Most people believe that becoming an amateur mycologist means forking out loads of cash on expensive equipment and handbooks. But that’s not true at all.
With no hard and fast rules, anyone can do it.
All an aspiring researcher needs is a willingness to learn and a few things to get started. With those boxes ticked, beginners can start foraging, identifying mushrooms, and practicing microscopy in no time!
At Fungushead, we’re dedicated to the cause. Not only do we stock exotic and rare mushroom spores for research, but we also have in-depth educational content like this beginner’s guide. Here, future amateur mycologists will learn about:
- Mycology as a science
- The Fungi Kingdom
- Mushroom foraging
- Studying spores
- Tips to get started
Ready? Let’s dive in.
What is Mycology?
Mycology is a branch of biology dedicated to studying fungi in all their fascinating forms.
Despite 14,000 identified species, more than 90% of fungi remain undiscovered. While some have no impact on animals and humans, others are either beneficial or harmful.
That’s why mycology is essential.
Ongoing research allows industries like agriculture, pharmaceuticals, alcohol, food, and others to use and benefit from various species. It also plays a pivotal role in treatment development for diseases caused by harmful fungi types.
For amateurs, mycology is about having fun and learning while mushroom foraging, practicing field identification, and studying spores. Before we get into all of that, let’s take a quick look at Kingdom Fungi.
The Fungi Kingdom
The Fungi Kingdom is a group of eukaryotic organisms, divided into one subkingdom with seven phyla and ten subphyla. It includes microorganisms like molds and yeast, parasites, symbionts, and mushrooms.
Known as the Earth’s decomposers, fungi grow on dead matter, in soil, and various other substrates. Some species thrive in extreme conditions, from dry deserts and high-salt habitats to aquatic environments. Certain fungi can even survive in space and withstand nuclear, cosmic, and UV radiation.
The Fungi Kingdom is incredibly diverse and omnipresent, with abundant species found worldwide encompassing varied life cycles, ecologies, and morphologies.
Despite everything we know about fungi, the true biodiversity of this kingdom remains an enigma. The 148,000 identified organisms are a drop in the bucket, with scientists estimating that up to 3.8 million fungi species exist.
Now let’s look at how mushrooms, mycelia, and mycorrhizae fit into the fungi puzzle.
Mycelia: How Fungi Eat
Most fungi grow hyphae, thread-like structures that form an interconnected network called mycelium. Fungi get nutrients through their mycelia by secreting enzymes to break down organic compounds, which are then absorbed.
Mycelia can grow in or on various surfaces and substrates, like soil, spoiled food, or damp walls. Ever seen what mold looks like? That’s mycelium.
These fungal colonies can be microscopic or span thousands of acres, depending on the species. In most cases, they’re vital to plant and soil health and can live for thousands of years.
Mycorrhizae: Friends With Benefits
Here’s where mycorrhizae come in, defined as the symbiotic relationships between photosynthesizing plants and fungi.
The plant makes and supplies the fungus with molecular compounds like sugars. In return, the fungus sends mineral nutrients and water to the plant. Almost all plant species have this mutually beneficial relationship with fungi.
Mushrooms: Fruitful Fruiting Bodies
Some fungi produce fruiting bodies (known as mushrooms or sporocarps) during the sexual phases of their life cycles.
Typically, the monokaryotic mycelium grows from a single spore that can’t reproduce sexually.
When two compatible mycelia join forces, they form a dikaryotic mycelium which can then produce fruiting bodies. Here’s how:
- A mushroom starts as a tiny nodule or “primordium” growing within the mycelium.
- It expands into an egg-shaped structure or “button,” wrapped in cottony mycelium called a “universal veil.” (Not all mushrooms have one, though).
- As the “egg” grows, the universal veil breaks, remaining as a cup or “volva” at the stalk’s base or “volval patches” on the mushroom cap.
- Usually, a “partial veil” covers the gills containing microscopic spores at the underside of the cap.
- When the cap gets big enough, this veil breaks too, sometimes remaining as a skirt- or collar-like ring (annulus) around the stalk’s middle or as remnants on the cap’s edge.
