Foolproof Four Mushrooms


The shaggy mane mushroom is one of the “foolproof four” edible mushrooms that are great for beginning “shroom” foragers to learn to identify.

I love mushrooms in just about every dish from eggs to spaghetti. Mushroom soup is a favorite, and raw mushrooms are a treat on salads. However, my experience is limited to just the standard button mushrooms that you can find in a store. Why? Because I am a coward. I do not want my obituary to read that I succumbed to a deadly mushroom because I was too ignorant to realize it was a poisonous and not an edible variety.

That is why I laughed and answered with a healthy, “heck no!” when Penny Walbom, author of the popular book, The Wildflowers of Island Park, Idaho (second edition), suggested that I might do a series of columns on the identification of mushrooms. I am about as far as you can get from an expert on the subject.

However, when shaggy mane mushrooms began popping up in my driveway gravel several weeks ago, I began to wonder, once again, about the world of mushrooms and if I might ever gather the courage to try foraging for them and actually eating them. I am sure I am missing a real treat.

So, I began checking into mushrooms anew. A good place to start seemed to be understanding the difference between a toadstool and a mushroom. Was there a way to tell them apart or was there really a difference at all? It turns out that both monikers are imprecise. Most definitions indicate that toadstools are considered inedible, even poisonous, and that mushrooms may have an umbrella-like shape and MAY be edible. That is no help at all as there are many edible mushrooms with poisonous “toadstool” look-alikes. For example, The “toadstools” that grew in my lawn in the valley had the classic umbrella shape. My conclusion is that they are both the fruiting bodies of fungi and there is no distinction between them. Hence, I will discard the word, toadstool, and call them all mushrooms.

When foraging for mushrooms, there is one simple rule of thumb: Be 100 percent positive on your identification before you eat it. If in doubt, refer to the rule of thumb. For beginners, this usually means consulting an expert, or at least an experienced forager. There are many guidebooks available that will help in this regard. There is also a highly recommended course offered by the Herbal Academy of New England. However, the course is a little spendy at $250, and since it is based in New England, it may not be fully applicable in Idaho.

With all that said, there are four types of edible mushrooms, known as the “foolproof four” that are relatively easy to learn to identify and get comfortable with relatively quickly: shaggy mane, puffballs, chicken of the woods, and king of them all, the morel.

I used the word, type, rather than species, specifically. There may be one or more species of these types of mushrooms. For instance, there are black morels and yellow morels. Species of chicken of the woods can be found worldwide and there are seven species in North America. There are dozens of species of edible puffballs, including the giant puffball, a real find as it can be larger than a basketball. However, all but the chicken of the woods has some pretty clever look-alikes

Over the next few columns, I will cover these four mushrooms, not with the goal of making any of us expert, but rather to possibly persuade myself that I can identify and enjoy these mushrooms in more than just photos. We will all have the winter to learn the foolproof four. I just hope I don’t prove them wrong about being fool proof!

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho