Book Review

Field Guide to Common Macrofungi in Eastern Forests and their Ecosystem Functions

By Michael E. Ostry, Neil A. Anderson, and Joseph G. O’Brien
Northern Research Station, USDA-Forest Service
PDF: General Technical Report NRS-79, 82 pp.

This small (5.5 x 8.5-inch) handbook covering 61 species or species groups was produced by three plant pathologists from the U.S. Forest Service (MEO and JGO) and the University of Minnesota (NAA). It is intended as a quick reference to selected common macrofungi from four broad forest ecosystems that occur in the Midwest and Northeast - aspen-birch, northern hardwood, lowland conifer, and upland conifer.

Six introductory pages explain the intent of the book and cover the usual basics of what mushrooms are, names of their parts, and so on. No information about the forest types is provided (only an attractive photo of each one used on the section dividers). I would have liked to see at least a list of the main tree and shrub species characteristic of each, and maybe a map showing their distribution. The species accounts are organized by forest type, and then by lifestyle (mycorrhizal, saprotrophic, or parasitic) and substrate (on ground or on wood). The descriptions include key identification features, season of fruiting, ecosystem function, edibility, and comments. All of these are very brief, usually less than a sentence and rarely as much as three sentences, and in most cases are not sufficient to allow confident identification of the species. Given the large amount of white space on each page, it’s unfortunate that the accounts were not made more comprehensive. The text is accompanied by one (usually) to three decent-sized photos. The quality of most of them is good, although not all illustrate the features sufficiently to allow identification. For instance, several show only the upper or lower surface of a polypore. The photo of Hericium on the back cover is beautiful. Every page in the descriptions section carries a warning for those interested in eating mushrooms, “DO NOT eat any mushroom unless you are absolutely certain of its identity.” To that, I would have added “and have confirmed that it is edible for most people.”

Despite the brevity of the descriptions, a number of the species can be reasonably well identified from the information provided. However, there are a number of mistakes that should be noted. The destroying angels are said to cause 95% of fatal mushroom poisonings. In North America at least, the major culprit is their close relative Amanita phalloides, the death cap. Aspen boletes (Leccinum aurantiacum and L. insigne) are listed as edible; however, members of this group have caused numerous poisonings in the Rocky Mountains and Pacific Northwest and so should be consumed with caution until we have a better understanding of just which species is/are involved and under what conditions. The photo labeled Leccinum scabrum is not that species; it appears to be a yellowish-capped (from fading?) member of the L. aurantiacum group. The fruitbody of Grifola frondosa is not a good representation of that species; it appears to be aborted, and looks more like a cattle plop than a multi-capped polypore. The pinkish brown stipe reticulation and overall pale coloration of the solo, uprooted Boletus edulis make me suspicious of that identification; maybe a tylopilus? Or perhaps it is just one more form of king bolete, a highly variable species. The photo of Hygrocybe conica is of something else, perhaps a rather orangey H. coccinea, and the description fails to note the blackening reaction that is a key feature of H. conica. Clavariadelphus ligula is ectomycorrhizal, not a litter-rotter. The photo labeled Cordyceps (now Elaphocordyceps) ophioglossoides shows one of the globose-headed species such as E. capitata. Amanita brunnescens is referred to as Swamp Death Angel, incorrectly suggesting it is a deadly species. The photo of Gomphidius glutinosus is a Chroogomphus, perhaps C. vinicolor. The two whole-mushroom photos of Hydnum repandum show a Hydnellum. The photo of Lactarius volemus is a different Lactarius, perhaps L. argillaceifolius. Clavicorona pyxidata (now Artomyces pyxidatus) is categorized as a ground-dweller when it nearly always is found on rotting wood.

Normally I would not recommend a book with such skimpy descriptions and so many errors. However, given the attractive price, this is worth ordering, annotating the errata, and using in conjunction with more comprehensive guides.

— Review by Steve Trudell, Seattle, WA
— Originally published in Mycophile