo, and the sound of chanterelles popping is, evidently, somewhat similar to trombone. For more information on the topic of the sounds made by wild mushrooms, I strongly suggest looking into the work of Vaclav Halek, a Bohemian composer and avid mushroom hunter who wrote entrancing music inspired by the humble mushroom.