Field of Science

Stalking the wild death cap mushroom

As purveyor of plant identifications, the Phactor gets lots of requests and even urgent calls for help. Identifications require both knowledge and experience, and a good reference collection also helps a lot. Now we all make mistakes, but amateurs are going to make more mistakes than us pros. Making IDs gets harder the further away you are from your home base because you are less familiar with the flora. The Phactor would never offer his services to an emergency room in China, for example. Here's a story of a fatal mistake: a Chinese chef visiting Australia finds what he thinks are edible mushrooms and makes a delectable stir fry that kills both the chef and his assistant. Now this fellow was obviously not even a good amateur because major mushroom genera are quite widespread and much more similar around the world than seed plants, which suggests that mushroom genera are quite ancient. Death caps are in the genus Amanita, large handsome mushrooms with white spores, a persistent veil, and a cup at the base of the stipe, which isn't always this obvious. Any gatherer of wild mushrooms should know this, and that combination of traits should have warned them. A few years ago an emergency room asked me to identify some bits and pieces of mushrooms a fellow had collected and eaten, but then he felt flushed and had what felt like palpitations, so he got scared and headed for the hospital. The bits did not allow a certain ID by a long way, but they were not consistent with a death cap either. But it really didn't matter; if the mushrooms had been death caps the fellow would have been a walking deadman. The toxins can destroy your kidneys before you even feel ill. Fortunately this fellow recovered, but his enthusiasm for wild mushrooms was greatly reduced. Mycophobia can go too far too. A woman almost got physically ill after learning that the delicious mushrooms being served had been collected in my own yard (Carefully IDed.). But do be careful out there folks, some plants and some fungi don't give you a second chance. The image of Amanita phalloides (the destroying angel) is courtesy of Arvenzo and the Creative Commons.


Unknown said...

There are old mushroom hunters and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old bold mushroom hunters.

Unknown said...

Also, if you have a chance you should pick up a copy of All the Rain Promises and More. There are some excellent pictures.