We love exploring this beautiful world in which we live. It fosters a special connection and understanding of our place in it. During our exploration, we often encounter some sort of mushroom and wonder whether they’re edible…or something else.
The mushrooms we see above ground or on the sides of trees are only a small part of the organism. They’re the fruiting body that sprouts to spread microscopic spores.
You can study wild and store bought mushrooms, and even create a spore print. Spore prints are one of the identification tools experienced mycologists and mushroom hunters use to help identify them.
If you would like to do this with your kids (it’s perfect for ages 10 and up), take safety precautions. First – use a bit of common sense, and educate yourself. The North American Mycological Association (www.namyco.org) is a wealth of information. Second – don’t handle wild mushrooms unless you know what you’re doing (i.e., you are already experienced mushroom hunter).
- Mature mushroom caps. Buy mushrooms from the store. You could easily pick up a wide selection from a farmer’s market, if you have one nearby. The cap needs to be open, but it shouldn’t be too old. After a certain point, they stop producing spores, and you won’t get a print from it. This is the safest way to ensure you don’t accidentally handle something really bad. Some wild mushrooms contain toxins that will make you very ill, or kill you if ingested – even accidentally.
- White and dark paper. Sometimes the spore prints aren’t visible on one color, so doing a spore print on both gives you a better chance of seeing the results. If you have a microscope, you could also put the mushroom on a blank slide for the spore print and examine it up close.
- Camera or camera phone. Take a good, clear photo of the mushroom. Also photograph the spore print.
Making a spore print
Clip the mushroom caps away from the stem very close to the cap so the gills (lamella) can be as close to the paper as possible. Try to have one mushroom cap for each paper color, but if you don’t, just cut it in half and place each half on a different color paper. Let the caps sit for 24 hours. After 24 hours, lift up the mushroom caps and take a look at the spore prints.
Identification questions (some only apply to wild mushrooms, so skip them)
- Describe the physical characteristics – color, shape, size, gills, etc.
- Was any juice released from it, if so, what color?
- If you harvested it, where? City, state, etc.
- If you harvested it, where was it growing? Log, leaf litter, lawn, etc.
- What color is the spore print?
All of these questions are necessary for identifying an unknown species of mushroom, and they’re great scientific observation questions for known species.
Also keep in mind that there are mushrooms which closely resemble edible species that will make you violently ill (or worse). You know those white mushrooms in the yard that look like button mushrooms? They’re not. Eating those will land you in the hospital. It’s best to examine, try to identify them, and then – leave the collecting of wild mushrooms to experienced mushroom hunters and mycologists.
If you like using mushrooms in your cooking, you can also purchase a growing kit. The most common home-kits for growing mushrooms contain oyster mushrooms. We did this, and thought ours were especially tasty sautéed with butter and onions, served with our steak. Oyster mushrooms have the best flavor when cooked, and are very easy to grow. You can use a video camera with time-lapse capability to record the mushrooms growing.
This spore print is from one of those white mushrooms in a yard near us. The green spore print, combined with its physical characteristics and location tells us that this mushroom is not “good eats,” as Alton Brown would say.
Once the mushrooms sprout from their growing medium, they grow very quickly, often doubling in size in less than 24 hours until they ripen. Sometimes you can find growing kits in stores, but a great homeschool family owns Greenwood Farm and sells blue oyster mushroom growing kits. They send terrific instructions and growing tips along with it, and honestly – their kit is almost three times the size of the one we bought in the store. The kits cost $28 each with shipping, and you can order yours at: greenwoodfarm.info.
N. American Mycological Association: www.namyco.org
Mushroom anatomy page: learningtangent.com/mushroom
Spore print instructions: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spore_print
Mushroom information: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mushroom1
Learning Tangent is Gail’s brainchild. When it all goes down, she has to get the magazine out the door and on its way to subscribers. She has four kids, of whom she and her husband David homeschool two. She enjoys a wide range of activities including weaving, photography, writing, is a musician (both a teacher & performer), calligrapher, and is an avid sci-fi- & fantasy reader. You’ll generally find her busy doing whatever it is she wants to on a given day.