Book Review

Good Mushroom, Bad Mushroom: Who’s who, where to Find them, and how to Enjoy them Safely

By John Plischke III
2011 / ISBN 978-0-9819615-8-3
$17.95 (spiral-bound with semi-hard cover, xi + 87 pp.)

This is an attractive book that covers 37 species, or species groups, from throughout North America. The author, John Plischke III, is well known as a Vice President of NAMA, founder of the Western Pennsylvania Mushroom Club, and tireless host of the successful 2011 NAMA Foray.

At the outset, let me say that I was extremely surprised to see emblazoned across the cover “All you need to know about the wild mushrooms of North America.” That, combined with the Good-Bad title (St. Lynn’s also has published Good-Bad books about weeds and bugs) gives the impression that mushrooms are either good or bad, that edibility is all that distinguishes good from bad (actually, the vast majority of mushrooms are neither poisonous nor good to eat), and that this book is all one needs to figure out which are which. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The world - political, fungal, or otherwise - is far more complex than can be boiled down to simple dichotomies, and although one needn’t know everything about mushrooms in order to enjoy finding and eating some of them, no book of whatever size could ever hope to provide a complete understanding of wild mushrooms. In fairness to the author, it is evident from his comments that he doesn’t share the publisher’s simplistic view of wild mushrooms, and he clearly emphasizes the need to refer to multiple sources of information.

OK, with that out of the way, what about the book itself? It’s short (only about 100 pages), small (about 7 x 6 inches, bound at the top, along the long dimension), and nicely presented. Eleven pages of introductory material cover how to collect and prepare/preserve wild mushrooms, some of the basic jargon used to describe mushrooms, and how to make a spore print. The bulk of the book comprises descriptions and commentary on 11 inedible/poisonous mushrooms and 26 edible ones. It concludes with eight recipes, a brief list of resources (six of them), the index, and acknowledgments.

Each of the species accounts is presented on a 2-page top-bottom spread that includes a description of the macroscopic features, followed by comments on where and when to find it, possible look-alikes, and edibility. In most cases, the text is accompanied by two photos - usually two views of the species (sometimes of the same mushrooms), but occasionally an image of a lookalike species or the mushrooms being cultivated or served in a dish. The descriptions are fairly extensive and written in a conversational style. The occurrence information is generally good as pertains to habitat, but less reliable when it comes to distribution and frequency. We simply do not know enough about most mushrooms’ distributions to accurately describe them, and their abundance varies so much from place to place and time to time that it is impossible to categorize their continent-wide occurrence in terms such as occasional, common, and so forth. In most cases, the look-alike comments are not sufficient to clearly distinguish the species, so one would need to turn to a more comprehensive book for additional information and illustrations, and Plischke is careful to point out the need for multiple books if one wants to identify mushrooms.

The photographs are generally good, although it would have been helpful to have them reproduced at larger size so that the details could be seen more clearly. Some, such as the yellow morel images, are quite striking, while those of Suillus brevipes and matsutake will not allow confident identification. Although I like the idea of more than one photo of a species, one large photo might have been preferable to the two small ones (of course, two large ones would have been better still).

The complement of edible species is well selected and covers most of the commonly eaten ones such as chanterelles, king bolete, morels, oysters, matsutake, and shaggy mane, plus some used primarily for health reasons, such as chaga and Ganoderma tsugae. The inedible/poisonous species include representatives of most of the groups to be avoided, but inexplicably do not include the mushrooms responsible for most of the fatal poisonings in North America (the death cap / destroying angel amanitas and, to a lesser extent, certain small lepiotas). Among the amatoxin-containing species, only Galerina marginata is presented. Also absent is the species that causes more reported North American poisonings than any other (Chlorophyllum molybdites) and Amanita pantherina, which is the number-one poisoning culprit in the Pacific Northwest where I live. Certainly these species are part of “all you need to know about wild mushrooms.”

All in all, this is a nice little book and could be a good companion to more comprehensive guides. However, it falls far short of providing everything you need to know to hunt and eat mushrooms safely, so don’t be misled by the publisher’s marketing hype and try to use it as a stand-alone ID resource.

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