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Describing Mushrooms and Keeping a Journal
by Michael Kuo
Many years of experience helping others (and myself) identify mushrooms have convinced me that the surest route to success is to keep a journal in which you carefully describe the mushrooms you find before you try to identify them with field guides, Web sites, or technical literature. It is a time-consuming process but it works best, since compromised objectivity is one of the top causes of misidentification. People often read descriptions or look at photos of mushrooms first, and then turn to the mushrooms themselves. The result is that the mushroom’s details are filtered by preconceptions and the power of suggestion. As an English teacher I have observed the way language, once it's in our heads, can easily prefigure the way we interpret things. If I ask my students to read Hamlet for Monday and be ready to discuss Hamlet's insanity, far more students will decide he is insane (as opposed to just pretending). The same principle applies to observation of mushroom details.
You will want to work with your mushroom collections as soon as possible when you get back from the woods. Mushrooms decay fairly quickly, especially in warm weather, and you may be surprised at what you find in your collection bags if you wait too long. Set up spore prints for each mushroom, sort out your collections, number them somehow so you won't get confused about what corresponds to what, and write descriptions in your journal. You will probably want to begin each entry with the collection location and date, together with the ecological information you noted in the woods (see Collecting Mushrooms for Study).
Begin at the top of the mushroom and work downward, recording the details you observe. It is not, of course, imperative that you use this top-to-bottom approach, but since most mushroom guides describe their subjects in this order, comparing your description to other descriptions will be easier if you quell your rebel urges and follow the convention.
It would not be productive for me to try to anticipate here every physical detail you might conceivably need to describe--and to be honest one of my goals is to force you to figure out for yourself what details are important in the identification process. If you are a beginner you will probably find that your written descriptions of mushrooms, at first, are missing some crucial details. A Lactarius, for example, cannot be accurately identified without reference to the color of its latex--a milky or watery juice exuded when the gills are damaged or the mushroom is sliced open. Who knew? Obviously, at first there will be a certain amount of going back and forth between your descriptions, descriptions in mushroom guides, and the mushrooms themselves. However, as you gain experience describing more and more mushrooms your descriptions will become more complete--and the potential for subjective errors will diminish.
When you have written your descriptions, you are ready to try Identifying your mushrooms (though you may quickly discover you will need to wait for a spore print to develop before making much headway).
Cite this page as:
Kuo, M. (2006, November). Describing mushrooms and keeping a journal. Retrieved from the MushroomExpert.Com Web site: http://www.mushroomexpert.com/describing.html