Michael Hopping: Mycophagy

A Field Guide to Mushrooms of the CarolinasToday we welcome a guest post from Michael Hopping, who along with Alan E. Bessette and Arleen R. Bessette, is co-author of A Field Guide to Mushrooms of the Carolinas:  A Southern Gateways Guide, just published by UNC Press.

Mushrooms in the wild present an enticing challenge: some are delicious, others are deadly, and still others take on almost unbelievable forms. A Field Guide to Mushrooms of the Carolinas introduces 650 mushrooms found in the Carolinas–more than 50 of them appearing in a field guide for the first time–using clear language and color photographs to reveal their unique features.

A Field Guide to Mushrooms of the Carolinas is available now in both print and ebook editions.



Are you a mycophagist? Never fear, it’s not a practice too shameful to admit in church. The Greek prefix “myco” refers to fungi or mushrooms; “phagy” means to eat. Most people have at least tried Agaricus bisporus, the Button/Cremini/Portobello. If your mushroom eating extends to Shiitakes or other commercially available species, you’re aware that their flavor profiles are different. Has that revelation tempted you to regard a wild mushroom with lustful eyes and wonder, Can I eat it?

In mushrooming lore the edibility question has what amounts to a patron saint. Captain Charles McIlvaine survived his service in the Civil War (Union) and had the further distinction of dying in old age from causes other than his obsession for testing the edibility of “toadstools.” ’Ole Ironguts, as he was also known, tried several hundred species and poisoned himself more than a few times along the way. His book became a classic. The Preface to One Thousand American Fungi opens with memorable lines:

A score of years ago (1880-1885) I was living in the mountains of West Virginia. While riding on horseback through the dense forests of that great unfenced state, I saw on every side luxuriant growths of fungi, so inviting in color, cleanliness and flesh that it occurred to me they ought to be eaten.

McIlvaine says his flash of inspiration was born of a monotonous diet—bacon and potatoes—and a magazine article entitled, “Toadstool Eating.” Soon disappointed by the sparseness of the mycological literature, he resolved to address that shortcoming through personal experiment. If today’s wild mushroom eater knows more about what she’s doing, it is partly because she stands on the hunched shoulders of this iconic wretch.

Case reports, the McIlvaine method, remain primary sources of edibility data on wild foods. But it should be noted that case reporting is prone to several types of error. Individual reactions might vary across a population. Less obvious mistakes include the dangerous assumption that a species is safe if other animals eat it. No. Squirrels readily dine on mushrooms that sicken humans. The Destroying Angel, Amanita bisporigera, often has a nibbled cap although its amatoxins kill people and pets that ingest it.

Despite the limitations of case reports, useful information does eventually accumulate. A Field Guide to Mushrooms of the Carolinas and others that offer edibility guidance draw on published material, personal experience, and judgement calls unrelated to toxicity. Inedibility can result from an unpleasant flavor or tough texture. Some mushrooms get an edibility thumbs-down because they’re so easily confused with poisonous species.

This weeding-out process still leaves mushroom foragers in the Carolinas with dozens of good table fare options. Morels, chanterelles, Black Trumpets, Oyster Mushrooms, and Chicken of the Woods are among the best recognized names. Button mushrooms from the supermarket have a flavor that can be described as earthy. A few of the button’s wild and cultivated cousins smell strongly of almond extract, not what you’d want on a hamburger perhaps, but delicious with garden peas. Clitocybe odora smells like aniseed. Dried and reconstituted bits of Painted Suillus impart a grilled flavor without the grill. Stalks of Heimioporus betula, the Shaggy-stalked Bolete, taste lemony. There’s a bracket fungus that smells and tastes a lot like cucumber. You might expect seafood flavors from Oyster or Lobster mushrooms, perhaps not from a milk mushroom known in western North Carolina as the Leatherback.

With an investment of time and effort, adding wild mushrooms to your repertoire of what’s for dinner can be done safely. Begin with a good field guide and the assistance of experienced foragers. If there’s a mushroom club in your area, join it. Take advantage of the collecting opportunities. You’ll learn a lot and, to top it all, discover that mushroom hunting is just plain fun.


Michael W. Hopping, a retired physician and author, is a principal mushroom identifier for the Asheville Mushroom Club. You can read his previous blog post here.