By Harley Barnhart
Originally an article in Mushroom: the Journal, this guide to guides has been distributed on MTJ’s Introduction to Mushrooming fliers for several years. This version of the Guide to Guides was updated and revised in the Fall of 2002, and again in the Spring of 2003.

A mushroom field guide is… (select one of the following):

  • (a) Pictures and brief descriptions of a dozen edibles and a few toxic species.
  • (b) A modestly priced book that describes and illustrates at least a few hundred of the most common species, provides macroscopic (“eyeball”) identification clues, and fits conveniently in a jacket pocket or day pack.
  • (c) Any collection of mushroom descriptions that can be loaded into an SUV and carted to a table or display for some serious study.
  • (d) Any of the above.

A pragmatic answer is “d”, but answer “b” is how most people define a field guide and will describe most of the guides listed here. Some other criteria used arbitrarily in making this list are: (a) North American guides to more than one order of fungi, (b) English language, (c) in print or widely available, (d) single volumes, and (e) author’s prejudices. If I left out your favorite, write and argue the point. Prices cited herein are publisher’s list, unless otherwise noted.

Really, Really Basic Guides

These are for folks who probably just want to learn a few edibles and also stay out of the emergency room.

1. Familiar Mushrooms of North America, by Peter Katsaros, an Audubon Society Pocket Guide, Alfred A. Knopf and Chanticleer Press, New York, 1990, 191 pages, jacket pocket sized, $9.00 paper. ISBN 0-679-72984-4.

Eighty featured species, beautifully illustrated, plus look-alikes. Available remaindered for as little as $3.00 from some booksellers. A bargain!

2. Start Mushrooming, by Stan Tekela and Karen Shanberg, Adventure Publications, Cambridge, MN, 1993, 126 pages, parka pocket sized, $7.95 paper. ISBN 0-934860-96-3

Six edible species, good color photos, 17 recipes, lots of good advice about how to collect, and ample warnings against foolhardy consumption. If there is a safe way for a beginner to strike out on his own, this is it.

Two Top Guides, for East or West

Nothing scientific about this sampling, but these two guides appear to outnumber all others combined when serious mushroomers gather around collections brought into forays.

3. Mushrooms Demystified, 2nd ed., by David Arora, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, 1986, 959 pages, SUV size, $39.95 paper. ISBN 0-89815-169-4.

The most comprehensive one volume guide, with over 2,000 species in macroscopic keys and many more briefly mentioned as related or look-alikes. Cup fungi, other ascomycetes, and truffles are well represented. The detailed descriptions and comments (for over 700 species) include some microscopic as well as macro detail. They are leavened with wit, as are the extensive sections on matters such as edibility, toxicity, nomenclature, and where and how to hunt. There are only about 200 (lovely) color illustrations, but black and white photos abound.
What’s not to like? Well, the keys are great for genera with short species lists, but almost impenetrable for something like Cortinarius, with 138 dichotomous choices (one of most choices being “not as above”). Both common and scientific names are used, but the latter are devoid of author citations. The book weighs three pounds. Finally, it started life as a West Coast guide. Volume 2 added eastern and other species, but most of these appear simply in the keys and as look-alikes under the “Comments”. The text is replete with residual western information such as “our Douglas-fir forests,” and “does not seem to occur in our area”.

The hardbound copy is no longer available (except in a “Limited Edition” priced at $175!) The paper binding is insubstantial for a heavy book that can expect abuse, so the best course is to buy it and get it properly bound.

For all that, if you are a North American mushroomer (even an eastern mushroomer) who aspires to be an amateur mycologist, you need this book!

4. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, by Gary Lincoff, Chanticleer Press, New York, 1981, 926 pages, jacket pocket size, $19.95 vinyl. ISBN 0-394-51992-2.

This is the other “must have” guide. Its style and format are quite different from the Arora book. It weighs in at less than a pound and measures a convenient 4×7.5×1 inches. A flexible vinyl binding helps make it truly pocketable, and with all this it still packs over 750 species, each with a color photograph. Detailed macroscopic descriptions also include spore data and lots of look-alikes. There are no keys to species, the identification process starting with a picture key to “Typical Shapes” and proceeding to picture matching. To expedite the picture matching and to save weight and bulk, pictures are grouped at the front of the book and descriptions are on thinner paper that follows. The pictures sometimes mix genera, families, or even kingdoms (for some slime molds) within groups of similar forms. The descriptions are arranged in an accepted classification scheme. Many users are bothered by this format and the labeling of photographs with only their popular names, but beginners generally seem to find picture matching easier than dealing with dichotomous keys and not many old timers would do without their Audubon.
Note, also, that the price is right!

