Mushrooms aren’t always named based on what the unaided eye sees. Sure, pheasant back (Polyporus squamosus) and turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) are two examples of fungi whose fruiting bodies certainly resemble their chosen titles, though the deer mushroom requires a useful tool — the microscope — to truly understand the meaning behind its name.
There are sterile cells that cover the gill surface under the cap, known as pluerocystidia, that display antler-like projections at their tips. Not all mushrooms (not even all Pluteus species) contain antler-tipped pleurocystidia. This is a unique feature that helps to characterize Pluteus cervinus. Microscope or no microscope, this mushroom is still able to be easily identified in the field.
The deer mushroom is fairly common in hardwood forests from spring through autumn. Because its growth habit is saprophytic (breaking down organic material), you’ll typically see the deer mushroom growing on dead hardwood (typically logs or stumps) and occasionally on saw dust. If your specimen truly is the deer mushroom, though for some reason it appears to be growing from the ground, the wood is most likely buried. The deer mushroom is medium-sized and can be found growing solitary or occasionally growing in groups (though not necessarily in clusters).
Key identifying features can easily be seen underneath the cap. The deer mushroom contains pinkish gills that are narrowly spaced and darken with age.
Young specimens may appear to possess white gills, though when picked and handled, they’re destined to turn pinkish-brown. The deer mushroom produces a pinkish spore print. Note: Entoloma mushrooms, some of which are toxic, contain pink gills as well. However, these latter mushrooms typically display a terrestrial growth habit (growing from the ground), and they contain attached gills (the gills run to and touch the stem).
The deer mushroom, unlike Entoloma species, contains free gills. In other words, the gills stop short and never truly touch the stem. There is no ring around the stem, nor any partial veil leaving remnants on any part of the mushroom.
The deer mushroom is edible, though it is not necessarily considered choice. Its radish-like odor and flavor can taste somewhat bitter, and its fragile-nature makes it difficult to handle. Having a growing season that, at least in the springtime, overlaps morel mushrooms doesn’t quite help either. Regardless, the deer mushroom is edible and frequently encountered, and it can be easily identified when checking to make sure it possesses all of the traits listed previously.
Identification check list:
Cap: 2-4” across; typically bell shaped and becoming convex with age; grayish brown; occasionally streaked with fibrils
Gills: White to pinkish, becoming darker with age; not attached to the stem (free gills); close
Stalk: Up to 4” long and 1/2” thick; occasionally a bit larger at base
Spore print: Pinkish
Habitat: Single or in groups on hardwood logs and stumps; wood can be buried
Range: Widespread in North America
Look-alikes: Entoloma species usually grow from the ground and have attached pinkish gills