CA Mushrooms
CA Mushrooms

Book Reviews

Mushrooms of the Southeast

By Todd F. Elliott & Steven L. Stephenson
2018, Timber Press
Flexibind: 408 pages, 348 color illustrations
ISBN-10: 160469730X
ISBN-13: 978-160-4697308

A Field Guide to Mushrooms of the Carolinas

By Alan E. Bessette, Arleen R. Bessette, & Michael W. Hopping
2018, The University of North Carolina Press
Trade paperback: 432 pages, 668 color illustrations, 20 drawings
ISBN-13: 9781469638539

Way back in 2007 Steve Trudell wrote a review of a brand new guidebook Mushrooms of the Southeastern United States by “Team Bessette,” published by Syracuse University Press. Although he had mostly praise for this book, its size was too large to take into the woods and its price tag beyond the reach of most mycophiles ($95). The exorbitant price of SU Press books has long been a complaint of mine too. Still, my copy of that book got lots of use—but there was not much in the way of competition on the market at the time, other than Bill Roody’s Mushrooms of West Virginia and the Central Appalachians. The latter is without doubt my most-used book for mushrooms of the East. The size is just right, the photos nicely large and good quality, and best of all, for me, are the discussions about the mushroom habitats and where each name came from. I’ve always enjoyed that book and recommended it to many. But it’s now getting a little long in the tooth. My copies are worn and the text nearly obliterated with all the notes I’ve had to make over the years, regarding name changes and such.

And so, I was delighted to see that—not one, but two—potential replacements for my “old” southeastern guides were hitting the market. A Field Guide to Mushrooms of the Carolinas (University of North Carolina Press) by Bessette, Bessette, and Hopping is not (as I’d suspected) a mere update of the 2007 book described above. For this title, Team Bessette has added Mike Hopping, a well-known field mycologist and expert identifier with the Asheville, NC, club. A second book, released at just about the same time is Mushrooms of the Southeast (Timber Press) by Todd Elliott and Steven Stephenson. Steve Stephenson has published several noteworthy mycological books of late; Todd Elliott is a passionate young naturalist who’s well known for his ID (and musical) skills at forays in the Southeast.

So how do these two books stack up? In short, they are both excellent and will likely be my new go-to books for the East! (And not just the Southeast.) Naturally there are similarities but also some notable differences, so if you can get only one, you’ll want to compare side-by-side. (I recommend both, see below.) Both books have a goodly amount of introductory information about the region, about mushrooms in general, and about how to use the book. The species descriptions are pretty similar, including scientific name and authority, common name, synonyms, and extensive macroscopic characteristics including spore print color. Both note edibility and especially caution if toxic for most species (curiously, Bessette et al. list Lactarius camphoratus, the eastern candy cap, as “edibility unknown”). I’m fine with notes on edibility for some legitimate mushrooms but this can be taken too far, of course. Stating that tiny crusts and rusts are inedible (Bessette et al.) or that Rhytisma and Taphrina—both arguably macrofungi, they’re so minute—(Elliott and Stephenson) stretches reason. (Then again, maybe not … I see crazier things discussed on social media!) Both books also do a very good job listing key microscopic features such as spore size and shape, fruiting habit and substrate, and season.

Now for specifics. First off, as stated, the Bessette et al. book is no mere revision to their 2007 book. The text and photos are all improved for 2018. And there are a lot more species—my notes state 650 species for this book versus about 500 in the earlier book. The text and names are updated, or mostly so (some “older” names persist, e.g., Cantharellus cibarius, Amanita franchetii). Even so, some favorite species from the 2007 book have gone missing … Lentinus levis no longer gets a photo (but is mentioned), Anthracophyllum lateritium is gone altogether. The photos are a bit smaller than I’d like, however they are all very good, clearly show characteristics, and colors are true. I very much like the informative introductions to many major sections, e.g. the Polypores, the Amanitas, etc., and the many keys for identification.

The Timber Press Southeast Mushrooms book is about the same size as the Bessette book, though covers fewer species (just over 400, according to my notes). The photos are much larger (on par with the Roody book, above) and very good. This book has a more “now” look to it that some may prefer.

Where both books really shine— indeed outshine pretty much all my other guides—is their inclusion of “oddball” fungi that you frequently encounter, but have no idea where to begin with identification. Things like mycoparasites (fungi that fruit from other fungi, like Mycogone or Tolypocladium), entomopathogenic fungi (fungi that fruit from insects, like Cordyceps), and macrofungi that fruit from plants (like Ustilago or Rhytisma). Both books cover these equally well (though not with the exact same species). Both books also do a great service including many cup fungi and small clubs that you won’t find much mention of elsewhere.

Way back in 2007 Steve Trudell lamented at the cost of Mushrooms of the Southeastern United States, suggesting that forayers “carpool to a few forays” in order to afford an unrivaled guide to southeastern mushrooms. While I still advocate carpooling, you won’t have to break your budget—both new titles are equally affordable. And I highly recommend getting both!

— Review by Britt Bunyard
— Originally published in Fungi