- The stipe (stalk) may be center, lateral, off-center, or entirely absent.
- A mushroom’s gills are usually covered by a microscopic layer called a hymenium, containing spore-bearing cells. In non-gilled mushrooms, the hymenium is found elsewhere.
Armed with the basics, researchers can now learn about the more practical aspects of amateur mycology. Let’s start with foraging.
3 Fundamentals of Mushroom Foraging
Hunting for mushrooms in nature is a fun, educational, and hands-on way to enjoy mycology as a hobby. Always be eco-conscious, though, and:
- Never over-pick. Don’t pick the smallest or biggest mushrooms either, or the area’s biodiversity may be negatively affected.
- Tread carefully to avoid breaking trees or shrubbery and disturbing the homes of insects and animals.
- Don’t just rip mushrooms from the ground, or the mycelium could get damaged in the process.
Like any research endeavor, preparation is vital. Here are a few more things to bear in mind before a foraging expedition:
1. Safety First
Considering the vastness of the Fungi Kingdom, it’s never wise to assume the species of any wild mushroom with utter certainty, especially as a beginner. Rather be safe than sorry and enlist the help of an expert.
Be 1,000% sure of a mushroom’s identity before harvesting it. Lookalikes are pretty common, often growing in the same area as the true species. They can be extremely dangerous and even deadly, so don’t take any chances.
Use numerous identifiers. Make sure any wild mushroom you find ticks ALL (not some) of the boxes for a positive ID.
2. Pick a Mushroom
For the uninitiated, choosing one specific mushroom to find in the wild is easier. Study its physical features, fragrances, and any other identifying traits. It’s also a good idea to find out which mushroom species grow locally and where they could be spotted.
Pick a mushroom to forage and learn about its natural environment, including other nearby plant life and lookalikes. Each species has a different life cycle and growing season, so amateur mycologists can plan their hunting expeditions accordingly.
3. Use the Right Tools
Amateur mycologists typically invest in a detailed, region-specific handbook, along with:
- A magnifying glass to identify the smaller traits of a mushroom.
- A notebook (and pen) for observations.
- A backpack for gear, water, and snacks.
- A basket for any correctly identified and safely harvested specimens.
- Paper or wax bags to separate any mushrooms if needed.
- A pair of scissors or a knife for harvesting.
- A headlamp or flashlight to see in darker areas.
- A GPS or local map to mark out routes.
Remember, researchers are only as good as their tools.
Identifying Mushrooms: 4 Popular Edible Types
Of around 3,000 varieties, only 200 edible fungi species are consumed worldwide. While wild mushrooms grow all around the US, each type has its own growth pattern and habitat.
When it comes to identification, start by understanding the parts of a mushroom. Most fungi fruiting bodies have the following:
- Cap: The umbrella-shaped top of a mushroom sprouting from the stalk.
- Tubes, spines, gills, and ridges: The spore-bearing parts of a mushroom are usually found on the underside of the cap.
- Stalk: The shaft beneath the cap.
- Mycelium: The underground network of roots pushing the mushroom up for spore dispersal.
Identifying mushrooms requires in-depth research, awareness, and understanding. It’s best to start by learning a few at first. Here are four of the easiest types to identify in the US:
1. Morel Mushroom (Morchella esculenta)
Known for their distinct honeycomb-like cap and rich smoky flavor, morels are a culinary delight.
- Size range: 1–12 Inches. They’re often longer than they are wide.
- Habitat: Moist and warm, sunny areas near waterways and damp ground in forests. Morels can also be found in recently burned areas.
- Region: Morels grow throughout North America.
- Growing season: Spring.
- Cap: Brown and oval or cone-shaped with a trademark honeycomb texture. It’s also attached to the stem and not “free-hanging.”
- Gills: None. Instead, morel mushrooms shoot spores from their sponge-like surface.
- Stalk: Wide, cream-colored, and hollow with firm flesh.
- Spores: No spore sac, veil, or ring present.
