Mushrooms are the fleshy, spore-bearing fruit of various fungi. They are classed within the major groups of Basidiomycetes and Ascomycetes. Hundreds of different kinds of mushrooms grow wild in Canada, from the US border to the Arctic, and from sea level to alpine environments. Some of these are well known edible species, such as chanterelles (Cantharellus species) and pine mushrooms (Tricholoma species); others have medicinal properties or can cause hallucinations, such as “magic mushrooms” (Psilocybe species) and fly agaric (Amanita muscaria). Some others, like emetic russula (Russula emetica), are poisonous to varying degrees, and a few mushroom species, like deadly galerina (Galerina marginata), death cap (Amanita phalloides) and panther mushroom (Amanita pantherinoides), can be deadly. This article includes descriptions of some of the most widely-used wild, edible mushrooms found in Canada.
Warning: Never consume a mushroom unless you are certain of its identity and edibility and are aware of any potential reactions it may cause. Do not attempt to identify a mushroom from comparing photographs alone. Check out all the characteristics and if in any doubt, do not eat. People who have a pre-existing kidney condition, or other medical condition (including food allergies) should be extra careful in consuming any kind of wild mushrooms.
Wild mushrooms in Canada grow in a variety of shapes. Oyster mushrooms are shelf-like.
Mushrooms develop from a mycelium. A mycelium is a mass of threadlike structures that make up the main part of the fungus. It is usually embedded in soil or wood. These mycelia often form connections, called mycorrhizae, with the roots of coniferous trees and other plants. Mycorrhizae assist the plant in absorbing water and nutrients, and in turn, the fungus receives some of the carbohydrates the plant produces through photosynthesis.
The typical mushroom has a stalk, known as a stipe, that supports a cap. Mushroom caps can be flat, rounded or indented. Underneath the cap are the structures that produce spores, which are the equivalent of seeds. These structures are either gills, teeth or pores. Gills — flat hanging structures radiating from the stipe — are most common. Teeth are spine-like projections under the caps of a few species, and pores form a sponge-like matrix under the caps of others.
Mushrooms are generally short-lived. They can emerge from the ground, expand, produce spores, and die back in a matter of a few days. They grow in a wide range of colours, shapes and sizes. While most are brown, greyish or whitish, some are purple (e.g. amethyst laccaria, Laccaria amethystina), red or orange (e.g. vermillion waxy cap, Hygrocybe miniata), and even green or blue (e.g. indigo milkcap, Lactarius indigo). Some mushrooms are tall and thin, others antler or club-like. Still others, namely puffballs, are spherical, while others look like shelves (e.g. oyster mushroom, Pleurotus ostreatus). Mushroom caps may be as big as dinner plates or as small as pinheads. Some mushrooms, including several poisonous species, have a cup-like structure, called a volva, at the base of the stalk, and/or warty spots on the cap. Many mushrooms have web-like veils covering the immature gills or pores, or distinctive rings that remain on their stalks.
Habitat and Range
Mushrooms generally grow in moist, cool conditions, appearing often either in the spring or the fall, sometimes in groups, rings or dense clusters. Forests and woodlands, fields and lawns are all good mushroom locales. British Columbia’s west coast forests, and the eastern hardwood forests of Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes are all excellent locales for mushroom harvesting, especially in the fall.
Chanterelles (Cantharellus Genus)
Chanterelles are one of the most popular wild mushrooms in Canada. Their stems are funnel-shaped with gill-like ridges.
Chanterelles are one of the most popular wild mushrooms, picked and sold commercially in many parts of Canada. There is a complex of closely related North American species, all of which are yellow or orange-yellow in colour (Cantharellus cibarius complex). These small-to-medium sized mushrooms grow under coniferous or deciduous trees. Chanterelles have flat-topped caps 5-8 cm or more across. The stem below is funnel-shaped with gill-like ridges. These structures distinguish chanterelles from inedible look-alikes that have well formed gills.
Morels (Morchella Genus)
Morels are generally found in the springtime, growing alone or in groups under coniferous or deciduous trees. They are often common in areas in the years following a forest fire. Numerous species are recognized, with black morels (M. elata, M. angusticeps and related species) and yellow morel (M. americana and related species) being among the best known. Morels are upright with ridged, cone-shaped caps. Both cap and stem are hollow. Classified within the division Ascomycetes, morels do not have gills or pores, instead producing spores on the surface of the cap. They should never be eaten raw, and care must be taken not to confuse them with false morels (Gyromitra esculenta and other species), which are highly toxic. False morels are not as conical, and their cap and stem do not have a continuous hollow chamber.
Field Mushroom (Agaricus campestris)
Field mushrooms are white with rounded tops that flatten as the mushroom reaches maturity.
This mushroom is closely related to the widely cultivated button mushroom (A. bisporus), and has a similar taste and texture. A white mushroom with a rounded top, flattening at maturity, it grows in grassy fields and meadows, alone or in groups. Its gills are bright pink in young mushrooms, darkening to brown. A thin ring circles the upper stem. The flesh of field mushrooms is white, bruising to reddish brown. Related, inedible species (e.g. Agaricus hondensis, or felt-ringed agaricus) bruise yellow.
Shaggy Mane (Coprinus comatus)
Shaggy mane mushrooms have caps covered with shaggy scales that hang down over upright stems.
This distinctive mushroom is in a genus known as “inky caps,” because at maturity, the caps and spore-containing gills break down into a black, inky liquid. At its young stage, however, shaggy mane is an edible species, commonly growing after a heavy rainfall. They often grow in large numbers, on lawns and hard-packed soil. The young mushrooms are white and cylindrical, up to 10 cm or more tall. The caps are covered with shaggy scales, hanging down over upright, tapering stems.
Edible Boletes (Boletus Genus)
Boletes, including Zeller's bolete, are mushrooms with sponge-like pores instead of gills.
Boletes and their relatives are fleshy-capped mushrooms that grow in forests, woodlands and along road edges. Rather than gills, they have sponge-like pores beneath their caps. Many are edible, the best known being porcini mushrooms (B. edulis), with their chestnut-brown caps and fat-stalks. Zeller’s bolete (Boletus zelleri; syn. Xerocomellus zelleri) is another edible species. They have blackish brown caps, red-streaked stems, and yellow pores. Zeller’s bolete are usually found in late summer or fall, in British Columbia’s coniferous forests and woodlands. A few boletes — those with red or deep orange pores — are poisonous.
Pine Mushroom (Tricholoma magnivelare and T. murrillianum)
Pine mushrooms have whitish to tan coloured caps and whitish gills.
Pine mushrooms grow in the wild in many parts of Canada. T. magnivelare is found mainly in Eastern Canada and T. murrillianum is found mainly on the West Coast. They grow under coniferous trees in late summer through fall. The caps are whitish to tan, at first rounded with edges that curve in, then flattening out at maturity. Caps range in size from 5-10 cm or more across. Pine mushrooms have whitish gills and a prominent membranous veil. The stems have noticeable rings and are long, thick and somewhat tapering.