Please note that this is not intended as a guide to edible fungi, and Umdoni Park accept no liability for any injury or death occurring as a result of ingesting or exposure to any mushroom or fungus included on this website. A few fungi are deadly poisonous, many are inedible and some people are allergic to certain species. You should never eat any wild fungi unless you are absolutely certain of its identity. Identification from photos cannot always be reliably achieved even by experts, fungi can also become toxic irrespective of their identity by being infected with other microbes or if they are growing on contaminated soil. In addition to this, some fungi may be vulnerable to over-collecting, and they also support many other types of wildlife, so you may decide it is best to leave wild fungi in their natural habitat. The only way to safely learn which species are edible is from an old experienced collector.
Fungi used to be thought of as ‘lower plants’, but they are a unique grouping of their own, forming one of the five major “Kingdoms” of life. Unlike plants that have specialized in capturing sunlight, and animals that have specialized in eating things, fungi have specialized underground. Their filaments can permeate large areas, forming organisms that dwarf whales and trees in size and weight and age. They are not confined to soil, and are symbionts with and diseases of both plants and animals. People who study fungi are “mycologists”, and those who relish eating them are “gastronomes” (with black truffles fetching almost R40 000 per kilo in 2009).
We’re surrounded by fungi: in the soil, playing a vital role in the decay process, helping plants access the nutrients they need, even attacking animals. The most obvious signs of fungi are the ‘fruiting bodies’ (including mushrooms, toadstools and puffballs) that they produce to spread their spores. But this is usually a small part of their life-cycle, both in size and seasonally: most of their lifecycle is spent in the form of tiny filaments (hyphae) that grow through the substrates (soil, animal and plant tissues). Only a very few fungi, the macrofungi, make large fruiting bodies, many are microscopic or resemble moulds.
Fungi are an enormously diverse group, and it is estimated that the southern African mycora exceeds 170 000 species, although fewer than 9000 species have been described. Not surprisingly, this means that identifying fungi can be a challenge, but among all these species are some striking and immediately recognisable ones, such as the Fly Agaric. In fact, a very high proportion of our macrofungi come from Europe and are associated with garden and commercial trees. European field guides will allow you to identify many of the edible and poisonous species.
Lichens are a partnership (“symbiosis”) between a fungus and an alga, the two organisms combining to produce a new ‘species’ of lichen. Lichens typically grow slowly on substrates such as rocks, walls and wood (both living trees and dead wood).
The features used to identify fungi include size, texture (e.g. shiny, rough, slimy etc.), colour and shape; for mushroom-type fungi, it can be especially important to note down details of the shape of the cap and the stem, including how they join, and whether there are any rings or skirts on the stem.
The pores or gills on the underside of the cap can be important (to see these try using a small mirror, avoiding the need to pick too many specimens).
Additional clues can be gained by noting what the fungus is growing in or on, e.g. is it on soil, in leaf-litter or on wood, what tree and other plant species are nearby, what type of soil? Is the fruiting body growing alone, or as part of a group?
Not all species can be identified from their appearance alone, and to record the full range of fungi you will need to learn how to take spore prints, and will need access to a microscope. More information is available from the societies listed below.
Photography for identification
Try to take several photos, showing a mix of close-ups from various angles (including underneath the cap if you can), and wider shots of the fungi growing in its habitat. Use a coin or other object to give a scale, or record the size of the fungi separately.
Useful references – fungi:
- E.L. Stephens & M.M. Kidd (1953) Some South African Poisonous and Inedible Fungi. Longmans. (reprinted: 1968)
- A.M. Bottomly & P.H.B. Talbot (1954) Common Edible and Poisonous Mushrooms in South Africa. Dept Agriculture, Pretoria.
- S. Nilsson & O. Persson, 1978, Fungi of northern Europe 1 & 2, Penguin Nature Guides.
- D. Pegler, 1990, Mushrooms and Toadstools of Britain and Europe, Kingfisher Field Guides.
- R. Phillips, 1981, Mushrooms and other fungi of Great Britain and Europe, Pan.
- G.C.A. van der Westhuizen (1983) Mushrooms and Toadstools: a Guide to the Common Edible, Inedible and Poisonous South African Species. Bulletin 396. Plant Protection Research Institute.
- H. Levin, M. Branch, S. Rappoport & D. Mitchell (1985) A Field Guide to the Mushrooms of South Africa. Struik.
- G.C.A. Van Der Westhuizen & A. Eicker (1994) Field Guide to the Mushrooms of Southern Africa. Struik.
- M. Branch (2001) SASOL First Field Guide to Mushrooms of Southern Africa. Struik.
- M. Gryzenhout (2010) Pocket Guide to Mushrooms of South Africa. Struik Nature.