I love mushrooms, and I love talking about mushrooms. I like discussing scientific research and knowledge trends relating to mushrooms (including poisonous mushrooms), and I know in my bones that in the fullness of time, we will learn that many of our assumptions about fungi are false or incomplete. The list of poisonous mushrooms may grow (or shrink, who knows?) over time, and treatment options for mushroom poisoning will undoubtedly improve. Speculation and water-cooler chatter about poisonous mushrooms is all well and good, but I draw a line when it comes to sharing speculative or vague information/opinion and presenting it as fact.
If you are just starting out mushroom hunting, there are two particularly great rules to follow that drastically cut your chances of suffering from mushroom poisoning: don’t eat Amanita mushrooms, and don’t eat LBMs (little brown mushrooms). Of course, those are not the only guidelines I recommend, but these are two ways to avoid accidentally ingesting North American poisonous mushrooms that can kill you or cause serious organ damage.
DUDE. Don’t Spread Half-Truths About Poisonous Mushrooms
There is one thing I cannot stand that gets my Irish really up: “foraging experts” that spread kinda-sorta-but-not-actually-don’t-quote-me-on-that edibility information to mushroom lovers and would-be mushroom lovers. My frustration with this behavior doubles when the “expert” in question is sharing bad, incomplete, or nonspecific information with novices after presenting themselves as a knowledgeable mycophile whose input is to be respected because…experience.
If You Don’t Know, OWN IT
If you’re hunting for wild mushrooms and don’t know that what you’ve found isn’t a poisonous mushroom, assume that it is a poisonous mushroom. Of course, that doesn’t mean running screaming or refusing to collect it; if you want to explore poisonous mushrooms, be careful and do your homework, and do not fear the mushroom itself. Poisonous mushrooms are not harmful to handle. As long as you keep potentially dangerous specimens (including anything on which you need to verify your identification) in a separate container than the mushrooms you want to eat and otherwise avoid accidental ingestion of any part of the potentially poisonous mushroom, you’re golden.
In fact, there is one shock-jock mushroom educator named Ken Litchfield that I know who boldly takes big bites out of the deadly death cap mushroom, Amanita phalloides, and then spits it out in order to demonstrate to classes that you need to actually eat poisonous mushrooms in order to suffer harm from them. Me personally, I will never put Amanita phalloides, or it’s equally deadly cousin the destroying angel mushroom, Amanita bisporigera, anywhere near my mouth, thanks very much. As it stands, my primary care physician and some of my family members are deeply concerned about my hobby and think I’m a nutcase for eating foraged wild mushrooms, and I don’t want to give them extra cause for worry. Furthermore, I figure I want to save my liver for enjoying the beer that I so like to brew when it’s not mushroom season.
Long and short, I strongly believe that if you don’t know if a certain mushroom identification is correct, OWN IT. Your pride is not worth your own (or god forbid, someone else’s) wellbeing. Period. Such behavior is irresponsible and reckless. There are three words all mushroom lovers (and I might add, people in general) should get really comfortable with: I DON’T KNOW. I am very comfortable with these words myself, along with another phrase: “I need some time to look at the books on this one.” And yet another one: “Well, this mushroom used to be known as X, but I am not sure that’s its name anymore…Sorry, I am not a phylogeneticist!”
Now, I usually reserve this blog space for talking about mycological subjects and anecdotes that amuse me, but I had an experience recently that made me upset. In a mushroom-related gathering with many inexperienced foragers, there was one guest who presented as a consummate forager and spent much of the evening plugging classes and workshops (mind you, I am not griping about self-promotion, it was just that this person went out of their way to present themselves as an Expert with a capital E on the subject of wild food).
And Then It Happened – “You Can Totally-Maybe Boil Poisonous Amanita Mushrooms and Eat Them and Be OK Cause Maybe I Read a Paper About That.”
In the midst of a casual discussion about poisonous mushrooms, this person proceeded to inform the whole group that you can boil Amanita phalloides and eat it safely. Except maybe not, the speaker qualified, because it was just a paper from Europe that maybe they had read. My jaw hit the floor, and evidently I turned bright pink/purple before sputtering out, “NO PLEASE PEOPLE DON’T EVER DO THAT, THOSE ARE POISONOUS MUSHROOMS AND THEY CAN KILL YOU!”
The person in question proceeded to back-pedal, and I launched into a bit of a tirade (I am not proud of it, but I was also pretty upset) about how Amanitans – the group of toxins in some Amanitas that make them poisonous mushrooms – are huge, durable molecules that are resistant to boiling, freezing, and other treatment that can break down harmful compounds in other mushrooms, such as morels and certain species in the genus Gyromitra.
At the end of the day I don’t think any harm was done, but nonetheless I cringe when I think of this occasion because mushroom hunting has a hard enough time gaining acceptance in mainstream American culture without yahoos spouting off nonsense to beginners about eating deadly poisonous mushrooms. And don’t get me wrong, I am all for improving the image of wild mushroom hunting, but the main thing that bothered me on this occasion was the possibility that someone would take this forager’s advice and do themselves irreparable harm. As I always say when I am talking with people about poisonous mushrooms:
“When in doubt, throw it out! Lunch should never be a life and death matter.”
Off My High Horse, and Onto Something Else
OK, that’s enough ranting for now. I guess the moral, if there is one, is do not offer speculation as information; if you are unsure about the identity of a wild mushroom, or you have some information that you are not 100% certain you understand, do not use it to make life-and-death decisions.
In future posts I will address poisonous mushrooms in the Amanita genus in more depth, because Amanitans are fascinating toxic compounds that are well worth talking about, and although they are potentially deadly, Amanita mushrooms are gloriously beautiful fungi that are sort of the pin-up bombshells of the mushroom world.