I am continually fascinated by, and equally frustrated by, the process of mushroom ID. Wintertime is our mushroom time, as that's when we get the rain - it's dry 8-9 months of the year here in inland Northern CA. So when we get a good rain, boy, that's when the fruiting bodies of these fungi finally pop up, creating such a beautiful display all over the garden. Some are in leaves, some are in soil, but the overwhelming amount I find are growing in the wood chips we have all covering all the pathways and perennial beds.
The pictures here today are all from one cluster, found in a shadier part of the garden, under Chinese pistache trees and Ceanothus. The mushrooms are not growing out of the leaves, however - they are growing out of the woodchips.
You'd think identification of these would be easy - they're NOT 'little brown mushrooms' (or LBM's, as they're known in the mycology world). These are a glorious orange. But when I plucked a few out and went to my trusty mushroom book (California Mushrooms: The Comprehensive Identification Guide), just knowing the color alone did not help. Nor did the fact that they were growing on wood chips. It was really getting the spore print that helped me to identify this mushroom.
It's easy to do a spore print - just take the stem (or stipe) off the mushroom and place it gills-down on a piece of paper. Cover it with a container to keep it from drying out too quickly, and leave it overnight. In the morning you will have a good idea of the color of the spore. In this case, the spore was a very similar color to the mushroom, but that isn't always the case. For instance, chanterelles are deep yellow mushrooms with light-colored spore.
Once I had this spore color, I could begin to key out my species. Do you know about Botanical Keys? They are kind of like a flow chart to determine what it is you are looking at. They are also called Dichotomous Keys. On paper, they can be many many pages long. One of the questions on my lab practical for Terminology was to key out to plant family. The instructor had a plant sitting there that was in bloom. We had to take a flower and dissect it to determine all its parts, and then key it out. It was not as easy as you would think and a lot of folks had trouble with it. Some books, like my mushroom book, include a key at the very beginning to get you to the genus of mushroom that you are looking for. Then there are keys in each spore color group, so if you know the spore color, you can go right to that key. It's an interesting process.
Of course there are terms that I had to look up, like the aforementioned 'stipe,' plus things like adnexed or adnate, decurrent or subdecurrent, etc. Yikes.
I found a nice online keying system for mushrooms that got me to the right genus, too - but it is very east-coast centered, so I had to find the correct west-coast version in my book. This system is called MycoKeys. I thought this was a nice way to figure this mushroom out if there isn't a field guide handy. (For an interesting example of an online botanical key, check out this one from the UK.)
Anyway, after fiddling around with these dang mushrooms for two days, I think I have my ID. I believe these orange mushrooms are Pholiota malicola var. macropoda. Unfortunately, the edibility of this particular mushroom is 'unknown.' So I guess we won't be eating them anytime soon. Still, this was a useful exercise in recognizing and identifying mushrooms. The problem is, I probably won't remember this. And then I'll have to do it all again next year.
How are you at ID'ing fungus? Do you enjoy doing it? Do you ever get GOOD at it? Are you one of those knowledgable people who can forage for edible fungi? And if so, are you willing to take me under your wing? :)