Two Others in Print – North American Continent

5. Mushrooms (Eyewitness Handbooks), by Thomas Laessoe, with Gary Lincoff, DK Publishing, New York, 1998, 304 pages, parka pocket size, $20 flexible vinyl. ISBN 0-7894-3335-4

(Republished as a Smithsonian Handbook in 2002). A European guide, with a few added illustrations and many comments about North American distribution (or lack thereof). The conversion is effective. Five hundred species are surpassingly well illustrated, with most in several views to show key characters. Lots of look-alikes. Identification primarily through picture matching.

6. A Field Guide to Mushrooms (Peterson Field Guides), by Kent and Vera McKnight, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1998, 429 pages, jacket pocket size, $19.00 paper. ISBN 0-395-91090-0

(Reprint of 1987 edition.) Over 500 species illustrated and described, plus as many look-alikes. Picture matching, with capsule descriptions next to the pictures and full descriptions in separate section. Descriptions and comments are surpassingly good, and include much microscopic data. Vera McKnight’s paintings equal the best of photographs. The book deserves more users than it has.

Two That Are Out of Print

The Internet has made the finding of used books practical for someone who doesn’t live in Portland, Oregon or some other city with a counterpart to Powell’s Books. Aside from the fact that some really good guides have gone out of print, it’s a thrifty way to build a small library. These two guides, however, are too useful to go cheaply. Prices (postage included) are the lowest found on

7. How to Know the Gilled Mushrooms, by Alexander H. Smith, Helen V. Smith, and Nancy Smith Weber, William C. Brown, Dubuque, Iowa, 1979, 334 pages, day pack size, $22 spiral coil bound paper.

This annotated and illustrated key is a treasure trove of species not found in other field guides. Illustrations are black and white drawings, but they will do. The introduction has solid, condensed information on macro and micro study techniques, and descriptions offer micro details beyond spore data. In fact, some microscopy is essential for full use of the keys.

8. How to Know the Non-gilled Mushrooms, 2nd Ed., by Smith, Smith,and Weber, Wm C. Brown, Dubuque, 1981, 324 pages, $33, spiral coil bound paper.

The companion to the volume above. There is no comparable guide to North American ascomycetes, boletes, polypores, and hypogeous fungi (truffles and false truffles).

For Dedicated Pothunters

9. Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America, by David W. Fischer and Alan E. Bessette, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1992, 254 pages, daypack size, $35 paper, ISBN 0-292-7280-7.

Aggravated by Agrocybes? Had it with Hygrophorus? Bored with Bolbitius? Here’s a guide that cuts right to the chase, with illustrated descriptions of about a hundred good edibles in fifty genera, plus 12 seriously toxic species. There are also 61 well-illustrated pages of good recipes and more than the usual advice on how to hunt and prepare. Comments on “similar species” bring the total count to about 500 described or mentioned, but if it doesn’t taste good or won’t hurt you it’s probably not in here. Leans a bit toward eastern species, but eminently useful anyplace in North America.

Regional Guides

Regional guides have species that may never appear elsewhere, so they can save time and effort otherwise wasted in false leads. There have been some good ones published lately, and every region may now claim its own. These are some of the most useful (from east to west):

10. Mushrooms of Northeast North America, Midwest to New England, by George Barron, Lone Pine Publishing, Edmonton, Alb. and Renton, WA, 1999, 335 pages, parka pocket size, $19.95 paper. ISBN1-55105-201-6.

About 600 species described, with 875 good photographs. A nice section on slime molds. Picture keys to groups and dichotomous keys to genera.

11. Mushrooms of Northeastern North America, by Alan E. Bessette, Arleen R. Bessette, and David W. Fischer, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, 1997, 582 pages, SUV size, $45, paper. ISBN 0-8156-0388-6.

“Northeastern” here means North Carolina to Newfoundland and Kansas to Manitoba. Over 600 species. Good, authoritative, easy to follow, annotated, macroscopic keys to species that lead to excellent photographs and more detailed descriptions. Not many look-alikes mentioned. Really heavy paper brings weight to 3.5 pounds. Good to have on the shelf while foraying with the Barron book.

12. Common Florida Mushrooms, by James Kimbrough, University of Florida IFAS, Gainesville, 2000, 337 pages, parka pocket size, $19.95 paper. ISBN 0-916287-30-0.

268 species, keyed, with heavy emphasis on Florida’s many endemic species. Poorly illustrated, but if you hunt in Florida it’s almost the only game in town.

13. A Field Guide to Southern Mushrooms, by Nancy Smith Weber and Alexander H. Smith, University of Michigan Press, 1985, 280 pages, day pack size, out of print, used about $10 (plus postage) coated paper. ISBN 0-472-85615-4.

240 species keyed and described with macroscopic and microscopic details. Great photography by Dan Gurevich. Few look-alikes mentioned. Concentrated on Southern Appalachian, Gulf Coast, and some Florida species.

