I get a lot of requests online for help identifying wild foods – especially fungi. I welcome these – it is a pleasure to help people improve their knowledge and gives me an opportunity to sharpen my identification skills. Win-win. But I feel a little guidance to people looking for help with ID would make the exchange more useful to both them and me. So here are a series of guidelines as to how best to frame enquiries. Please note that, in directing you here, I am not suggesting that you have made all the mistakes outlined below, so please draw the lessons that are relevant to your particular enquiry.
I am often inundated with questions and identification queries, and while I do try to answer as many of these as possible, my time is finite. So if you are looking for my time, please consider booking me for a 1-to-1 online mentoring session. These allow us to drill a bit deeper into ID, and more nuanced things like edibility, sustainable harvesting, recipe ideas etc, and have proven very useful to a lot of people, not only with individual ID queries, but also in helping them develop their personal ID skills. Its a great way to learn.
Its easiest to start with a genuine example of exactly how NOT to ask for help. This is an extreme example, but it is the easiest way to point out some of the difficulties. I will mostly refer here to the identification of fungi, but most of the lessons are transferable to plants. This example was sent as a Tweet, but I have received many similar on this website, facebook and by email. (I have changed the pictures for convenience).
“Are any of these edible?”
I’m hope you will see immediately a few ways in which this isn’t a great way of asking somebody you’ve never met for advice on a potentially life and death matter!
Pls or thnx don’t take up that much space, even if you are restricted to 150 characters. Most people ask in a warm and polite manner – so if i’ve sent you here, please don’t assume its because I think you’ve been rude. But quite a few people seem to expect a fungi identification robot!
In this example enquirer doesn’t seem to be interested in what species the fungi are. I once had such an enquiry from somebody who referred to themselves as a “gourmet”! How undescerning can you get!? Again, my example may seem extreme, but at least a third of the ID enquiries I get ask only if the pictured plant/mushroom is edible – not what it actually is.
Sand, grass and even McDonalds are technically edible. Wild plants and fungi can range from deadly to delicious, but the vast majority fall somewhere between. Check out my blog on The Spectrum of Edibility.
The implication is that the enquirer has no interest whatsoever in the plant or mushroom if it is inedible. This is a really good way of alienating the person who has presumably taken a good deal of time and effort getting to know their subject.
Worse than this, I regularly get sent pictures of large quantities of fungi that people have picked with no idea whatsoever what species it is. For all they know they could be incredibly rare, highly poisonous, or both. Even if the species turns out to be common or edible, it is still a rather thoughtless way of going about your business. One or two specimens, properly photographed (see below for how to take useful ID photos), with habitat information, is all that is required to attempt an identification.
Most importantly of all, it is, at best unfair, at worst complete foolishness, to ask a stranger whether you should eat something. There have been several cases of online misidentification by knowledgeable and well-meaning experts that have lead to acute poisoning and even death. Many fungi forums have banned discussions on edibility.
My policy is to offer my thoughts only on the identity of the plant or mushroom:
It is for the individual to decide whether to (a) agree with the identification and (b) proceed to eat the item.
Even when identity is established and edibility ascertained, there are still a great many wild foods – fungi especially – that are generally edible, but cause an adverse reaction in some people. (This is true of almost any new food – not just wild foods!). You can only find out if a new food is for you by eating a small quantity of the specimen, well cooked and on its own, then waiting for a few hours. This puts a lot of people off and that’s fair enough. Personally I feel the possibility of an hour or two’s mild gastric discomfort is a small price to pay for a delicious new wild food on the menu!
In asking someone whether a wild species is edible, the answer may often be more nuanced than a simple “yes” or “no”. So you are asking them for a judgement call that they often can’t reasonably make without knowing more about you, and spending a lot of time and effort trying to convey the nuances of their insight.
Foraging is about taking personal responsibility for what you eat. Use any steers you might get as a starting point for your own research, not a definitive answer.
In my example, the enquirer may well have spent sleepless nights poring over identification guides, struggling with his or her limited experience before finally looking for outside help. But the message shows no evidence of that. It looks rather more like they have pointed their camera phone at a few things that have caught their eye then sent it for diagnosis without really going to any trouble. There are some pretty good website ID guides a click away for this that wish to try to find out what they have stumbled upon.
This is why I ask that ID enquiries include a “best guess” – even by complete novices. Identification skills only improve by honing observation skills and investing some meaningful time.
4. Taking Useful ID Photographs
You wouldn’t expect a doctor to diagnose your illness by just letting them look at the top of your head. In the same way, it is very difficult – often impossible – to identify a plant or fungi with just a picture of its leaf or cap.
Fungi can be particularly challenging. On a foray with a professional mycologist, at least a third of the species we found could only be definitively identified with a microscope. Even with a mushroom in hand or an excellent set of pictures it is often only possible to say which genus a mushroom may be part of. So do please manage your expectations!
To allow those you are asking help of to have a realistic chance of giving you any more than a guess, try to ensure your picture includes as much as possible of the following:
- Scale – place a knife, coin, hand, person etc in the picture
- Fungi: cap from above
- Plants: leaf lying on a flat, contrasting surface
- Fungi: cap from below – this may require picking a mushroom and placing it upside down beside growing specimens
- Plants: Examples of flowering stems, buds, leaf stems, flowers, seeds etc – depending in what stage the plant is at.
- Fungi: Cross-section through cap and stipe if possible
- Focus – please do your best to make sure the picture is reasonably well defined. Cameras can struggle to focus on small leaves, flowers etc, but by placing your hand immediately behind them, you can get them in focus
If its not possible or practical to assemble all these images and information, one good photo including as much as possible might be useful. Here are some examples of fairly useful ID pictures:
5. Habitat and location
The more information you can include, the better. The specific habitat in which the mystery species is growing can be an important clue to its identity. In the case of many mushrooms the host or partner organism (often a specific species of tree) is essential for accurate identification. Remember that a tree’s roots reach as far out from its trunk below ground as its branches do above ground.
General habitat is also important – was the plant/mushroom growing coastally? On flooded ground? On bare soil?
Geographic location can also help to eliminate certain species – eg. Scots Lovage doesn’t grow in S England, Alexanders don’t grow in Scotland etc.
I hope this article does not dissuade anyone from asking me (or anyone else) for help with plant or mushroom identification. I hope it does help people to frame their requests in a more useful way – for themselves and the person they are asking for help from.
Here are some examples of good ID help pictures and accompanying requests (all in under 150 characters!):
These turned out to be blushing bracket (probably!), cortinarius bolaris (poisonous!), and greater cuckoo flower (now one of my favourite salad greens!). All these were pictures I took myself and puzzled over before asking for help!