On July 29th, five people sat down for a family meal in a small town outside Melbourne, Australia. Within a week, three of them were dead, a fourth was fighting for his life, and the fifth was under investigation for potentially poisoning her guests with deadly Death Cap (Amanita phalloides) mushrooms which she claimed were purchased dried from a local market. By late September, the afflicted lunch guest was well enough to be released from the hospital and the investigation continues, with area authorities urging people not to eat wild foraged mushrooms and instead stick to grocery store varieties.
While hospitalizations from ingesting poisonous mushrooms have increased over the past two decades, we are here to tell you that mushroom hunting isn't dangerous if you educate yourself on the differences between edible and poisonous mushrooms. Avoiding them altogether out of an all-encompassing fear of mushrooms, or mycophobia, would mean missing out on the many benefits of foraging your own food. In this article we offer advice for those would-be mushroom-hunters and an informative interview with Greg Marley, Mushroom Identification Consultant to the Northern New England Poison Control Center and author of Chanterelle Dreams, Amanita Nightmares: The Love, Lore, and Mystique of Mushrooms.
Advice for Aspiring Mushroom Hunters
Foraging carries inherent risks, and it's essential to prioritize safety and responsibility. If you're unsure about a mushroom's identification, err on the side of caution and don't consume it. While enjoying the adventure of identifying and potentially consuming new foods, keep the following information in mind:
1. Get to know the anatomy of fungi generally and mushrooms in particular, including details such as the size, color and shape of the cap and stem; whether the underside of the cap has pores, gills or teeth; the absence or presence of a veil; the presence or absence of a bulb-like volva at the base of the stem, along with spore color, and scent. Take clear photos, sketch your findings, and note the surrounding trees and habitat types.
Foraged Chanterelle mushrooms alongside a Destroying Angel; the most poisonous mushroom found in Maine | Photo courtesy of Greg Marley
2. Consider joining a local mushroom club. They can be found in every U.S. state and often organize group walks, which are typically advertised on their websites. Spending time with experienced mushroom enthusiasts supports hands-on learning and is safer than going solo, especially until you become visually familiar with the complete life cycle of various mushrooms.
3. Consider beginning your mushroom foraging by researching and collecting what we consider are some of the easier species to identify: Chicken of the Woods, Morels, and Chanterelles, and Lion’s Mane. These species are common in many areas, have few to no poisonous look-alikes and their field marks are distinguishable. These species are common in many areas, have few to no poisonous look-alikes and their field marks are distinguishable.
4. Have a specific mushroom in mind when you go hunting. Experts recommend having a particular mushroom species in mind for identification purposes rather than randomly picking mushrooms and hoping to identify them later. Take the time to learn about each mushroom individually.
5. Be cautious with gilled mushrooms. Seasoned foragers suggest that new folks starting out avoid gilled mushrooms altogether. While many of these fungi are edible, some within this group are poisonous, even deadly. For beginners, it's safer to focus on non-gilled mushrooms like Chicken of the Woods and Morels rather than taking chances with uncertain identifications.
6. Identify certain tree types and expand your hunt from there. Mushrooms are the fruiting body of the unseen fungi growing underground or in the wood, and are often associated with specific trees. For example, seasoned Morel hunters often begin their search by locating trees like elm or apples, and then examine the roots of those trees where morel mushrooms tend to grow.
7. Accurate identification of mushrooms requires practice, patience, and continuous learning. Whether you're a seasoned forager or a curious beginner, cultivate humility and opportunities to learn more about each mushroom. Fungi display a host of identifying features beyond what is mentioned here so take your time.
8. Be sure to use respected publications on foraging and identification. Do not rely solely on apps to tell you what species you have in front of you. As mentioned above, images alone are not always enough for proper identification and experts maintain that apps could be putting people at risk.
9. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t find mushrooms at first. Give it time and patience. If you don't find mushrooms on your forays at least you’ve spent some quality time in nature!
