Friday, April 4, 2014

Wild Mushrooms

The toxic Fly Agaric mushroom
The toxic Fly Agaric mushroom
This is the season when wild mushrooms start to poke up out of the ground, and that prompts many people to go hunting for wild edible mushrooms. I enjoy hunting wild edibles, including mushrooms. That might sound like fun, but there’s some significant danger involved in eating wild mushrooms. When I say significant danger, I mean illness or death by poisoning. If you happen to eat a poisonous mushroom, the risk is high because it doesn’t take very much of a bite for the toxins to take effect.

Of course, not every poisonous mushroom is deadly. Some of them just cause a great deal of misery such as gastrointestinal upset, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting, heart palpitations, or neurological problems. But the truly deadly ones cause liver damage, respiratory failure, kidney failure, destruction of blood cells, and even the loss of limbs prior to death. Serious symptoms don’t always show up immediately after eating a toxic mushroom. Often the problems don’t emerge until the poison has had a chance to attack the kidneys or liver, which might be days or even weeks later. So this is nothing to play around with.

I want to warn you that there are folklore rules for mushroom hunting that are wrong, and can lead you into danger. For example the erroneous rule that poisonous mushrooms are brightly colored, or that if you put a bit of toxic mushroom on a silver spoon it will turn the silver black. You cannot believe such old wives’ tales, because they are not true.

Another bit of bad advice is that by watching the animals and insects you can tell which mushrooms are safe to eat, because animals and insects won’t touch poisonous mushrooms. Well, that’s not true either. Fungi that are harmless to animals and insects might still be toxic to humans. In fact, the Death Cap mushroom is frequently infested by insect larvae.

There is no taste test for detecting a toxic mushroom. The old myth that poisonous mushrooms taste bad is false. Some of the deadliest mushrooms taste quite good — as reported by lucky survivors who didn’t die after eating them.

Or, how about this myth — poisonous mushrooms have pointed caps, while edible ones have round or flat caps. Totally wrong. The shape has nothing to do with toxins.

And just being able to identify a general species of mushroom is no guarantee, either. There can be both edible and toxic members of some mushroom species. And while cooking may eliminate the toxin from some mushrooms, that doesn’t work for all of them.

So how do you know which mushrooms are safe and which are poisonous? The only safe way to deal with wild mushrooms is to make absolute positive identification. This is one area of wild food gathering in which it is extremely important to know what you’re doing.

There are some good books about mushroom identification. I depend on a book called Mushrooms of North America by Orson K. Miller Jr. It’s filled with color photos and precise descriptions that help determine which mushroom I’ve found.

Books are good, but I also recommend that you link up with a class on mushroom identification. Or you might find a local mushroom hunters club. The study of mushrooms is called mycology, so you might do a search by that name to find a club or group of avid mushroom hunters in your area.

Going into the field with experienced experts is the best way to learn how to enjoy and survive the hunt for wild mushrooms.

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