Book Review: Three Mushroom Guides

Every year on social media, there are people looking for suggestions for good mushroom guidebooks. While browsing the internet or (especially) the bookstore, it becomes clear that some books are not put together well, some are not good for Eastern U.S. foragers, and some are just plain junk. While I’m not saying these are the three “best” books on the market (a pointless judgment call, really), I will describe what I like about each and why I would recommend each. 

MUSHROOMING WITH CONFIDENCE (Alexander Schwab)  *Beginner’s Pick

This book came to me as a gift several years ago when I was just starting out as a forager. I devoured its contents eagerly on cold January and February nights, counting the weeks until the ground would thaw and, I thought, beautiful juicy mushrooms would be waiting behind every tree. This book singlehandedly pulled me in and pointed me down the path beyond the one trod by the casual morel-seeker. When summer finally came, I put in a lot of effort and had a good season, but reality was still far from the fantasies created by the vivid photos in this book. In the beginning, I was stimulated by a mushroom guide that seemed full of both information and inspiration, but with experience I began to see its shortcomings. 

Best Qualities

Despite being best-suited for mushrooming novices, this book has a few qualities that set it apart from other mushroom identification guides. The first quality is the thoroughness of the topics covered; the author looks at around two dozen mushrooms. This is not a large number, but the mushrooms chosen are examined in detail and have numerous accompanying photographs, which is not true for most field guides. When learning about each mushroom, the reader is provided a brief introduction, season, habitat, size, culinary rating, ID checklist, color range, and at least half a dozen quality photographs depicting different stages of growth and variations of color and shape. 

The second quality is that the most widespread, best-for-beginner mushrooms are largely included. Oysters, king boletes, chanterelles, hedgehogs, morels, puffballs, hen of the woods, and black trumpets are all covered. The only mushrooms I felt should have been included, (in a beginner’s guide) but weren’t, are chicken mushrooms and lobster mushrooms. 

The third quality of this book- which is probably its best- is the body of photographs. As previously stated, each mushroom covered by Schwab is accompanied by several quality, color photos, which help illustrate the identification principles being outlined. Zoomed in views of high-resolution images and occasional annotations help add clarity and enhance understanding. After examining all its photographs, the reader can’t help but have a good sense of the possible shapes, sizes, and colors of each kind of mushroom, and that’s something that probably can’t be said for most any other mushroom guidebook. 

Shortcomings

Schwab, according to the biography, is a native of Switzerland, and I believe some of the information is a bit more specific to Europe. For instance, he describes morels as inhabiting “meadows, embankments, gardens” and being associated with ash trees. While I’m not well-versed in morel habitats worldwide, this seems like distinctly European advice. In the U.S., I know that morels in my region are usually associated with elm trees, but morels out West are commonly found in burned-over pine woods. Certainly, there is variation between regions and morel species; at the very least, his advice seems limited in scope. To be fair, this is not an exclusively morchella guidebook, and is thus not morally bound to provide a comprehensive guide to morels. But the morel is quite possibly the most popular mushroom in North America, and a book marketed to North American mushroomers really should provide better information. This is the most glaring example of regionalistic advice; others limit the book’s usefulness somewhat less.

As I previously stated, the number of mushrooms covered in this guide is uncommonly low, and is its other prominent shortcoming. With such good photographs, it is a shame that more mushrooms can’t be covered. It would be even better if the author had included hericium species, chicken and lobster mushrooms, as well as more than just the 6 boletes he chose. These omissions, plus a more comprehensive introduction to basic mycological terms and concepts, keep this book from being an outstanding beginner’s resource rather than a pretty good one.

Conclusion

Despite its faults, I would still recommend this book for beginners, if for no other reason than the quality of the photographs, with the caveat that it really isn’t a complete guide and other sources should be incorporated in the quest for mushroom mastery (this is good advice no matter who you are and what resources you have at your disposal). 

100 EDIBLE MUSHROOMS (Michael Kuo)   *All-Around Pick

Michael Kuo, of the website mushroomexpert.com, has put together a gem of a mushroom book. No longer do we need to sift through guides to find the edible mushrooms- if it’s in here, it can be eaten (safely, but not always enjoyably, as he points out). It also offers something for everyone from beginner to expert, if only the stories and anecdotes that aren’t typically found in this kind of book. His first written sentence is simply, “I love mushrooms,” and it comes across in the affable tone in his entries. This guide of over 300 pages contains many components and features that are deeply informative (and sometimes entertaining) and suitable-if not highly recommended- for the budding mushroom collector. 

Best Qualities

100 Edible Mushrooms not only details 100-plus kinds of edible mushrooms, it offers strong informational elements on related topics. The first is an extensive- and I believe excellent– section on poisonous look-alike mushrooms. I have found many parts of this section in bits and pieces from various sources, but never this much in one place. My only gripe is that I would like to see more pictorial examples of the perilous imposters, but on the whole, I appreciate the amount of information offered here. As an added help, this section is referenced by specific page numbers throughout the mushroom description entries. 

Another feature that is hard to come by in a mushroom book is the number of recipes offered, which is ironic because Kuo admits he doesn’t eat mushrooms often. He goes on to explain that he’s sought help from people he knows who do more cooking than he does. Many (though not all) mushroom entries include suggestions for specific recipes from this part of the book. There are over 20 recipes included, and that’s more than enough to start with if you want to do more than just sauté your mushrooms in butter! 

The most obvious positive quality in this book is the sheer number of edible mushrooms outlined and how easy it all is to read. Sorted into categories for “Recommended for beginners,” “Experience required,” and “Difficult,” the mushroom entries provide the user with more than enough edible mushrooms to chase after for a season (or probably ten seasons!). The conversational descriptions make reading this book more like evening armchair fare than desk manual; it is just as useful as reading material as it is reference.