In light of the growing interest in foraging wild edible mushrooms, along with the increase in poisonings by toxic species, we thought it was a good idea to check in with author and mushroom identification expert Greg Marley, who has lent his expertise to the Northern New England Poison Control Center for over 20 years. We recently sat down for a conversation highlighting some of the ways foragers can stay safe and well-informed as they take to the woods.
Pigskin Puffballs are often mistaken for edible Puffballs but cause severe gastrointestinal upset | Photo courtesy of Greg Marley
Interview with Greg Marley
A Black Trumpet mushroom next to a Yellowfoot Chanterelle
Will: Hi Greg, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us today. To begin, I wanted to know more about safely consuming wild mushrooms. Are there any helpful identifying field marks separating harmless edible varieties from poisonous ones?
Greg: Here is the bottom line: never eat a mushroom unless you are sure what it is and that it is edible. There are no shortcuts or generalities that can be used to differentiate between one that is edible and one not. Develop a small group of the more “foolproof” edible mushrooms in your area. That is where you start and where many people stay. Begin with one mushroom species at a time and add additional mushrooms when you learn them and are clear what they look like and if there are any toxic look-alikes, how to tell them apart. In New England, many people begin with the Golden Chanterelles. They are common, easily identified, have few toxic look alikes, and are just yummy. Right in line behind the Chanterelles might be the Black Trumpets, the Oyster Mushrooms, or Hen of the Woods.
Will: This is great advice! What are some common misconceptions about poisonous mushrooms?
Greg: There are a similar number of edible and toxic mushroom species. There are many more mushrooms with an unknown or uncertain edibility and more that are too small, too tough or that just taste bad.
Will: That’s interesting, so there are just many we know so little about! Speaking of toxic species, which mushrooms cause the most poisonings in our region?
Greg: There are several repeated culprits responsible for mushroom poisonings in New England each year. They would be different in other regions of the US.
- People who mistake the toxic Jack O’Lantern mushroom for Chanterelles and become violently sick for 4-6 hours.
- Folks who eat one of the toxic Boletes like the Lilac Brown Bolete (Sutorius eximius) or the Hurling Bolete (Boletus huronensis) because they believe all boletes are edible or they mistake them for an edible species.
- People who eat mushrooms raw that need to be cooked to make them edible.
Will: So what do those toxic species look like? Are there any simple ways to know whether a mushroom is deadly or harmless?
Greg: There are no shortcuts! An edible mushroom cannot be differentiated from a toxic one by some telltale sign. Learn both one by one and put the same energy into learning the common toxic mushrooms as you do learning the edible ones.
Will: Can you explain how a mushroom can be toxic but not deadly? What makes a mushroom poisonous?
Greg: Toxic mushrooms are grouped by the problems they cause and the area of the body they impact. The most common form of mushroom poisoning is a range of gastrointestinal symptoms including nausea, cramps, vomiting, diarrhea or bloat which is typically time-limited and resolves in a healthy person with no lingering problems. Other varieties cause problems only when alcohol is used with the meal. The hallucinogenic mushrooms are classed as toxic though some people seek them out by choice. The most dangerous of toxic mushrooms have a delayed onset of symptoms and can shut down the liver and cause death. These include some of the Amanitas and a few small brown mushrooms. All together there are more than a dozen types of toxins across all mushrooms.
The Lilac Brown Bolete (Sutorius eximius); the only mushroom to ever poison Greg Marley! | Photo courtesy of Greg Marley
Will: Ok, so while the majority of mushrooms out there are benign, a number of them can cause serious harm or even death. What should you do if you suspect you have been poisoned?
Greg: While initial symptoms will depend on the type of mushroom and the toxins involved, nausea and vomiting are common but there are a range of possible symptoms one can expect. One important step however is to make sure you get an accurate identification of the problem mushroom! If you believe you have been poisoned, call the Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222 and seek their advice. Or go to a hospital emergency room, especially if you are alone or have already compromised health. Keep good pictures or examples of the mushroom(s) you ate for identification.
