Here we'll detail some of the more common and fairly easy to identify edible mushrooms of Alabama and the Southeast. While this list is nowhere near exhaustive we will be avoiding those edible mushrooms that aren't known for being good, growing in number sufficient for a meal, or easily mistaken for a toxic look-a-like. Each section will provide detailed identification characteristics that are critical for positive identification and safe consumption of wild-foraged mushrooms. Remember that if you aren't 100% in your identification to a minimum of genus level, you shouldn't eat it. You should use sources outside of this page for confirmation, this is just a guide! Also remember that almost all wild-foraged mushrooms require cooking to break down the chitin that make up the organism's cell walls (otherwise you're on a collision course for the toilet). For more information on general edibility and edibility testing follow the button below.
S. crispa is often associated with mature oaks and hardwoods but can be found under pines and is usually found from late summer to early winter. Usually you'll see them in the distance, like a pot of egg-noodles that was dumped in the woods.
Unlike most mushrooms, this fruitbody has a thick 'root' anchoring it to the deeply buried organism and pulling that root will discourage later fruiting. Cut at the base and don't pull.
With age the tips will dry and blacken, trim those off.
S crispa can grow to be well over 10lbs, and is described as having 'short and contorted branches' of white to tan color.
They will fruit for several years in about the same location, so mark your GPS when you find one.
S. spathulata is our other Eastern Cauliflower mushroom with broad, flat branches. This species can be confused with Hydnopolyporus fimbriatus, which has 'fimbriatus' implying that the edges of the flabellae will be fringed.
Photo by: Jeanie Reynolds Gray
The flavor of Sparassis is very unique and should be showcased, not hidden under overwhelming sauces (unless you have quite a bounty!). There is an almost herbal quality to this meaty fruitbody and it lends itself as a star in soups, especially since it doesn't degrade with boiling.
We have several species of Cantharellus in Alabama including C.'s 'cibarius', cinnabarinus, laterius, appalachiensis, tabernensis, confluens, ignicolor, lewisii, and several more, many of which have yet to be described. All chanterelles will be colored from white to yellow to orange to dull-yellow/tan, and some even have pink gills!
One of the key characteristics for almost all chanterelles is that they have deep ridges rather than true 'gills' underneath their caps. Think of true gills as blades or pages in a book (right image) and chanterelles having ridges or wrinkles (left image).
Furthermore, the vast majority of chanterelles will have a depressed or even trumpet-like top, and in all cases will have gills that run down the stipe (stem/stalk) known as 'decurrent'.
Both of these are Cantharellus sp, on the left C. laterius (the smooth chanterelle) barely has any ridges while the right image C. tabernesis has deep ridges (still not gills!). These deep ridged species can be more difficult to get a good ID on but often have wrinkled or furrowed regions between the main gill structures. Importantly, the gills are easily separated from the rest of the cap and typically run down the cap (decurrent) as you can see in the right-most image.
Chanterelles will tear easily down the vertical axis (from cap to bottom) and will be lightly stringy kind of like string cheese. Pull the stipe in half (lengthwise) and pull the whole fruitbody apart to get a feel for this texture. The stem should NOT be hollow.
Another classic characteristic of chanterelles is that the gills fork (not to be confused with lamellulae [short gills that do not reach the stalk]). You should be able to see where the smaller ridges near the cap margin (edge) physically connect to the larger ridges which run down the stalk (decurrent).
Chanterelles are mycorrhizal (they associate with trees) and are found growing individually, in small clusters, or gregariously ON THE GROUND (never On wood!). Be immediately suspicious if you see them growing all from a central point or if they have scales on top. See below for look-a-likes.
Omphalotus illudens and olearius are commonly called the jack-o'lantern mushrooms and will make you quite ill if you eat it. They grow in a tight cluster and are often similar shades of yellow/orange as many chanterelles.
Defining difference is that Omphalotus have true gills! They are also saprobic (they eat dead/dying wood), but that's not as easy to spot. Use the link below
Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca have a somewhat superficial resemblance to chanterelles in that they are often brightly colored and have a flattened cap that may become slightly depressed. These mushrooms are softer and easy to break along the stem (unlike the more durable chanterelle). These also sport true gills.
Like Cantharelus, Craterellus falls within the Cantharellaceae family and is a fairly diverse genus with all known species considered edible, and often choice. Common species in Alabama include C.'s fallax, calyculus, tubaeformis, ignicolor, and odoratus (though there are likely to be more, some of which may be subspecies of C. fallax group). This entire genus will have a distinctive earthy and quite pleasant fragrance that is sometimes even fruity.
Image courtesy of Alicia Brown
The archetypal black trumpet is probably Craterellus fallax. This mushroom (like most of the genus Craterellus) has a deeply depressed center of the stipe which forms the classic "trumpet" shape. The tissue of the cap/stipe is thinner than most of their cousins in the genus Cantharelus and this was used as a taxonomical division characteristic for some time but is a depreciated characteristic for that distinction. Image courtesy of Alicia Brown
Craterellus ignicolor sometimes called "yellowfoot chanterelles" are actually Craterellus sp. but lack the deep depression of the cap and have a morphology closer to Cantharelus. These are often found in cooler weather. A similar species is Craterellus tubaeformis which is associated with conifers and often has a darker brown cap.
Picture by Tim Pfitzer
Perhaps one of the most fragrant and colorful of the Craterellus species, C. odoratus is named for its potent aroma. The fruitbody is delicate but stands out against the dull forest floor. This delicate fruit may be better suited for a specialty cocktail or dessert rather than the pan, please do still heat appropriately prior to consumption.
Photo courtesy of Harold Bannin
Craterellus is a genus with several morphological options, sometimes with a distinctive pileus (cap) such as in C. ignicolor/tubaeformis, and sometimes the whole fruitbody is a deep trumpet (as in C. fallax). Ornamentation is also variable, but all species within the genus lack true gills and will be fairly thin-fleshed. Mycorrhrizal with hardwoods, often found growing out of moss, growing alone, scattered, gregariously, or in loose clusters (only rarely in tightly packed clusters of many mushrooms).
Photo courtesy of Alicia Brown
Perhaps the most potentially convincing look-a-like for black trumpets is the mature form of the ascocarp known as Urnula craterium. This mushroom is actually a cup-fungus and will lack some of the ornamentation seen in C. fallax.
U. craterium are also more common in early Spring, before most Craterellus fruit.
Photo by Cyndee Helms
Young specimens have an inrolled margin (cap edges) that flare out a bit with age. The cap is typically some shade of purple-to-tan and may sport small cracks but is otherwise smooth. The margin is often waterlogged (you can see in the image above).
Shades of lilac and lavender make young L. nuda easy to differentiate, but the colors fade with age and exposure to the elements.
L. nuda are saprobes (they eat decaying material) and will be found growing on the ground (not wood) individually or gregariously, sometimes attached at the base of their stipe. Look for areas of decaying leaves shaded by tall grasses in the cooler months.
Usually growing individually, the stipes of nearby fruitbodies may fuse. Stipes are often striate or finely fibrous is external texture. They are equal in width or bulbous towards the base.
The most common look-a-likes are probably the Cortinarius (especially C. iodes and iodeoides) and even the pictured C. violaceus. All of these Cortinarius will drop a rust-brown colored spore-print.
Several Laccaria can also look like L. nuda but can be differentiated based on their wider spaced gills.
A similar species, Lepista tarda/sordida will not be violet when young.
All three of the Hericium spp. share one common structure, teeth - which are easy to pinch off or cut through with even a dull blade.
Often called Lion's mane, on account of it's mane-like shape, this saprobe (eats dead/decaying material) is easily distinguishable from the other Hericium spp. by it's ball or cluster-like shape.
Rather than forming a ball, these two form branched structures from which the teeth hang. H. coralloides typically has teeth .5-1cm in length while H. americanum has teeth that hang a longer .5-4cm in length and sometimes looks shaggier. Both are edible.
Photo by Cyndee Helms
Hericium tend to develop as a tight fungal fruitbody (still easily sliced) with teeny teeth that will begin to elongate as the fruitbody matures. The tips of the teeth will begin to discolor to a more yellow-tan with age and may impart a slightly bitter flavor.
Hericium are saprobes, consuming the dead or dying wood of hardwoods (though they aren't picky). Look up to find them.