14. Mushrooms of West Virginia and the Central Appalachians, by William C. Roody, The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 2003, 520 pages, day pack size, $35 paper, $60 cloth. ISBN 0-8131-9039-8.

400 species, plus about twice that many “look-alikes”. Species arranged by gross appearance in a picture key with 11 basic groups. Gilled mushrooms and boletes further divided into 18 sections by dichotomous keys. It’s a system that works. Descriptions, comments, and color photos all excellent. This is also as good a guide as exists to the southern Appalachians.

15. A Guide to Kansas Mushrooms, by Bruce Horn, Richard Kay, and Dean Abel, University of Kansas Press, Lawrence, 1993, 295 pages, parka pocket size, $19.95 paper. ISBN 0-7006-0571-1.

Good keys to about 150 species, with about as many look-alikes. Excellent color photos. A hundred pages, front and rear, are devoted to ancillary information such as mycological history, how to hunt, photography, a calendar of fruitings, and mycological Latin.

16. Texas Mushrooms, by Susan Metzler and Van Metzler, Texas University Press, Austin, 1992, 350 pages, day pack size, $19,95 paper. ISBN 0-292-75125-7.

The 200 species, with few added look-alikes, seem most representative of Big Thicket and coastal plain. Scant information is given about distribution, but desert fungi typical of west Texas are missing. The identification process starts with a picture key to 13 major groups. These lead directly to species descriptions and at least one color photo per page. The book got a sharply critical review from Gary Lincoff (in Mycotaxon), who cited (inter alia) inaccuracies, quality of some illustrations, lack of author citations, and misleading information on toxins. None of this seriously affects its usefulness for the average mushroom hunter, and it is worth having for the large number of its species that are not to be found in other guides. The descriptions and illustrations of 26 species of Amanitaceae and 25 of Russulaceae are especially welcome.

17. Mushrooms and Truffles of the Southwest, by Jack S. States, the University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 1990, 233 pages, parka pocket size, $16.95 paper. ISBN 0-8165-1162-4.

Centered on Arizona and New Mexico, with parts of California, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada. Successful mushrooming here demands some knowledge of vegetational and life zones, which this book supplies in detail and with maps. Treats 156 species, with keys and good photographs, plus as many look-alikes. The gilled fungi in the book are not uncommon in other guides, but the advice on hunting and the coverage of desert agaricoid fungi and truffles are worth the price. (This book may serve the citizens of El Paso and Amarillo who were neglected in Texas Mushrooms.)

18. Mushrooms of Colorado and the Southern Rocky Mountains, by Vera Stucky Evenson, Denver Botanic Gardens, Denver, 1997, 208 pages, parka pocket size, $25 paper. ISBN 1-56579-192-4.

About 170 species plus at least that many look-alikes, suited as well to northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest. A picture key to general groups — picture matching thereafter. Great photographs! Perceptive descriptions and comments. Microscopic spore data.

19. Mushrooms of Idaho and the Pacific Northwest — Discomycetes, by Edward Tylutki, University of Idaho Press, Moscow, 1979, 133 pages, jacket pocket size, $13.95 paper. ISBN 0-89301-062-6.

There are just not many guides to cup fungi. This one has about 100, including morels, has dichotomous keys, and includes ample microscopic data. Useful any place in the Northwest or Rockies. A companion volume treats nongilled hymenomycetes.

20. The New Savory Wild Mushroom, by Margaret McKenny and Daniel E. Stuntz, 3rd ed., revised and enlarged by Joseph F. Ammirati, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1987, 249 pages, parka pocket size, $19.95 paper. ISBN 0-295-96480-4.

Two hundred species, well chosen to typify Pacific Northwest species. Splendid photographs, which helps, because the table of contents is the only key. Good sections on toxins and on cooking. Insist on 3rd edition.

21. Mushrooms of Western Canada, by Helene Schalkwijk-Barendsen, Lone Pine Press, Edmonton, 1991, 414 pages, parka pocket size, $19.95 paper. ISBN 0-919433-47-2.

Describes and illustrates 550 species. Illustrations are paintings, some a bit off in color or lacking detail but all usable. There is a key to families. Picture matching thereafter, with brief descriptions next to illustrations and further descriptions in a following section. Descriptions and comments are rich with information and personal experience.

22. Mushrooms of Hawaii, by Don E, Hemmes and Dennis E. Desjardin, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, 2002, 212 pages, day pack size, $39.95 paper. ISBN 1-58008-339-0.

A gem of a guide, especially strong on where and when to hunt. Descriptions and good photos of 205 species (many of which are not in North American guides), plus added illustrations in chapters on rusts, myxos, mycophagic animals, medicinal mushrooms, hallucigens, culturing, and cooking.