Will: I have to ask, is it safe to touch poisonous mushrooms?
Greg: Yes, it is safe to touch poisonous mushrooms. You will never be poisoned by a mushroom you have not eaten, and handling mushrooms will not sicken you.
Will: Oh, that’s a relief. I’m sure some folks will be wondering about that. Are there situations where an edible mushroom can become inedible or toxic?
Death Cap mushroom (Amanita phalloides) life stages
Greg: There are a number of situations to consider:
- Some mushrooms, like the Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus spp.), get tough and fibrous when mature and make digestion challenging.
- If a mushroom is collected on contaminated ground, where pesticides or herbicides have been sprayed, they can become toxic.
- A number of edible mushrooms are toxic if eaten raw or partially cooked. These include Morels, Chicken of the Woods, Blewits, Honey Mushrooms, and others. All mushrooms should be well cooked.
- Some people cannot tolerate certain mushrooms. Always begin with a small portion when first eating a new mushroom.
Will: Great advice all around. Now for some current events. A number of individuals recently died in Australia as a result of eating a meal prepared with poisonous Death Cap mushrooms. The preparer of the meal claimed she purchased the mushrooms at a market. Have you ever seen misidentified species being sold at a market?
Greg: In my work with poison centers, I have learned that sometimes the first story is not the whole story. I have no direct knowledge of what happened in Australia, but I’d carefully check out the story, as anything is possible. I have never addressed a poisoning based on mis-labeled mushrooms from a store.
Will: Good call. Speaking of stories, can you tell us a story about a mushroom poisoning that challenged your assumptions, educated you in a profound way, or simply surprised you?
Greg: The most frequent mushroom exposure call received at poison centers nationwide involves a very young child who is found with a wild mushroom, has put one in their mouth, or who is in the process of eating one. These are kids in the grazer age of life, say 10 months to 3 years. They explore the world by putting things in their mouth. Fortunately most of these calls never develop into actual symptoms of poisoning, but do involve very anxious parents or caregivers and call for an identification of the mushroom, or in some cases, the fragments of a mushroom. Some of these calls do involve very toxic mushrooms but, if little or none was swallowed, no symptoms develop.
A very challenging couple of cases involved a pure white coral mushroom in the genus Ramariopsis. About 40 years ago a group of Maine mushroom lovers was in a workshop with a very well-known mycologist and found a large quantity of very striking, pure white coral that was identified as Kuntz’s Coral and a group decided to eat them on the suggestion of edibility by their leader. Following the meal, five adults developed severe gastrointestinal distress including cramps, malaise, severe nausea and vomiting and other symptoms. Two people required hospitalization and the symptoms did not resolve in people for several days. Needless to say, there was both great concern and questions regarding the mushroom!
Kuntz’s Coral (Ramariopsis kuntzii) is a very pretty, delicate coral that can be quite common in mixed woods with oak in late summer. Some people eat this mushroom and enjoy it. Unfortunately the less common Ramariopsis lentofragilis also fruits in the same timeframe and looks almost identical to Kuntz’s Coral. R. lentofragilis is associated with the above noted symptoms. A few years ago a couple in rural Maine were hospitalized with severe symptoms including some challenges to their liver consistent with the toxins in the worst Amanita poisonings. An alert friend who is an amateur mycologist determined that there was R. lentofragilis on the property and they had likely eaten it. One clear way to distinguish these two mushrooms is through a color test using drops of a solution of iron sulfate. So unless you carry iron sulfate in your bag, please avoid eating these mushrooms.
Kuntz’s Coral (Ramariopsis kuntzii) | Photo courtesy of Greg Marley
Will: That is a fascinating story! I guess some mushrooms are meant to be enjoyed with the eyes. Well, it looks like we are out of time for now. Thank you for speaking with me today and we appreciate everything you do in the realm of mushroom education, risk reduction, and prevention.
Greg: You’re very welcome! Glad you are writing this article and I was happy to assist!