Mushroom and fungi identification can be tricky in the UK, but some that you’ll find are so distinctive that you won’t have any difficulties at all.
Mushrooms or toadstools – call them what you will – are the colourful manifestations of subterranean fungal webs or mycelia, which comprise the real engine room of our woods.
Some fungi are saprotrophic: they obtain their nutrients by breaking down organic remains. Others form mycorrhizal associations with trees or other plants: the mycelia bond with the root cells and thus ferry nutrients to the hosts. Up to 90 per cent of all plants are thought to have such fungal ‘helpers’.
One of the most unusual-looking groups of fungi is the earthstars, which have a spore sac, sometimes raised on a stalk, and surrounded by rays. There are more than 15 found in the UK, and our earthstar identification guide by naturalist Phil Gates describes seven to look out for.
Putting a name to the trees in a wood will tell you what fungi to expect. For example, the magpie fungus occurs mainly in beechwoods, for example, while the sickener prefers pines and the larch bolete is (you’ve guessed it) a denizen of larch plantations.
More identification guides:
All illustrations by Felicity Rose Cole, unless otherwise credited
Chanterelle mushroom (Cantharellus cibarius)
Chanterelle mushrooms can be found in coniferous and deciduous woods. Brilliant yellow; gills run part of way down thick stem. Edible (delicious).
Chanterelles are common and widespread in the UK.
Horn of plenty mushroom (Craterellus cornucopioides)
The horn of plenty mushroom is a woodland mushroom that favours deciduous woods and is often found in groups. Blackish, funnel-shaped or tubular cap with frilly edges.
They’re quite localised, but horn of plenty mushrooms are easy to see in some spots.
The sickener mushroom (Russela emetic)
Sickener mushrooms occur in pine woods. A ‘brittlegill’ with a scarlet cap and pure white gills and stem; gills break easily when touched. Poisonous.
Sickener mushrooms are common and widespread.
Charcoal burner mushroom (Russell cyanoxantha)
You can find charcoal burner mushrooms in deciduous woods. A ‘brittlegill’ with a lilac or red wine-coloured cap, often with olive tints.
Common and widespread in the UK, it shouldn’t be hard to find a charcoal burner mushroom.
Wood blewit mushroom (Lepista nuda)
Wood blewit mushrooms are found i deciduous woods and hedges. Rich tan cap; lilac stem and gills. Has a sweet, perfumed smell.
Like many other mushrooms here, wood blewit mushrooms are common and widespread in Britain.
Larch bolete mushroom (Suillus grevillei)
As you might guess from then name, larch bolete mushrooms are found under larches. Cap sticky, orange when young, yellower as it matures. Has pores instead of gills.
Larch boletes are localised but easy to see in the right spots.
Common stinkhorn mushroom (Phallus impudicus )
Common stinkhorn mushrooms aren’t particularly choosy and can be found in all kinds of woods. Cap covered in slime when fresh; releases foul smell to attract flies that spread its spores.
Given their non-choosy nature, it’s not surprising that common stinkhorns are common and widespread.
Hedgehog mushroom (Hydnum repandum)
Hedgehog mushrooms can be found in most woodland types. Cap creamy on upperside; underside has soft, pale spines (hence the name).
Hedgehog mushrooms are common and widespread.
Violet webcap mushroom (Cortinarius violaceus)
You’ll mainly find violet webcap mushrooms in birch woods. Big, beautiful mushroom with a rich violet cap; browns with age.
Violet webcap mushrooms are scarce and will generally require some thorough searching.
Verdigris roundhead mushroom (Stropharia aeruginosa)
Verdigris roundhead mushrooms occur in all types of woodland and also on heaths. Unique turquoise colour with white, fleecy patches when young. Poisonous.
Common and widespread, verdigris roundhead mushrooms shouldn’t be too tricky to find but are well worth searching out for their unique colour.
Magpie fungus (Coprinus picaceus)
You’ll find magpie fungus in deciduous woods, mainly beech. Bell-shaped cap with irregular white patches. Liquefies when old.
Magpie fungus doesn’t exist everywhere in the UK, but it’s easy to see in some spots in its localised distribution.
Yellow stagshorn fungus (Calocera viscosa)
Yellow stagshorn fungus can be found in coniferous woods, on rotten logs and stumps. Slimy when wet; when dry a deeper shade of orange.
Yellow stagshorn fungus is common and widespread.
Sessile earthstar (Geastrum fimbriatum)
Digital reproduction of an illustration of the sessile earthstar, by Emil Doerstling (1859-1940). © Bildagentur-online/Universal Images Group/Getty
The sessile earthstar has a dimeter of only two centimetres, and becomes grey with age. It has between five and nine rays, which are cream in colour. It occurs across the UK, but is more common in England than the other countries.
It can be found on undisturbed woodland floor, often near hazel. The fruiting body comprises an acorn-like spore sac and curling rays. Usually seen between August and November.
Learn more about earthstar identification in our guide by naturalist Phil Gates.
HOW TO IDENTIFY MUSHROOMS AND FUNGI
- Join a fungi foray – it’s the best way to pick up ID tips. Many local conservation organisations organise forays on their reserves.
- Take spore prints from your fungi. Place the cap on a piece of clean paper, cover it overnight and next morning you should have a perfect spore print. Fungi fun!
- Specialise in a few fungal types, such as colourful waxcaps, coral fungi or boletes. Report unusual finds to your local records group; find a list here.
Correctly identifying fungi to species level is extremely difficult and many species are poisonous, and even fatal, so if you wish to forage fungi, we would advise doing so with an expert.
Main image: Magpie fungus on woodland floor in St Victor de Reno, Normandy, France. © David Courtenay/Getty