Basic Keys

  1. Introduction
  2. Sources Of Information
  3. Basic Key to Genera
  4. Gilled Mushroom Spore Print Colour
  5. Gilled Mushrooms Key Genera

Introduction

The identification of an unknown species of fungus is a process of building up evidence, searching for distinctive features that pin the fungus to genus and then hopefully to species. In some cases the features are so distinctive that the species is obvious. Mycena crocata, the Orange Bleeding Mycena, is a graceful fungus which grows on rotten wood, and which is easily identified thanks to the orange sap that it exudes on cutting. Camarophyllopsis foetens is an unremarkable little mushroom found in unimproved grassland, but with a very strong smell of moth balls. In most cases the features are less obvious, and require careful work on the part of the collector. Sadly many fungi cannot be identified without recourse to a microscope. Sometimes it is sufficient to examine the spores whilst in other cases it is necessary to examine the attachment of the spores, and the nature of the hyphae, or constituent strands, especially at the surface of the gills, cap or stem. Even when microscopy is not essential, use of the microscope can help corroborate an identification based on macroscopic features.

It is important to carry out a thorough examination of the specimen(s) at the time of collection as the colours, and smells, often change after picking, especially if the specimen is bruised during transport. Specimens that are to be taken back home can be stored in small containers, with similar specimens kept in separate containers and labelled to prevent confusion.

The following details should be recorded at the time of collection:

  1. The substrate. Fungi grow on specific substrates, which could be wood, either buried or exposed, soil, sand, dung, bone, insects, straw, and organic debris such as leaves. If possible, determine the precise nature of the substrate e.g. dead coniferous wood.
  2. Any associated vegetation, especially trees and shrubs. Many fungi will only grow in association with a particular tree or plant, either because they form a symbiotic relationship, or because the fungus relies on dead matter, such as leaves, from the plant.
  3. The size, shape, colour and texture of the cap. It could be conical, domed, flattened, or funnel shaped. The surface could be smooth, rough, wrinkled, scaly, greasy, silky, or viscid, and the margin could be furrowed, lined or wavy.
  4. The colour shape and texture of the gills, if present. They can be broad or narrow, closely packed, or spaced far apart. They might even be branched. They can be of uniform colour, or have differently coloured edges, or even be mottled. The attachment to the stem is important. They might not reach the stem (free), they could be narrowly attached (adnexed), they could be broadly attached (adnate), or they might run down the stem (decurrent).
  5. The colour and form of the pores, if present. In some species the pores change colour when bruised.
  6. The size, shape, colour and texture of the stem. It could be hollow, stuffed (soft inside and having cavities) or solid. Some stems are deeply rooting. Many have a ring, either prominent, or vestigial. Some species have the remains of a veil at the apex of the stem. In some species the stem base is bulb shaped. In other species the stem emerges from a volva (fleshy sack).
  7. The colour and texture of the flesh. It could be tough, firm, brittle, fibrous or gelatinous, thin, or thick. In some species the flesh changes colour and/or produces milk on cutting. The smell and the taste are often significant (but do not taste a fungus unless you are certain that it is not a poisonous species).

It is also worth taking a photograph. Many digicams are ideal, being small, inexpensive, and capable of excellent results. Do make sure that the various features of the fungus are recorded.

Once back home, a spore print can be taken by placing a specimen on a piece of paper, or alternatively, on a microscope slide allowing the print to be viewed over both white and black surfaces.

I find it is usually best to take specimens home, along with the descriptions, before I attempt an identification. Unfortunately specialist literature is often required, but for general use I recommend Mushrooms by Roger Phillips, which is well written, nicely illustrated, and inexpensive. I also recommend using online resources, though many fungi shown online are misidentified, so caution is advised.

The following sections present some simple keys which should help you on the path to the identification of an unknown species of fungus.

Sources Of Information

One problem the amateur will face is that he/she may have no more than one or two popular guides which will cover a limited number of species. Few popular works cover more than 1,000 species, whereas more than 2,500 macrofungi are known to exist in the UK. Some amateur mycologists spend a small fortune on specialist works, many of which cost the best part of 100 each. Fortunately the internet provides a wealth of information, although caution is advised as some of the information is incorrect, and many photographs are incorrectly identified.