One of the more common mushrooms that is sometimes confused for Hericum is Spongipellis pachyodon due to the elongated teeth. S. pachyodon is much tougher (think shoe leather) and the teeth are wide or oblong in shape. Furthermore S. pachyodon has a cap-like surface underneath-which the teeth hang. Hericium erinaceus can have a 'cap-like' structure in age, but there is a less defined boundary between cap and teeth.
We have three primary species of Pleurotus in Alabama: P. ostreatus , P. dryinus, and P. laevis. All three are edible and share the following characteristics: decurrent gills, growing on wood (maybe buried), convex or slightly depressed cap with an in-rolled margin when young, and dense, easily obtained white spore-prints. Oysters are a favorite for low-maintenance mushroom growing at home that is sometimes as easy as bringing home an infected log/branch and keeping it moist.
Pleurotus sp have a slightly hidden feature that helps distinguish them from some look-a-likes, they have a diaphanous margin (light is able to pass through). While several mushrooms have a diaphanous margin, Pleurotus are one of the few wood-growing mushrooms to display this so well. Don't depend on this feature, but it's something to keep in mind.
Pleurotus ostreatus are considered the "true oyster" and are stimulated to fruit by drops in the temperature, so expect to see these in fall-winter. P. ostreatus tend to fruit in clusters, almost shelves as seen in the image above. Caps are often buff/tan and usually covered in the white spores of those fruitbodies directly above them.
Pleurotus have several possible cap shapes that are heavily influenced by the environment but typically like to grow as above, with an off-center stipe and cap protruding away from the substrate. The off-center cap is slightly more typical of P. ostreatus than P. dryinus/l(a)evis, which can have more central stipes.
Frankly, these two species are difficult to separate both morphologically and microscopically, so we won't bother. Both may have a finely hairy-to-velvety cap surface and a stipe ornamented with fuzz. They are less likely to grow in shelves and fruit when warm-to-cool temperatures following good precipitation. Gills may be more distant than P. ostreatus, but are still close. I find that these species have a more defined boundary between their gills and the stipe, likely due to the ornamentation.
Photo by Cyndee Helms
One of the most convincing look-a-likes is Phyllotopsis nidulans, sometimes called the "mock-oyster". Phyllotopsis nidulans has a densely hairy texture to the cap and is usually some orange color and the fruitbody often smells foul.
Sometimes Pluteus species can also be confused for Pleurotus, but these will have a central stipe that is typically much thinner than those of Pleurotus sp.
photo by Richard Davis
Morel species level identification is challenging and this is just a basic introduction so we'll lump them all together.
Photo by Wendy Lewis Creel
Morchella are mycrorrhizal, meaning that they grow in association with plants, usually trees. They often fruit in moss-beds or regions of disturbed soil and grow in clusters, gregariously, or alone. Look for Privet as our Southern Morels seem to love it. Morels like to grow with stable soil temps of about 55F in the very early Spring. Check for them on slopes and fields that hold moderate moisture (intermittent sun exposure).
Photo by Jean Cox
The fruitbody of Morhcella spp. have large asymmetrical pits inside of which the microscopic ascus (sac) hold spores for dispersal upon disturbance (like when the wind blows). The stipe AND cap will ALWAYS be hollow. The color of the pileus (cap) is variable from tan-grey-dark brown and often have blackened edges when they dry with age.
Photo by Jean Cox
The genus Gyromitra are also ascocarps and are often the harbingers of Morchella (or at least they tend to like the same general environments and fruit at about the same time of year). While these too have a hollow stipe and cap, they will lack the very distinctive pits seen with Morchella. Some of the species in this genus produce a toxin called gyromitrin, which can cause renal failure. Our stance at the AMS is to not eat them as they are not 'beginner' mushrooms.
The genus Phallus, a branch of the stinkhorns (Phallaceae) will actually erupt from an 'egg' like structure and be covered with sticky and stinky spore mass called a gleba. The stipes will not be hollow, and you probably don't want to eat these stinky things.
Morels can certainly cause a tummy-ache if not cooked thoroughly, so make sure you do. Morels dry and reconstitute remarkably well and store (completely dry) for years! I've also quite successfully powdered the cooked and dried fruitbody as a robustly meaty seasoning.
Photo by Tim Pfitzer