Shortcomings

My criticisms of this book are fairly minor. As previously stated, more pictures (and sometimes of better quality) would be helpful. I realize photos of some mushrooms are probably hard to come by; I imagine some of these specimens are rarely encountered, let alone found in photographable condition! Still, some of the included photos work better as zoomable examples on his website than as the tiny, sometimes murky depictions on these pages (Ischnoderma resinosum, for example). But that’s just one reason we as mycologists need multiple resources in our personal arsenals. The other thing I would wish for in subsequent editions of this book concerns the way identification information is laid out. I have come to admire a format that delineates the individual aspects of identification, and prefer it over the paragraphed format which this book employs. I realize this would very likely rack up a larger page count and is probably not likely in the future for this book. Again, these are fairly minor criticisms, and not quite “shortcomings.” I would recommend this book for beginners and more experienced mushroom pickers alike; there really is something in there for everyone. 

NORTH AMERICAN BOLETES (Bessette, Roody, Bessette)   *Advanced User Pick

North American Boletes is definitely not for beginners. But if, like me, you spend much time with mushrooms, you will undoubtedly encounter plenty of boletes that the usual resources will not be of much help in identifying. North American Boletes (N.A.B.) is the next-step resource for the amateur mycologist; foragers and life-listers alike will get loads of mileage from this incredibly rich book. 

Best Qualities

This meticulous tome of almost 400 pages at first glance seems unwieldy and somewhat intimidating. The learning curve required to get started with this guide is admittedly steep, but once you get the hang of it, the amount of detail offered by the authors quickly shines. Guesswork is all but eliminated with the amount of information available, and the chore that is sorting through books and websites to try and find what is “probably” the right mushroom turns into a pleasurable puzzle that almost puts itself together. Between the incredibly easy-to-read written descriptions and the photographs, a person can quickly narrow down the dozens of choices. When websites and books had me stuck on what I thought might be Boletus subtomentosus (yet I wasn’t convinced), N.A.B. showed me without a doubt that my specimen was instead Boletus subglabripes.  Not only was my crusade for accuracy concluded, but I had a good time in the process. How often does that happen? This is the mushroom guidebook equivalent of a high performance sports car- it really is that fun to drive. 

Before the species descriptions and photos come several taxonomic keys that make quick work of identification (this requires a decent grasp of mycological terms, but the glossary in the back is satisfyingly comprehensive). Supplied with only the keys, a knife, and perhaps a spore print, the user can usually diagnose a bolete in hand. Sometimes some KOH or NH4OH, or even a microscope may be needed to differentiate between two similar mushrooms or even just a species variation, but this is unnecessary for the average enthusiast. In any case, the information is all there. Before I had this book, I was completely lost when trying to identify a mushroom I had collected and taken careful notes on. After receiving the book and walking myself through the right key, I knew in only a couple minutes I had collected Tylopilus chromapes. Without this book, I still wouldn’t know today what that mushroom was. These keys are an invaluable tool, and are probably North American Boletes’s best feature.

One of the most helpful things in this book is not the content itself, but the manner in which that content is organized. The species descriptions are arranged alphabetically, followed by the photographs, also alphabetized. At first I considered this a nuisance. After all, wouldn’t it be nice to see the photo next to the description? However, it is much easier to compare the pictures when they are all grouped together; sometimes this can be very useful. After a little use, this arrangement proves to be more help than hindrance, and I wholeheartedly embrace it. Additionally, the information for each mushroom is very uniformly laid out under the categories Pileus, Pore surface, Stipe, Spore print color, Macrochemical tests, Microscopic features, Fruiting, Edibility, and (miscellaneous) Comments. Each mushroom’s description area has the same layout, the category headers are in bold print, and each category gets its own paragraph (rather than lumping everything into one or two paragraphs). This allows the user to make comparisons between mushrooms and/or simply find a desired bit of information speedily. Great care was given to organizing this book, and the more you use it, the more you can’t help but appreciate it. 

Shortcomings

I really can’t say enough good things about North American Boletes. The only consideration that I believe deserves reiterating is that N.A.B. is probably a bit much for beginners to wrestle with. The sheer amount of information, combined with the bombardment of technical terms, would certainly render it useless to someone just wading into this field. But thoroughness can hardly be called a shortcoming. Think of it instead as a gift that is waiting for those ready to embrace it.

Conclusions

Boletes can be found in astounding numbers during the latter half of the mushroom season, and a forager will eventually be faced with making the choice between filling the basket or leaving a hoard of mushrooms behind. It becomes extremely difficult to justify taking mushrooms without the right resource for identification. Even if not interested in taking many mushrooms home to eat, the curiosity related to knowing the names of the mushrooms you encounter will eventually need to be satisfied. When you are ready to take your knowledge of the “fleshy pored mushrooms” to the next level, find your copy of North American Boletes. It is my single favorite mushroom guide.

WHICH BOOK TO BUY

Well, depending on who you are and what you need, maybe all of them! Certainly, choose according to your needs. If you are a beginner (or buying for a beginner), I would recommend 100 Edible Mushrooms and Mushrooming With Confidence. Once you feel like your knowledge is beyond what Mushrooming With Confidence can prop up, it would be a good one to pass on to someone you’d like to encourage into mushroom collecting. If you were going to limit yourself to only one mushroom guide (which is neither responsible nor advised), 100 Edible Mushrooms is one of the best choices out there. For those with more experience, I recommend both 100 Edible Mushrooms and North American Boletes. The latter, especially, is one you will never grow out of, and the hardcover edition would help ensure it lasts for as long as you need it. In any case, get your books, get out there, and bring a kid!

 


 

 

 


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All content copyright NAGC and Roy Heilman, 2018