You might assume those big white puffballs that pop up on the lawn after a good rainstorm are plants. But fungi are actually a diverse group of organisms and microorganisms that are neither plants nor animals.
Some members of the fungi kingdom are destructive, like the one that killed America’s chestnut trees, but some of them—at least many of the fruiting bodies that unfurl beneath trees in to spread their spores in damp forests—are delicious. It helps to know the difference.
People both love and fear mushrooms, but we may be more afraid of picking them ourselves than is warranted. There are about 10,000 species of mushrooms, says Ritas Vilgalys, who heads up the Vilgalys Mycology Lab at Duke University. “Of those, less than a dozen are seriously poisonous. Of those, less than a half-dozen are truly deadly.” But if you do eat a bad one, you could get an upset stomach, he says.
Now, that doesn’t mean everyone should run out and just start foraging mushrooms. But beginners can learn to identify a few good edibles and some of the features of poisonous species, Vilgalys says. Morels, chanterelles, giant puffballs, chicken of the woods, and hen of the woods are easy to recognize when in season, and they all taste good when sautéed in a little butter or oil and garlic.
Unfortunately, there are many species that look alike from above. The trick to identifying what you’re looking at is to peer underneath, at the gills and the stem and how they attach. The North American Mycological Association, which publishes a bimonthly newsletter called, what else, The Mycophile, is a handy reference.
Fungi, edible and not, vary wildly in shape, size, color, and smell, as you can see from our selection of the best wild mushroom photos in our Your Shot gallery below. And they’re not just diverse and fascinating. They’re also being affected by human intervention in ways we are just beginning understand, Vilgalys says.
“The entire health of the forest is linked to the health of its microbes,” he says. “The bacteria and fungi are interacting constantly with their environment.” Just like in the human world, “there’s lots of trading going on between kingdoms.”