Fungi belong to a group of organisms in its own right, that is neither plant nor animal. They play an important role in the lifecycles of other organisms, with some species helping to transfer nutrients from the soil to tree roots, and others recycling dead and decaying matter, such as wood. Some types of fungi parasitise plants and animals. They can live in harmony with their host for many years, like the beautiful wood shank fungus that is often found growing in holes of living trees, but they can also kill plants, such as the more deadly forms of honey fungus. For most of the year fungi are present as string-like mycelium, which usually lives underground. Usually all we see only the fruiting bodies, known as mushrooms, which cast spores into the air colonise new spaces. Mushrooms come in a variety of beautiful shapes and sizes.
The British Isles are home to a phenomenal 15,000 species of fungi and wild mushrooms, found in a range of habitats but most often in woodlands, fields and grassland – you may be lucky enough to find some growing in your own garden.
Should I worry about mushrooms growing in the garden?
Mushrooms growing in the garden are usually a good thing, living among healthy soil and decomposing wood and other organic matter, such as leaf litter. They are part of a healthy ecosystem and provide food for a range of species including squirrels and beetles. Common types of fungi include fairy ring fungus (Marasmius oreades), which grows in lawns and causes no damage, and jelly ear fungus (Auricularia auricula-judae), which grows on dead wood, particularly elder. However, as mentioned above, some fungi can be bad for the garden. These include honey fungus, which can kill plants, shrubs and trees.
The main thing when finding fungi in the garden for the first time, is to not panic. Remember that most fungi is good and a natural and healthy part of the ecosystem. Take time to identify which species you have and enjoy seeing which species come along to eat it.
Keep your eyes on the ground and you should see fungi popping up through the leaf litter and grass in a host of shapes and colours. Identification isn’t easy, with many mushrooms having similar, sometimes poisonous, lookalikes so it’s a good idea to use a field guide or mushroom book to help you work out what you see. Never eat a mushroom that you can't confidently identify.
Browse our list of some of the most common mushrooms you can find in gardens, below.
Field mushroom (Agaricus campestris)
Cap: 4-10cm across, convex, domed, expands slowly, smooth white to start, scales peel as it ages.
Stem: short and white, narrows at base.
Gills: pink to start, turning chocolate brown to deep black.
Yellow-staining mushroom (Agaricus xanthodermus)
Cap: 8-15cm across, globular at first then broad-domed, white to greyish brown, cracking or becoming scaly.
Stem: white, bulbous at the base.
Ring: broad, hanging off. Flesh turns yellow immediately if bruised.
Gills: pink, turning grey.
Fly agaric (Amanita muscaria)
Cap: 8-25cm across, broad dome, bright orange or scarlet, sometimes brownish or yellow, flecked with white warts, though rain can wash these off.
Ring: hangs skirtlike.
Gills: white. Often found under birch or pine trees.
Edibility: very poisonous.
Shaggy ink cap (Coprinus comatus)
Cap: 5-15cm wide, pale, woolly scales, bell-like then conical.
Stem: tall (up to 20cm) and narrow.
Gills: white, then pink, then dissolving to drip black ‘ink’.
Edibility: edible, tasty when young (before ink), but if consumed with alcohol produces mild poison.
Fairy ring mushroom (Marasmius oreades)
Cap: 2-5cm across, pale brown convex dome, becoming floppy, with edges wrinkled or grooved.
Gills: whitish. Occurs in large, gradually expanding rings in lawns.
Edibility: edible, but can be confused with other, poisonous, species.
Sulphur tuft (Hypholoma fasciculare)
Cap: 4-8cm across, convex, or domed, bright sulphur yellow with orange tints and a brown centre.
Gills: yellow, then green and brown.
Stem: long and fibrous. Sprouts in large tufts, with often hundreds of caps, from tree stumps and logs.
Common ochre russula (Russula ochroleuca)
Cap: 4-10cm wide, dull beige-yellow, convex when young, expands to flat top, becomes wrinkled or ridged at edges.
Gills: brittle, white or cream.
Stem: soft, often hollow.
Edibility: edible but not especially flavoursome.
Liberty cap (Psilocybe semilanceata)
Cap: 1-2cm wide, conical, pale brownish-yellow with greenish tints, often slimy, edges rolled under when young.
Gills: dark purple-brown.
Stem: tall, thin, wavy, white.
Edibility: inedible and hallucinogenic, this is also known as magic mushroom.
Giant puffball (Calvatia gigantea)
Up to 1m wide, but usually 20-50cm. Irregularly round, flesh is white then yellowish, with thick, smooth, white skin that splits across the dome to emit clouds of brown spores.
Edibility: edible when young, before spores form.
Many thanks to Chris Shields for providing the beautiful illustrations used in this feature.
Mushroom foragingSpending a couple of hours foraging for mushrooms is fun and rewarding, but stick to the rule that if you are not absolutely certain of a mushroom's identity, then do not pick it or consume it. It’s best to cook all wild mushrooms before eating as only a few are safe to eat raw. Ensure you only pick where you can leave plenty for wildlife and always avoid picking any rare, protected fungi.
Safest wild edible mushrooms
- Giant puffball (Calvatia gigantea)
- Hedgehog fungus (Hydnum repandum)
- Wood ears (Auricularia auricula-judae)
- Scarlet elf cups (Sarcoscypha coccinea)
- Parasol mushroom (Macrolepiota procera)
- Cauliflower fungus (Sparassis crispa)
- Field blewits (Lepista personata)
- Porcini (Boletus edulis)
- Oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus)