Magic mushrooms like the liberty cap are pretty much everywhere right now, so we asked the experts how you can pick them as safely as possible
From the hit Netflix documentary Fantastic Fungi to more scientific research into the mental health benefits of magic mushrooms and, of course, the microdosing boom, magic mushrooms are pretty much everywhere right now.
It can be easy to think of magic mushrooms like any other drug – cultivated in a faraway land, or even in a lab in someone’s basement – but the UK actually has a number of native Psilocybe species which grow in the wild. The most common is the liberty cap, and they grow in the UK between September and December. It’s around this time of year when people flock to the countryside to stock up on liberty caps, which can grow in huge quantities all over the place.
Now, it’s important for us to say that, first of all, it’s illegal to possess psilocybin, which is a Class A drug in the UK. Secondly, we would never advise or encourage anybody who wasn’t an expert to go mushroom picking, as some varieties are poisonous and potentially deadly. But at the same time, we know some people are going to forage for shrooms no matter what, so we enlisted the advice of three experts – Alan Rockefeller, an American mycologist, Dr Russell Newcombe (aka Dr Nuke), a leading harm reduction specialist and author of one of the first magic mushroom harm reduction guides, and Mushies founder and seasoned picker Jack Woodhouse.
WHERE TO FIND LIBERTY CAPS IN THE UK
Liberty caps are often found in grassy fields where animals, mainly sheep, graze – this is why you might hear people saying they grow near manure. According to Dr Nuke, they mostly grow in uncultivated and untouched grounds, so the countryside is often your best bet.
They usually pop up after it’s been raining, so it’s best to go on the first dry day after a spell of rain. Rockefeller says that liberty caps never occur in forests, in wood chips, or directly from manure.
HOW TO IDENTIFY MAGIC MUSHROOMS
The number one danger of foraging for mushrooms is stumbling upon poisonous lookalikes, which could be deadly. On the other end of the spectrum, you could end up picking non-toxic mushrooms that don’t have any psychedelic properties, leaving you with a tasty, but ultimately wasted, crop. Thankfully, though, liberty caps do have some key characteristics that differentiate them from other species.
According to Jack, some of the first things he’ll look out for when identifying liberty caps are their size and shape. “I have a few questions that I like to ask myself,” he says. “Is it five to 10 centimetres tall? Is it either creamy-coloured or brown? Does it have dark brown gills? [The thin, papery structures that hang vertically under the cap]. Does it have a nipple? [Liberty caps have a bell-shaped cap with a small protrusion at the top, often called a nipple]. Does it have a wiggly – as opposed to a completely straight – stem?”
Rockefeller adds that liberty caps also have a separable gelatinous pellicle. “Which means that when fresh, a thin gelatinous film can be peeled off of the cap,” he says. He adds that the wiggly stem is also especially distinctive. “It’s long, white, flexible, relatively durable and fibrous,” he continues. “Liberty caps also have a purple spore print,” meaning the gills start out cream-coloured in young specimens and turn purple – or dark brown – as the spores mature. “The gills are never any other colour.”
@jakem420 Psilocybe Semilanceata 🍄 ⚠️ For educational purposes only ⚠️ This video does not equip you with the skills required to successfully identify these mushrooms. Furthermore, they are illegal to pick and/or possess. Consumption could lead to an array of negative/unwanted side effects. #psilocybintiktok #mushrooms #mushroom #nature #fungi ♬ original sound - Jake
HOW TO PICK MAGIC MUSHROOMS
As Rockefeller says, “lookalikes are in the eye of the beholder”. If you’ve been identifying and picking mushrooms for years, it’s much less likely that you’ll confuse liberty caps with any other varieties. That being said, Rockefeller notes that “a beginner who hasn't identified many mushrooms could confuse hundreds of species with [liberty caps].”
Thankfully, there aren’t a lot of poisonous mushrooms that look like liberty caps. “Poisonings from picking mushrooms that look like liberty caps but are different species are rare because most of the lookalikes aren’t particularly toxic,” he says.
Pholiotina rugosa (also known as the common conecap) is a deadly species of mushroom that could be confused for a liberty cap. These mushrooms, says Rockefeller, are “very fragile and more orange overall, especially the gills and spore print”. Because they aren’t “super common, don’t look a whole lot like liberty caps and don’t occur in large enough quantities to cause poisoning,” he says, Pholiotina rugosa poisonings are thankfully extremely rare.
The Inocybe species can be extremely toxic. These mushrooms are found under trees and are much more “robust” than liberty caps,” says Rockefeller. They’re larger and have a fibrous cap texture.
The Mycena species, or Angel’s Bonnets, look a little more like liberty caps than the two mentioned above. They aren’t known to be poisonous, but due to their “questionable edibility,” should not be consumed. You can tell them apart from liberty caps because they have white spores and gills.
Conocybe – or a fool’s conecap – is another questionable variety. Again, they have rusty orange spores and gills, as opposed to the dark brown/purple ones found on liberty caps.
Galerina species, or at least some of them, can be mistaken for liberty caps, including the Galerina graminea (or turf bell) variety which has a bell-shaped cap. Again, these shrooms will have orange spores and gills and tend to be non-toxic. Toxic varieties of Galerina, such as the death cap, “look quite a bit different and grow from wood,” says Rockefeller.
There are also some edible mushrooms that look like liberty caps, but these aren’t going to give you the trip you’re hoping for.
Psathyrella corrugis (red edge brittlestem) and Panaeolus acuminatus (dewdrop mottlegill) look very similar to liberty caps, but “both the cap and the stem are much more fragile,” says Rockefeller.
HOW TO CHECK MUSHROOMS ARE SAFE
Dr Nuke says that anyone picking mushrooms should use “at least three independent tests” to make sure the mushrooms are safe. These should be run on fresh, mature, fully-grown, healthy mushrooms in order to be as accurate as possible. Once dried, he notes, it’s much harder to spot mould or bacteria growing on the mushrooms. “Specialist mushroom-picking books, the internet, and/or old hippies are the best starting points for the budding mushroom picker,” he says. He advises taking a guidebook or picture of a liberty cap with you while mushroom picking, so that you can easily check to see if it matches up.
Another test, which Rockefeller recommends, is a spore print test. Single mushroom spores can’t be seen by the naked eye, but a pile of spores can. To check a mushroom’s spore print, you’ll need to take a fully-grown mushroom and remove the stem. Then, place a cap, gills down, on a piece of paper (white is probably best, since liberty caps produce a dark purple spore print). Place a cup or glass over the mushroom to keep air currents away and wait. After 24 hours, check underneath the mushroom cap and you should see a spore print. If it’s dark purple, that’s a key indicator that you’ve found liberty caps.
Rockefeller, Woodhouse and Dr Nuke all recommend using online forums to check with more experienced mushroom pickers and experts about what you’ve found. “People get back to you pretty quickly,” says Woodhouse. There’s the Reddit forum Magic Mushrooms UK, Mush ID on Facebook and identification forums on Shroomery.org, to name a few.
STORING AND CONSUMING MAGIC MUSHROOMS
First things first, you need to dry them until they’re completely brittle. “Once they're dried, they're far less likely to go mouldy or gunky,” says Dr Nuke. “If they're not dried quickly, and you keep them in that kind of wet flesh, lying around, they can grow all kinds of fungal moulds which aren't good for you. Or they can go rotten and attract maggots.” The best way to avoid this is by drying them out. Preferably with a dehydrator, says Woodhouse, but you can also leave them in a dry, dark cupboard on some tissue paper which should dry them out in a few days. Woodhouse also suggests grinding them up and putting them into capsules, but you can also eat them whole or brew them into a tea.
When it comes to consuming your shrooms, Dr Nuke’s most vital piece of advice is to start with an extremely small test dose. “Once you’ve 100 per cent confirmed that you’ve got the right type,” he says, “make sure you take a small dose of three or four dried mushrooms before taking a bigger dose of one to five grams.” With a small dose, he says, if you have got the wrong type, “then you'll be sick, but you won't be badly poisoned”. Five grams will give you a very intense psychedelic trip, so one to three grams is probably a good amount if you’re trying shrooms for the first time.
If you do detect symptoms of mushroom poisoning, you must go straight to a hospital. It’s also important to ask a sober friend to “tripsit” you when taking higher doses of shrooms, in case of a bad trip.
It’s vital to reiterate here, again, that you should never go mushroom picking without the help of an expert or seasoned picker. That being said, if you do go, Woodhouse says: “Do your research, make sure you know exactly what liberty caps look like and don’t eat anything that you aren't sure about.”
And, above all, have fun! Mushroom season only comes around for around two months of the year – so make the most of it.