Basic Key to Genera

The following table is a simple key to the genera listed in the A to Z. It is not intended to be authoritative or complete, and excludes many rare genera.

Cup Fungi

Cup shaped, on soil, wood, organic debris and dung.
Aleuria, Anthracobia, Bisporella, Cheilymenia, Chlorociboria, Ciboria, Disciotis, Geopora, Humaria, Melastiza, Octospora, Otidea, Paxina, Peziza, Rutstroemia, Sarcoscypha, Scutellinia, Tazzetta.

Puff Balls and Stalked Puff Balls

Round or club shaped, mostly on soil, some on wood. At maturity the paper thin skin ruptures, to allow the dust like spores to emerge, often through a narrow aperture.
Battarraea, Bovista, Calvatia, Handkea, Lycoperdon, Tulostoma, Vascellum.

Earth Balls, and Tubers

A group of mostly ball shaped fungi, which at maturity break open to release the powdery spore mass.
Rhizopogon, Scleroderma.

Earth stars

Fungi consisting of a ball on star shaped arms.
Geastrum, Astraeus, Myriostoma.

Subterraneum Fungi

Fungi which grow beneath the soil surface.
Elaphomyces, Tuber

Tooth or Spine Fungi

Fungi whose underside is covered with spine-like protuberances.
Auriscalpium, Bankera, Hericium, Hydnellum, Hydnum, Sarcodon, Phellodon.

Trumpet Fungi

Trumpet shaped fungi, with soft flesh, usually growing on soil.
Cantharellus, Craterellus, Pseudocraterellus.

Spindle and Club Fungi

Fungi with club shapes, either slender, or robust, usually growing on soil.
Clavaria, Clavariadelphus, Clavulinopsis, Cordyceps, Macrotyphula, Typhula.

Earth Tongues

Small upright tongue-like fungi, growing in grass.
Geoglossum, Microglossum, Trichoglossum.

Coral Fungi

Coral-like fungi with soft to firm flesh, growing on soil or wood.
Clavaria, Clavulina, Clavulinopsis, Ramaria, Sparassis, Thelephora

Jelly Fungi

Fungi with a gelatinous texture. Often brightly coloured and always growing on wood.
Ascocoryne, Auricularia, Bulgaria, Calocera, Cudoniella, Dacrymyces, Exidia, Guepinia, Myxarium, Neobulgaria, Pseudohydnum, Tremella.

Stinkhorns

Phallus like fungi with a tip covered in a foul smelling spore mass.
Dictyophora, Mutinus, Phallus.

Birds Nests

Small cups or nests containing small egg-like spore packets, growing on organic debris.
Crucibulum, Cyathus, Nidularia, Sphaerobolus.

Brain fungi

Fungi consisting of a brain like cap on a stem.
Gyromitra, Morchella, Verpa.

Elfin Saddles

Fungi consisting of an irregular cap on a stem.
Cyathipodia, Helvella.

Fleshy Brackets

Bracket like fungi, with soft flesh, and gills, with a lateral or absent stem, growing on living trees, dead wood and organic debris.
Arrhenia, Crepidotus, Hohenbuehelia, Lentinellus, Omphalotus, Ossicaulis, Panellus, Pleurocybella, Pleurotus, Schizophyllum.

Succulent Brackets

Bracket like fungi, with firm but not corky flesh, and pores on the under surface, growing on living trees and dead wood.
Abortiporus, Grifola, Hepatica, Inonotus, Laetiporus, Meripilus, Polyporus, Postia.

Hard brackets

Bracket like fungi, with leathery or corky flesh, growing on living trees, and dead wood.
Antrodia, Daedalia, Daedaliopsis, Datronia, Fomes, Fomitopsis, Ganoderma, Gloeophyllum, Heterobasidium, Inonotus, Ischnoderma, Oxyporus, Phaeolus, Phellinus, Piptoporus, Polyporus, Pyncnoporus, Trametes.

