I think wild mushrooms are the bees knees, but shortly after I started hunting chanterelles I discovered mycophobia, a strange condition that causes people to react to fungi with an array of negative emotions, from terror and panic to disgust. Now, I am a huge advocate of transparent mycophilia, by which I mean I love to share info on where to find gourmet mushrooms, how to identify wild fungi, and other mushroomy topics that amuse me.
However, there are some things that I am hesitant to discuss with mycophobic people. Below you will find 3 species that I think may best be left alone when discussing your mycological passions with people who are confused, perturbed, or even frightened of your hobby.
Yours In Fungal Fancy,
Mycophobia – Symptoms and Treatment
Some people with mycophobia can easily be cured. You probably know the type, it’s that friend of yours who seems kind of distant when you tell him/her that you’re into wild mushroom foraging, or the one who asks you weird mushroom hunting questions. This person, when pressed, will likely confide in you that they don’t really like mushrooms because they’re little more than a crappy salad topping that tastes like chalk.
This sort of mycophobe is easy to deal with. You have a few options:
- Take them on a mushroom foray. Once they see the diversity and beauty of mushrooms, they might become inspired. Worst case scenario, you took them for a pleasant walk in the woods and jabbered Latin at them for a couple hours.
- Make them a delicious wild mushroom dish that’s nonthreatening. Those who have been fed a pack of mycophobic lies their entire lives (for instance, the untrue notion that Agaricus bisporus is just totally fine raw) are likely to respond to mushroom dishes that are flavorful and delicious. Try using a species that’s not too intense; save your beefsteak polypore for another day, and whip out the porcini or shiitake recipes. If you’re flush with cash or own a fancy, truffle-seeking dog, you could go whole hog and shave some truffle bits on a creamy pasta dish. The path to healing, when it comes to mild mycophobia, is often through the belly.
- Show them some cool mushroom photographs. Most people don’t know that there are mushrooms that glow in the dark. Also, a lot of people I’ve met always assumed that the bright red fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria) is just a fictional invention of that guy who designed Super Mario Bros. Get out your Taylor Lockwood exotic mushroom calendar or search for some of those fancy botanical illustrations of mushrooms by Beatrix Potter and let them have an eyeful.
This list is not exhaustive, but it will often do the trick with those who are not really afraid of mushrooms, but rather suspicious or disinterested. However, there are a few people in this world who loathe mushrooms for one reason or another, and in those cases it’s probably best not to press the matter.
I remember well the first time I committed a mycological faux pas. I was visiting my brother and his then-girlfriend. She saw me reading Paul Stamets’ Mycelium Running and mentioned, in passing, that she thought mushrooms were gross. I sort of just assumed she was one of those people who’d had raw mushrooms foisted upon her during childhood, and thought no more of it. The next day, I went out mushroom hunting with my brother and came across many huge oyster mushrooms that we collected with glee.
Upon returning to the house, I asked my brother if I could spore print the mushrooms so I could take prints home with me, and he agreed. His girlfriend was aghast when, upon returning home from work, she discovered oyster mushrooms spread all over the coffee table, kitchen table, and a few chairs to boot. I shit you not, the second she walked through the door, her face paled out and her eyes darted around the room in absolute horror, much in the same way I would do if someone had turned a saber toothed tiger loose in my living room. Naturally, I started scrambling around, removing the offending fungi from the house, but the damage was done: I realized I’d accidentally terrorized someone who truly suffered from mycophobia.
So, gentle reader, consider taking a leaf out of my book. When you figure out that someone really finds mushrooms to be monstrous or hideous, don’t be a pest and keep your basket to yourself. Now, on to the real matter at hand: there are a few mushrooms that I do not discuss with mycophobes because it will only worsen their condition. Here are three of them.
Amanita phalloides, the Death Cap Mushroom
If you know a mycophobe, chances are that they already know a good bit about the death cap mushroom, Amanita phalloides. This mushroom can be deadly if consumed, and the poisoning action of Amanitas is devious and diabolical. You see, if you’re unfortunate enough to consume Amanita phalloides, you will get sick 6-24 hours later. Awfully, terribly, and violently sick. However, this is just the first step in a horrible and sometimes fatal process. Once the body’s gotten rid of the offending mushroom in your gut, a poisoning victim often starts to feel better.
And then…bam. Liver failure. And possibly kidney failure. No fun.
While the body valiantly tries to expel the mushroom, toxins called amanitans hitchhike on bile acids into the liver, thereafter causing devastating organ damage. Amanitans are huge molecules that are resistant to cooking, boiling, freezing, and other treatment that can sometimes detoxify foods, and they travel from the liver to the gut and back again, causing multiple layers of hepatic damage in the process. Kidney failure, dehydration, and blood toxicity (while your liver is not functioning properly) are secondary factors that make Amanita phallodies poisoning a life-threatening and potentially lethal event.
