Experts advise people to avoid picking wild mushrooms to eat, unless they have a trained eye

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — Don’t be alarmed if dead man’s fingers spring up in your backyard. Just don’t eat them.

Every spring, mushrooms -- including the aforementioned and strikingly named species -- make their return to landscapes everywhere, a fungal vestige of what occupied the land in the past or a reaction to its current conditions. While most just look like pillowy spheres, mushrooms can be deceivingly dangerous -- so much so that horticulturists advise people to keep themselves and their animals away from them.

“Very few mushrooms are in the edible-and-good-for-you category,” said Mark Blevins, director of the Brunswick County Cooperative Extension and interim director of New Hanover County’s extension. “A whole bunch of them are poisonous and even more are not palatable.”

As the weather gets warmer, Blevins said people may be inspired to pluck the mushrooms from their yards for their next meal. But he said bad mushrooms can look almost identical to good ones, meaning a trained eye is essential when wild mushroom hunting.

“Just don’t go out eating mushrooms,” Blevins said. “It’s best to proceed with caution. Admire it for it's beautiful and leave it alone.”

Mushrooms, themselves, are likely an organic response to what’s underneath the ground.

Blevins said they are usually decaying organic matter beneath the surface, making them especially common on construction sites where wood was previously stored for an extended period of time or where a tree fell and the roots remain.

Ultimately, they are a helpful part of the environment, he said. Handling them isn’t easy either. Simply picking them is a fine removal technique, but it likely won’t rid them completely.

“Even if you remove all the apples from an apple tree, the tree is still there,” Blevins said.

As mushrooms begin to pop up this season, here are the three most popular kinds to watch out for in the region.

Fairy ring mushrooms: Usually a reaction to decaying wood underneath the ground, these cream or white sphere mushrooms form what may look like a magically conjured circle. But don’t be fooled, Blevins said they can mess up the grass from which they spring because they are soaking up all the water.
Dog vomit fungus: This species steers clear of underground wood in favor of mulch, which it is trying to break down and decompose. It’s not-so-subtle name comes from its appearance, which is a pool of cream-colored fungus with orange spots. Blevins said you can get rid of it, temporarily at least, but mixing it around or covering it with more mulch.
Dead man’s fingers: These dark-colored finger-like mushrooms poke through the ground in threes and fours, and come with one distinctive trait: their pungent smell. Blevins said their gooey, sticky centers don’t help the smell, which draws flies that then carry the spores and the stench outward. “This is what we get the most calls about because of the smell,” he said.

Reporter Hunter Ingram can be reached at 910-343-2327 or