Crusts

Fungi forming a mat like layer on a substrate, usually wood.
Antrodia, Coniophora, Peniophora, Phellinus, Phlebia, Schizopora, Serpula, Stereum, Ustulina.

Boletes

Small to large fungi having a cap and a stem, and sponge like pores on the underside of the cap. Always associated with a tree or shrub.
Aureoboletus, Boletus, Gyrodon, Gyroporus, Leccinum, Porphyrellus, Pseudoboletus, Strobilomyces, Suillus, Tylopilus.

Gilled Mushrooms with volva

Mushrooms with a cap, gills and central stem, with a fleshy sack at the stem base.
Amanita, Volvariella.

Gilled Mushrooms without volva

Mushrooms with a cap, gills and central stem, with no fleshy sack at the stem base.
Agaricus, Agrocybe, Armillaria, Bolbitious, Cantharellula, Clitocybe, Clitopilus, Collybia, Conocybe, Coprinus, Cortinarius, Cystolepiota, Entoloma, Flammulina, Gymnopilus, Hebeloma, Hygrocybe, Hygrophoropsis, Hypholoma, Inocybe, Kuehneromyces, Laccaria, Lepiota, Lepista, Leucocoprinus, Leucopaxillus, Limacella, Lyophyllum, Macrolepiota, Marasmius, Melanoleuca, Melanophyllum, Mycena, Naucoria, Omphalotus, Oudemansiella, Panaeolus, Paxillus, Phaeolepiota, Pholiota, Pluteus, Psathyrella, Pseudoclitocybe, Psilocybe, Rhodocybe, Rickenella, Russula, Stropharia, Tapinella, Tephrocybe, Tricholoma, Tricholomopsis, Tubaria


Gilled Mushroom Spore Print Colour

The following table lists the spore print colour against genus. Note that spore colour may vary within each genus. The table excludes many rare genera.

Spore print Species
White, whitish or cream Amanita, Armillaria, Arrhenia, Cantharellula, Clitocybe, Collybia, Cystolepiota, Flammulina, Hygrocybe, Hygrophoropsis, Laccaria, Lepiota, Leucocoprinus, Leucopaxillus, Limacella, Lyophyllum, Macrolepiota, Marasmius, Melanoleuca, Mycena, Omphalotus, Oudemansiella, Panellus, Panus, Pleurotus, Pseudoclitocybe, Rickenella, Russula, Tephrocybe, Tricholoma, Tricholomopsis
Yellow Russula
Pale ochre to ochre Lactarius, Russula, Tubaria
Cream with salmon tinge Lactarius
Lilac Pleurotus,
Rust-brown or rust Bolbitious, Conocybe, Cortinarius, Galerina, Gymnopilus, Hypholoma, Kuehneromyces, Paxillus, Pholiota, Tapinella
Brownish Agaricus, Agrocybe, Crepidotus, Hebeloma, Hypholoma, Inocybe, Naucoria, Phaeolepiota, Psathyrella, Psilocybe, Stropharia
Purple-brown Hypholoma, Psathyrella, Psilocybe,
Black, purple-black or brown-black Coprinus, Panaeolus, Parasola, Psathyrella
Greenish Chlorophyllum, Melanophyllum, Phylloporus
Reddish Melanophyllum
Pink Entoloma, Clitopilus, Lepista, Pluteus, Rhodocybe, Rhodotus, Volvariella,


Gilled Mushrooms Key Genera

The following table lists major genera of gilled mushrooms.

Genus Comments

Wax Caps, Hygrocybe

Small to medium sized mushrooms, often brightly coloured, and often found in unimproved grasslands. The texture of the surface - e.g. dry or greasy - can be significant in identifying a specimen.

Milk Caps, Lactarius

A large genus, of medium to large mushrooms, with flattened or funnel shaped caps, and a ringless stem, producing a milk or sap on cutting the flesh. Some have milk or flesh which undergoes a slow to rapid colour change on exposure to the air, though the change may take several minutes. It is worth dabbing some milk on a white handkerchief, and waiting several minutes to observe any colour change. Always associated with trees and/or shrubs.

