Tuesday 2 July 2019

Sensory Impressions for Diagnosis

Amanita vernicoccora
©Matthew J. L. Kilger

Use Your Senses

When gathering information to help identify mushrooms, your senses can provided key identification information about the mushrooms that you want to identify. 

Obviously, audio input is not a factor; however, visual inputs, olfactory inputs, somatosensory inputs, and gustatory inputs can all provide keys that may help narrow down, or positively identify mushrooms, at least to genus or section, if not to species. 

Visual information

Vision is the primary way that we interact with our surroundings, for most of us. We rarely smell or taste something before we see it. 

It also produces the majority of the clues that we need to capture to identify a mushroom. 

In today's world, we can easily share our visual information by means of the ubiquitous camera phones that most of us carry everywhere we go. Especially in the last few years, where these devices are capable of capturing glorious detail and definition. 

Use this tool, as much as you are able, to capture these data for later reference, and to share with those who may help you to identify a find. 

You can capture the surroundings and terrain, the substrate in which your mushroom grows, and possible associated plants or trees, with ease. 

Not only, of course, can you capture that; but, capture in situ images of the mushroom, to show how it is growing. 

Be sure to carefully excavate at least one specimen and capture all aspects of it. Take images of the top of the cap, and the bottom. Gather a profile view of it, and be sure to get good images of the arrangement of lamellae and their attachment to the stipe. 

Capture the stipe, the annulus (where present), and any tissue that appears at the base of the stipe. 

Cross-section images can also be of use, especially when checking for staining reactions, or looking at internal structures, like a hollow stipe. 

Note that video is not optimal for identification. You cannot easily zoom in on a video that someone else has taken, or stop it on a frame that shows key characteristics which may be needed. Also, frankly, most of us are fairly shaky when it comes to filming details and we pan too quickly over things. 

Video DOES have some use, however, in showing the speed at which a stain reaction may occur; but, this is about the limit of a video file's ability to help in identification. 

In short, take pictures of everything about the mushroom.

Make sure that shots are in-focus, as well. This can be difficult with some phones, but it is imperative that details not be glossed over by poor focus. 

With that information alone, a skilled person can identify most mushrooms to species. In some cases, only to genus; but, those are an exception. 


Second to visual input, the somatosensory system provides the most data to our brains. 

Tactile impressions of mushrooms can contribute greatly to identification. They can mean the difference between Lactarius rubidus, or a host of similar-looking mushrooms. 

Unfortunately, we don't have a way to share the sensations that we receive through this input channel, so we have to learn to record these inputs through language. 

Sometimes that can be difficult - sensation isn't always easy to explain. "Slippery, but not slimy" can feel pretty vague, but do be as detailed as you can. 

Most of the time, of course, sensations such as "rough", "firm", "brittle", "powdery", and the like can be enough. 

Be sure to, again, gather information from the whole mushroom. Does that fuzzy-looking cap feel warty, or furry, or smoother than it looks? What about that stipe? Does it crumble or shatter? Does it break like a green stick, leaving frayed ends? What can we learn from it and the way that it feels? 

Don't worry - it's perfectly safe to touch anything. We'll talk about that a little later. 


This is one of the really important things that most people completely fail to capture, or to adequately describe. 

The aroma that a mushroom creates can be the difference between a toxic and edible Agaricus species, so be sure to pay attention to this. 

Bring the mushroom to your face and give a good, long sniff. Sniff the top, and under the gills, as well. Not all parts of the mushroom put off the same strength of aroma. 

Try to capture that sensation in words. "Mushroomy" is entirely to vague to be of any use. Some mushrooms might smell different, to different people, as well. For example, Morchella importuna, to me, smell bitter and a little smokey - something like the faintest of ashtray aromas, mixed in with a nuttiness and the usual fungal aroma. 

Some Amanita species smell very much like a potato... or like rotting meat... or like bleach. If you can find good comparisons, to which we'll all be able to relate, you'll be much further along in describing this information. 


When tasting a mushroom for diagnosis, do not just lick it. 

Yes, people have told me that they got nothing when they licked the mushroom. That is the expected result of simply licking a mushroom. 

To taste, you need to chew - not just bite, chomp, chomp again, and spit. Chew. 

Take your time. Chew for thirty seconds or more. Chew and move all around the mouth, as we do have different concentrations of receptors in different parts of our mouths - even our cheeks. 

Take note of the way that the flavor changes as you chew, especially if it starts one way, and then goes somewhere else. Did it start sweet and finish bitter? Note that. 

Of course, there's the occasional one that you simply will not be able to chew for that long. I'm looking at you, Russula. Some mushrooms are extremely pungent and spicy, and warrant spitting after only a few seconds. Some are so bitter that your may wish that your mouth were detachable. Sorry to say, that no amount of rinsing is going to quell that bitter. A little salt may help, though (seriously - always carry a packet of salt, if you can.)

Also, do make sure to spit out any mushroom that you taste. Ingestion of unknown mushrooms is, as we professionals put is, a Bad Idea. 

Yes. It is safe, which brings us to the next section... 

Safety and mythology

While it is true that taste and touch do not tell us, alone, if a mushroom is edible or toxic - that information can help us determine whether the mushroom that we are working to identify is safe to eat or not. 

In the case of Russulaceae, for example, if it is not pungent or spicy, it is perfectly safe to cook and eat (at least, in North America and Europe). 

These tests are perfectly safe to perform. 

There is no mushroom on the planet that can poison you through skin contact - even contact with thin, sensitive skin, like the mouth. 

Mycotoxins must be ingested to be effective.*

Now, it has been cautioned that a very few species of Suillus can cause contact dermatitis in some individuals. As someone who's prone to such skin inflammation, I have never had this issue, nor have I spoken with a single individual who has. 

You can safely touch any mushroom. 

Similarly, you can safely taste any mushroom.

Yes, that is right. Stuff it in the ol' gob and chew it to paste with impunity. 

Just, do spit it out after. 

Yes, be thorough, but you don't need to worry about a rinse, unless that just makes you feel better. The small bits that lodge between the teeth are nowhere near enough to cause any harm, even if you were to swallow them. Sola dosis facit venenum - the dose makes the poison. Anything, in small enough quantity, is not poisonous. When it comes to mushrooms, just the amount that may linger in your mouth after tasting is not enough to be harmful. 


To properly identify a mushroom, we need to gather information about it. Not all of that information is something that we'll think about, while in the field, so documentation of it is imperative. Better yet, bring home a specimen or three, for later evaluation - warm mushrooms offer more to the nose and mouth, anyway. 

Capture as much information as possible, and use it to your advantage. Take pictures, and be liberal with them - it isn't like you have to worry about developing costs, right? 

Be safe, and happy hunting! 

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