- Dangerous lookalikes: Several species of “false morels” exist, including the brain or beefsteak mushroom (Gyromitra esculenta). These non-edible mushrooms resemble morels, but some are extremely poisonous. The caps, color, and insides of these mushrooms expose their falsehood.
- Precautions: True morels should always be thoroughly cooked before consumption. They could cause digestive issues when eaten raw.
2. Chanterelle Mushroom (Cantharellus cibarius)
Chanterelle mushrooms are another chef’s delight with a peppery flavor and a distinct fruity sweetness.
- Size range: 3–5 Inches tall with the same cap width.
- Habitat: Slightly damp, open areas on the forest ground. Often found under hardwoods like maple, birch, pine, and poplar trees.
- Region: Eastern and western states, California, and Alaska.
- Growing season: Late Spring through early Fall or during Fall and Winter, depending on the region.
- Cap: Yellowish to deep ochre-orange with wavy edges curling downward and upward. The top is smooth, and the center typically dips inward, similar to a flower. Younger chanterelles are flatter with a straighter cap.
- Gills: Chanterelles bear large gill-like ridges on the underside of their caps that run into the stem and aren’t detachable like button mushrooms.
- Stalk: Same golden yellow to orange color with a dense, fleshy texture.
- Spores: Whitish to light yellow.
- Dangerous lookalikes: Jack-o-Lantern mushrooms (Omphalotus olivascens, olearius, and illudens) can cause severe diarrhea and cramps if consumed. They’re less yellow and more orange-brown with “true” gills that aren’t forked but rather knife-like.
- Precautions: Bugs enjoy chanterelle mushrooms, so always thoroughly inspect and clean them before consumption.
3. Porcini Mushroom (Boletus edulis)
Porcini mushrooms are adored for their rich, nutty flavor and massive size. They’re used in various meals, including pizza and pasta dishes.
- Size range: 2 Inches to a foot tall with an average cap width of 12 inches when mature. They grow big and heavy, the cap and stalk each weighing up to 12 lbs.
- Habitat: Moist, semi-sunny areas on the forest ground. Porcini mushrooms also grow under chestnut, pine, beech, and birch trees.
- Region: Throughout North America.
- Growing season: Fall through late Spring.
- Cap: Yellowish-brown to reddish brown with a smooth, domed, and slightly shiny surface, akin to a sticky baked bun. When cut, the flesh should remain stark-white.
- Gills: None. Instead, porcini mushrooms have tiny, sponge-like pores that are light gray in color, turning yellow when overripe.
- Stalk: Thick, meaty, and white with a subtle white-on-brown webbing pattern called reticulation.
- Spores: Dark greenish-brown.
- Dangerous lookalikes: Poisonous varieties include Boletus satanas and Boletus sensibilis. If the flesh changes color after cutting, it’s not a porcini. The Tylopilus felleus is another lookalike that’s extremely bitter.
- Precautions: Avoid harvesting older porcini mushrooms as they tend to attract tiny (albeit harmless) worms. Younger specimens are less prone to pests but should still be thoroughly cleaned with saline solution or air dried.
4. Chicken of the Woods Mushroom (Laetiporus sulphureus)
Known for its chicken-like taste and texture, this “sulfur shelf” mushroom also has mild citrusy flavors that pair well with countless dishes.
- Size range: Grows in “shelves” from 2–10 inches wide and up to 10 inches tall.
- Habitat: Chicken of the woods mushrooms are found on dead or dying trees such as cherry and beech hardwoods or conifers.
- Region: Eastern North America, with related species growing throughout the US.
- Growing season: Late Summer to Fall.
- Cap: Whitish-yellow on the outer regions to peachy-orange in the center with soft, similarly-colored flesh. The wavy edges are fan-shaped and smooth or slightly wrinkled.
- Gills: None. Chicken of the woods mushrooms sport yellowish, spongy pores on the cap’s underside, not gills.
- Stalk: With no “real” stem, these mushrooms grow in stacked layers called “brackets.” Their flesh is soft and watery while young but brittle when mature.
- Spores: Off-white to yellowish.