Russula

A very large genus of medium to large mushrooms, usually with brittle white flesh and a ringless stem. The caps are often brightly coloured. Always associated with trees and/or shrubs. This is an extremely difficult genus. In many cases an identification cannot be reached without microscopic examination and chemical tests.

Mycena

A large genus of very small to medium sized saprotrophic (decomposing dead organic matter) mushrooms, usually slender in form, with conical caps, a ringless stem, and thin flesh. Some produce a coloured milk on cutting the stem. Many have distinctive smells, which can be amplified by placing specimens in a small container for a period of time.

Pholiota

A modest genus of medium to large sized mushrooms, sometimes with a ring on the stem, with smooth, sticky or scaly caps, and growing on wood and woody debris. The spores are brown to rusty-brown.

Ink Caps, Coprinus

A large genus of fungi, usually with rather fragile flesh. The gills gradually turn to a black liquid, hence the common name. Many grow on animal dung.

Brittle Stems, Psathyrella

A large group of fungi with brittle flesh, usually with a slender form, whitish stems, usually ringless, and producing dark brown spores.

Web Caps, Cortinarius

The largest genus, containing a huge range of forms. All have a transient cob web like veil between the cap margin and stem, though it may persist as little more than faint markings on the stem apex. Always associated with trees and/or shrubs such as Common Rock Rose. Many have unusual smells and tastes, and distinctive shapes, especially the stem base. Young specimens often show violaceous tones in the gills and flesh which disappear with age.

Amanita

A fairly large genus of fungi which emerge from a fleshy sack, which often persists as white or grey spots or patches on the cap surface, and sometimes as a volva, or sack, at the base of the stem. Many have rings on the stem. Take care to note the colour of the veil remnants on the cap. Some have strong smells. Always associated with trees and/or shrubs.

Pluteus

A modest group of fungi with pink gills at maturity, and a ringless stem. Most grow on dead wood, and many are quite large and very common. The gills are free.

Lepiota and Macrolepiota

A large group of small to very large fungi with white, off-white or pale yellow gills, a ring or faint ring zone on the stem, and a cap that is often very scaly. All grow on soil, or organic debris such as compost heaps. Many have distinctive smells, ranging from nutty to nauseaous. The Macrolepiota genus includes the Parasol Mushroom.

Entoloma

A very large genus of pink gilled mushrooms with a ringless stem. Most grow on soil, though some grow on dead wood. Microscopically Entoloma are recognised by distinctly faceted spores. Always associated with trees and/or shrubs.

Fibre Caps, Inocybe

A large group of small to medium sized mushrooms, usually with fibrous caps, ringless stems, and brown spores. Always associated with trees and/or shrubs. Most grow on soil, though some grow on dead wood, or organic matter. Some have distinctively knobbly spores. This is a difficult genus, which inspires fear in the hearts of many amateur mycologists.

Knight Caps, Tricholoma

A large genus of medium to large fungi, with (apart from two exceptions) a ringless stem, firm flesh, sinuate gills, and growing on soil. They are always associated with trees and/or shrubs. Note the smell and taste of the flesh, which sometimes reveals distinctive features after chewing for several minutes. (Never taste any mushroom unless you are sure it is safe to do so.)

Collybia

A large genus of medium to large saprotrophic (decomposing dead organic matter) mushrooms, usually with non-decurrent gills, a ringless stem, and with whitish to pale pink spores.

Funnel Caps, Clitocybe

A large genus of small to large mushrooms, with depressed or funnel shaped caps, decurrent gills, a ringless stem and whitish spores.

Lepista

A genus of saprophytic (living on dead organic matter) medium to large mushrooms with flattened to funnel shaped caps, a ringless stem, and white to pale pink spores.

Agaricus

A fairly large genus of medium to large saprotrophic (decomposing dead organic matter) mushrooms, usually with whitish caps, brown or pink gills, and a whitish stem with a ring. The whitish flesh often stains red, pink or yellow on bruising. Found on soil, compost heaps, and well rotted manure. Includes several commonly cutivated species, as well as many that are widely collected for the table.