The Abundance of Mushrooms

Compleat Naturalist

If only one could tell true love from false love as one can tell mushrooms from toadstools.
~ Katherine Mansfield

By Laura & Hal Mahan

Early fall is usually prime time for mushroom hunters. If the rains are reliable, be on the lookout for myriad species of colorful fungi. Here in the Southern Appalachians more than 2,300 species of fungi have been identified already, but scientists estimate that there may be as many as 20,000 different kinds.

Mushrooms are biological oddballs. Part of the Kingdom Fungi, they are not plants, as they don’t contain green chlorophyll to make their own food. They are not animals, as they (mostly) do not move. They are part of nature’s clean-up crew, feeding on dead organic debris. But some fungi also feed off of living organisms. Mushrooms are the reproductive structures, or fruiting bodies, of the fungus. Most of the fungus stays hidden underground or in dead logs, in the form of thread-like structures called mycelia.

Underneath the typical mushroom cap, you will see either a series of radiating gills, or hundreds of holes or pores. These are the structures that release millions of tiny spores into the environment, microscopic structures that float away and grow into new fungal threads if they land in just the right spot. You can see this spore dispersal in action if you cut off a mushroom’s stem and place the cap onto a piece of white paper. Leave it undisturbed overnight and you will have a “spore print,” where millions of spores have dropped onto the paper to make a colorful design. Spore color is one of the features used in mushroom identification.

Of course, the million-dollar question is this: How do you tell if a mushroom is edible, or if it’s a poisonous “toadstool”? The only safe way is to learn the skills necessary to correctly identify each species. There are lots of old “rules” that are simply not true, such as that a poisonous mushroom will blacken silver, or that if a mushroom has been partially eaten by animals, it is safe. NOT! Even mushrooms that smell and taste good are not necessarily safe.

Your best bet is to learn the proper way of identifying wild mushrooms, which is not an easy task. But there are many good books and a very good local club where you might find a mushroom mentor. Or you could take the approach that we usually do: admire mushrooms as beautiful and interesting organisms, and forget about eating them!

Recommended Resources

A Field Guide to Mushrooms of the Carolinas
by Alan E. Bessette, Arleen R. Bessette and Michael W. Hopping

Mushrooms of the Southeast
by Todd F. Elliott and Steven L. Stephenson

Appalachian Mushrooms, a Field Guide
by Walter E. Sturgeon

Mushrooms Demystified
by David Arora. A comprehensive guide to more than 2,000 North American mushrooms

Asheville Mushroom Club
Anyone with an interest in mushrooms, beginning or professional, is encouraged to join. Monthly meetings and regular field trips around WNC.

Laura and Hal Mahan are owners of The Compleat Naturalist, located at 2 Brook Street in the Historic Biltmore Village. To learn more, visit or call 828.274.5430.

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