The Edible and the Inedible

by Fred Rhoades

All photos by Fred Rhoades

Russula densifolia

Russula densifolia: “better dribbled than nibbled”

Part 1

The first thing most people ask when they bring me a mushroom to identify, once I provide them with an ID, is, “is it edible?” This can be a tricky question and I’ll provide some general answers in this time’s column. I am a conservative mushroom consumer: I don’t generally partake in something just because it is known to be edible. I like the different textures and flavors and have my favorite ways of preparing these — a topic for another venue. Other mushroom consumers will have their own favorites. And, remember the saying: “There are old mycologists and bold mycologists, but there are no old, bold mycologists.”

I once sat down with David Arora’s “Mushrooms Demystified” (2nd Edition, 1986) to see how he accounted the edibility of mushrooms found throughout the country. This book is now out of date (incorrect scientific names), but it is still a valuable resource describing over 2,000 species. It is particularly valued for Arora’s humorous take on mushrooming and the eating of mushrooms: of Russula densifolia, “better dribbled than nibbled,” etc. I went through the book and sorted all the mentioned species into three piles: 1. definitely edible (whether considered good or not), 2. definitely poisonous (consumption will cause unpleasantness or perhaps death), and 3. everything else — either too small, too tough, too smelly, or otherwise unknown as to edibility.

Half-Dozen Favorites

I’ve forgotten the precise accounting, but it was approximately one-third in each group. That means there are hundreds of edible mushrooms! Obviously, one can’t cover all the even-very-good species in a short column and let it be known that some edibles are better than others. What I will do is discuss a half dozen of my favorites and some of the inedible look-alikes that might be confused with them. This review will give you a start at looking at this subject and will introduce some of the features mycologists use to distinguish different kinds of mushrooms.

Don’t depend on the descriptions here to identify things correctly. Join the local mushroom club (Northwest Mushroomers Association) and go out with other, like-minded folks who are learning the tricks to identification. Choose your experts wisely: your life could depend on the choice! Also, I can recommend a new resource specifically aimed at local mushroom eating: “Fruits of the Forest. A Field Guide to Pacific Northwest Edible Mushrooms” by Daniel Winkler. Consult this and other mushroom guides for more details on all the species discussed in this article.

Our main mushroom season is in the fall — roughly mid-September through October and into the first part of November, depending on the timing of precipitation and temperature changes, although edible mushrooms can be found throughout the year. The mushrooms discussed here are those you can find in spring through summer (and a few related fall things). A second installment will cover my favorites that arrive in the fall.

Morchella importuna

The landscape morel, Morchella importuna


Morels (Morchella species) are generally regarded as best of the edible wild mushrooms. They are only found in the mid- to late spring. Typically, morels appear as a spongy collection of pits on a stem. On this side of the Cascades, the landscape morel (Morchella importuna) usually “fruits” (mushrooms really aren’t fruits but we use the term anyway) in recently applied wood chip landscaping and other places where gardens have been cultivated. This species is not generally considered to be the most delicious morel, but it is the most common here.

Gyromitra esculenta

False morel, Gyromitra esculenta

East of the Cascades, particularly in recent forest burn areas, huge numbers of a variety of species can be collected. In the ponderosa pine forests, a “natural,” non-burn morel, Morchella synderi, is particularly common. The false morels, genus Gyromitra, are the poisonous look-alikes. They have convoluted caps that look more like brains. Although some have been gathered and eaten elsewhere, it is better to leave them be as our species are known to be toxic.Verpa bohemica

Early morel, Verpa bohemicaEarlier in the spring, another look-alike, the early morel (Verpa bohemica), is quite common under cottonwoods on the west side of the mountains. This species lacks the hollow stem of the true morels and its cap is connected to the stem only at the very top. Although edible, it must be thoroughly cooked (true for all morels!) and some folks get upset tummies from it in any case.

Pleurotus pulmonarius

Northwestern oyster, Pleurotus pulmonarius

Oyster Mushrooms

A gilled mushroom that is found both in the spring and fall is easy to recognize: The oyster mushroom, Pleurotus pulmonarius. This species usually grows on dead hardwood logs and stumps, and, as it uses these substrates for support, the mushrooms lack distinct stems. The spore color in deposit (spore prints are an important diagnostic feature for many species of gilled mushroom) is grayish lilac. Other related species with similar features that occur in the fall only include angels’ wings (Pleurocybella porrigens) with white spores and growing on dead conifer wood, and the late oyster (Sarcomyxa serotina) with yellow spores and growing on hardwoods, usually in November and after. Both these are edible although angels’ wings now have a more dubious reputation since they caused fatalities in Japan among people with compromised kidneys. Other inedible, and probably toxic, look-alikes which lack stems are mostly in the genus Crepidotus. These grow on a variety of different wood types, are generally smaller, and have brown spores.