- Dangerous lookalikes: The poisonous Jack-o-Lantern mushrooms are similar in color but have gills, not pores. They’re also bioluminescent.
- Precautions: Cook before consumption and avoid eating them altogether if they’re found growing on poisonous trees like eucalyptus, yew, and conifer trees.
Microscopy and Mushroom Spores
Mushroom spores are a major taxonomic characteristic of fungi. Their shape, size, color, and other traits are often crucial for identification. Here’s how to harvest, store, and study them for research purposes:
Harvesting Spores With a Spore Print
Once mycophiles positively identify wild mushrooms, they may want to harvest the spores for research. Start by gathering the following:
- A knife.
- An eye-dropper.
- A white piece of paper.
- A glass container with a lid.
Next, carefully remove the stem without damaging the cap. Place the cap onto the paper, with the gills or pores facing downward. Use the eye-dropper to add drops of water onto the paper, encouraging spore dispersal.
Place the mushroom cap and paper into the container and cover it for 24 hours. Make sure it isn’t disturbed or moved at all. After that, carefully remove the lid and discard the cap.
The piece of paper should now have a spore print. Label it and store it in a sterilized sealed bag, somewhere cool and dry.
Storing Spores and Spore Syringes
Spore syringes are the preferred option for mycologists who prefer sterile, lab-grade specimens that aren’t compromised by contaminants. They’re also ideal for researchers wanting to collect exotic samples not usually found in the wild, like Golden Teacher spores.
- Use an alcohol wipe to sterilize the syringe.
- Close it properly.
- Place it inside a sanitized, resealable, and labeled bag.
Store spore syringes in the refrigerator for best results.
Mushroom strains are often hard to identify without looking at their spores under a microscope. Magnified with the right equipment, these gorgeous microstructures are fascinating, varying in shape, color, and size.
Avid researchers need basic microscopy skills and the right tools to enjoy the microcosmic world of spores. A light microscope with 10X to 1,000X magnification is ideal, along with sterile slides, cover slips, and lens paper.
For more in-depth spore analysis, get a microscope with:
- An oil-immersion lens for high-resolution images.
- An ocular micrometer for fine-tuned measuring.
- A focus dial for more precise imaging.
Thanks to advances in microscopy, new mycological breakthroughs occur regularly. Studying spores isn’t only fascinating but fun and exciting too.
5 Tips to Start Mycology as a Hobby
We’ve provided a rundown on mycology, foraging, and spore analysis, so now it’s time to spring into action. Here are some tips to get started:
1. Set Up a Home Lab
It doesn’t have to be fancy. Start with the basics and build from there. Invest in a decent microscope, some slides, and a journal to keep track of observations.
2. Stock Up on Rare Spores
Mushroom spores like those at Fungushead offer unique insights into rare fungi species that are otherwise difficult to find. Researchers can grow their spore collections and keep a few extras to trade with other amateur mycologists.
3. Collect Spore Prints and Spore Syringes
Amateur mycologists out in the field can make their own spore prints or buy spore syringes for microscopic study. Be sure to label each specimen, store it safely, and keep track of observations.
4. Practice Field Identification
Go foraging, take pictures, and document each find. Always be safe, though, and never touch or consume wild mushrooms without getting them identified by a pro.
5. Never Stop Learning
Join a local mushroom hunting group or online forum. Researchers can learn from others, ask questions, and share their own discoveries. Loads of internet resources exist too, such as:
- Mushroom Observer: A website to record observations and help the community identify mushrooms.
- MYCOLOGOS: An online mycology school offering courses.
- Mycological Society of America: An organization dedicated to mycological research and study.
The Journey Awaits
Amateur mycology encompasses everything from studying fungi and mushroom foraging to harvesting, storing, and exploring spores under a microscope. It’s a lifelong endeavor requiring effort, patience, and a bit of equipment. But it’s incredibly rewarding.
The learning curve is never-ending, with something new and exciting just waiting to be discovered. Beginners can start hunting in the wild as long as they’re accompanied by an expert. Alternatively, they can buy spores and start their microscopy adventures right away.
Whatever path is chosen, the journey awaits