For a mycophobe, Amanita phalloides poisoning is a perfect reason to hate mushrooms even more. Just put yourself in their shoes for a second: all mushrooms look basically the same to you, they taste like crap, and the people who like them are weird hippies or chemistry nerds (for the most part). And to find out that some of them can strike you dead, even after you started to feel better? No thanks, sayonara, take your “mushroom lore” with you, and don’t let the door hit your bum on the way out!
Coprinopsis atrementaria, The Common Inky Cap Mushroom
This mushroom, along with a few other inky caps in the genus Coprinopsis, are not nearly as frightening as Amanita phalloides or other toxic mushrooms in the Amanita genus, but nonetheless it’s best avoided when discussing mushrooms with someone who hates fungi. There are two reasons for this, as I see it.
First of all, inky caps are kind of gross to people who aren’t into goo. When they’re babies, inky caps are dainty little mushrooms that sprout in clusters in grass and at the bases of trees. As they age, however, they do not simply lift their little caps high and deposit spores. That would be too cute, and inky caps refuse to be cute. Instead, inky caps become deliquescent, which is a fancy word for turning into black, stringy goo that is infused with the mushroom’s spores.
Now, I think that Coprinopsis atrementaria looks awesome when it’s deliquescing, much in the same way that I find the artwork of H.R. Giger to be appealing (you know, that guy whose work inspired the Alien movies). However, for those who are mycophobic, this trait may only reinforce the “ugh ick” feelings they already have toward mushrooms.
Secondly, Coprinopsis atrementaria can undercut your efforts to party like a rock star (or even like a refined hipster who only drinks small quantities of the finest adult beverages). These mushrooms contain a chemical called coprine, which causes some people to get sick if they drink alcohol after eating inky caps. The effects of coprine are identical to Antabuse, which is a drug that’s sometimes used for treating alcoholism, and it can cause fairly severe (although not dangerous) gastric upset in some people.
Typically, if you are going to get sick from coprine + alcohol toxicity, it sets in somewhere between 3 hours and 5 days after you eat the mushrooms. Although this is an uncommon form of mushroom poisoning, it’s still enough to make a die hard mycophobe shake his or her head and say, “See? I told you, meddling with mushrooms is bound to lead to trouble!”
Side note: for those who are working with older field guides, the name Coprinus atrementarius has been changed to Coprinopsis atrementaria.
Gomphidius glutinosus, Hideous Gomphidius
This last one is not a poisonous mushroom, nor am I trying to lump it in with dangerous mushrooms, so if you’re a Gomphidius fan, spare me your vitriol and hear me out.
Have you ever met someone who found the word “moist” to be completely and utterly horrible? Like, nauseating, physically repulsive, and almost a reason to run screaming from the room the second someone mentions a birthday cake?
I know I certainly have. In my experience, mycophobia and an aversion to the word “moist” are quite often co-morbid conditions, and as such I think that Gomphidius glutinosus is best left unmentioned to the people you meet who don’t fancy mushrooms.
In fact, no thing in nature embodies “moist” like Gomphidius glutinosus, also known as hideous gomphidius (which, to date, is my favorite common mushroom name of all time). This brownish-purplish, railroad-spike shaped mushroom is covered in gloopy, slimy, and yes, moist film that makes handling it somewhat like grabbing a greased pig. Although harmless and sometimes pretty in a certain “only a mama mycelium could love” sort of way, Gomphidius glutinosus is not a mushroom to parade around when you’re trying to show that you’re sensitive to the woes of the mycologically disinclined!
Focus on the Pretty, the Cute, and the Delicious
I am under no illusions that I will make true mushroom-haters come around and decide that they want to become citizen mycologists, or even casual mushroom hunters. However, when I encounter such people, they are often concerned for my safety and I feel obliged to talk about my mushroom-related experiences if they ask to hear about it.
This comes from a good-hearted place usually, because they’re genuinely worried that my hobby will end up being fatal. Of course, when someone opens this dialog with me, I try to talk with them in a reasonable way about it, but I will confess that I focus on mushroom species that are, shall we say, a little more PR-friendly, and even though I’ve made no converts, I have managed to assuage some fears and make the whole idea of mycophilia a little less arcane and foolhardy to those who fear fungi.
This is also how my herpatologist friends discuss snakes with me. I could not be more frightened of serpents, but being exposed to interesting and less-threatening knowledge about them has made me appreciate them more, if only from afar (like, as afar as I can possibly get without falling off the continent). But to date, none of them has discussed exotic venomous snakes that are imported by smugglers and turned loose, and for that I am eternally grateful, which is why I’ve taken this approach with the mushroom-haters in my life.