Crepidotus mollis

Peeling oysterling, Crepidotus mollis


A late spring prize searched for in the higher conifer forests on bothsides of the Cascades is the spring king, Boletus rex-veris. Boletes are the fleshy, pored mushrooms, and there are several good edible species throughout the year. B. rex-veris is a large, meaty bolete with a reddish brown cap and light yellow pores that is mycorrhizal with pines and true firs. Even more desirable and occurring late in the summer in a variety of tree-associated habitats from sea-level to high in the mountains is the real prize: Boletus edulis, with a variety of common names (king bolete, penny bun, porcini, steinpiltz, cèpe, etc.) that hint at its world fame as an edible. This species has a lighter, tan cap and light-yellow pores and a stem often, but not always swollen and almost bulbous that is covered by a fine network of raised white lines. The flesh of cap and stem do not change color when bruised.

Boletus rex-veris

Spring king, Boletus rex-veris

Unlike an inedible relative, which bruises blue: the bitter bolete, Caloboletus conifericola, also found in mountain habitats which king boletes inhabit. In late summer, there are several other boletes in mountain forests, both edible and inedible. Collect with an expert or consult reliable resources. Finally, another excellent bolete, usually found late summer into fall in lower conifer forests: Aureoboletus mirabilis, the admirable bolete. This under-appreciated species is one of the few boletes to grow on decaying wood as it is mycorrhizal with hemlock seedlings that may also frequent that habitat. A. mirabilis has a velvety purple cap with similarly colored, streaked stem and bright yellow pores.


Keep your eye out for another beauty this summer. The prince, Agaricus augustus, often occurs under trees where the ground has been watered and will continue to show up into the fall. All Agaricus species, of which there are many, both edible and not, have chocolate brown spores, (free gills attached to the cap but not the stem and some sort of a ring or veil on the stem).

Agaricus augustus

The prince, Agaricus augustus

A. augustus is a large Agaricus recognized by a cap with reddish-brown scales against a creamy yellow background, a beautiful, skirt-like ring and a strong almond-y odor which disappears on cooking. Other, large Agaricus one might find in this habitat lack the odor or may have an odd, chemical odor and may stain yellow, especially at the base. There are several species of these which can occur in similar habitats to the prince. Agaricus deardorffensis is illustrated as an example. These are all toxic — not fatally so but they will cause stomach upset. Most occur later in the fall and not so much in watered gardens. The almond odor of A. augustus and the color pattern of the cap are the important distinctions.

Agaricus deardorffensis

Western flat top, Agaricus deardorffensis

You are unlikely to confuse A. augustus with Amanita phalloides the death cap which may occur in similar habitats but always under either hazel nut or non-native oaks and related trees, and usually later in the year. Amanitas have free gills and a veil on the stem, but have white spores and they also have some sort of swollen or cup-like structure at the base of the stem. As the common name suggests, this is a deadly poisonous species.

Very late in the summer, particularly after the rains have just begun, and into the fall and even during the cooler parts of spring, you can find another excellent Agaricus, the meadow mushroom, Agaricus campestris. These grow in lawns and meadows, sometimes in rings and are of medium size, with pink gills when young and very little definite veil on the stem usually just a fuzzy zone. As the spores mature, the gills turn chocolatey brown. This is a relative of the store-bought, button mushroom Agaricus bisporus, but it has a much richer taste. A similar, mildly poisonous species may occur in the same habitat at the same time: Leucoagaricus leucothites, known as woman-on-a-motorcycle because of the appearance of the younger stages. Leucoagaricus are like Agaricus in every way, but have white “leuco” spores.


General caveats: Do not use this article alone to identify mushrooms. People vary in their sensitivity to different species, even species that are known by many to be edible, and may cause problems in some people. They won’t kill you but you may react to them. Try one new thing at a time. Eat a small amount the first time. Don’t eat old, ragged or rotten mushrooms or mushrooms that have been collected where there are nasty things pesticides, unknown types of lawn treatments, right along well-traveled roads, etc. Cook all mushrooms well. There will be some regional differences in how good a known edible might be: different versions of the same thing may vary and different cooks may know the secrets to bringing out the best in a species.

Part II

It will feature good edibles and lookalikes found mainly in the fall months.


Dr. Fred Rhoades from 1977 to 2009, was an instructor of biology at Western Washington University.

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