Island seaweed artist, centenarian, naturalist and amateur mycologist Rose Treat periodically sends letters to the editor of our hometown newspapers. And she does us a great public service by doing so. Every year or two, she writes a note to remind us to take care around wild mushrooms, and to watch our children, pets and self around these fortuitous fungi, lest we inadvertently ingest the wrong ones and injure ourselves.
Her letters always make me feel like someone is watching out for us and taking care of our Island community. I appreciate her advice and grandmotherly care.
The fall explosion of wild mushrooms has me thinking of Rose and her warnings. Though there are some delicious and safe wild mushrooms that are fabulous for foraging, there are others that should be feared.
Eating poisonous fungi can cause illness, coma and even death. Every year, the poison control centers around the country receive over 10,000 calls about mushroom ingestion and more than a few deaths are reported each year.
Though there are a multitude of mushrooms out there, only a handful of species will cause truly terrible results. Here are some of those fatal fungi.
The amanitas, including the death cap, fly mushroom and death angel mushrooms, cause most of the world’s fatalities. About 90 per cent of mushroom-related deaths are caused by this variety. It only takes one-half of a single mushroom from this family to kill an adult.
Some of our risk-taking behavior comes from our desire to find food, or nirvana. Many of the fatal mushrooms resemble other edible or psychedelic varieties. Cortinarius mushrooms are similar to the delicious shiitake mushroom, and false morel mushrooms look like the sought-after morels. Magic mushrooms, which contain psilocybin and psilocin, are classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance by the United States Drug Enforcement Agency, and have look-alikes that can cause illness rather than ecstasy.
Sometimes mushroom mortality is not an accident. Throughout history, mushrooms have been used as murder weapons. Claudius, Emperor of Rome from 41 to 54 AD, died mysteriously after months of fighting with his fourth wife, Agrippina. A modern day review of the symptoms indicated poisoning by muscarine, a toxin found in certain mushrooms. One of the examiners noted in jest that Claudius died of “una uxore nimia,” a Latin phrase meaning “one too many wives.”
In another case, Parisian insurance broker and chemist Henri Girard in 1918 made a habit of taking out insurance policies on victims before he killed them using typhoid bacteria or poisonous mushrooms. He is not someone you would want to meet on a fungus foraging foray.
Even with all of the multiplicity of mushroom species, and the multiplicity of dangers that lurk for choosing the wrong one, mushrooms will remain an enticingentrée made even better bybeing found in the wild. But go with an experienced guide, or educate yourself thoroughly before risking ataste. Heed Rose’s reminder to be sure of your mushroom’s identification, because being sure of your shrooms is the only way to ensure that you will be eating wild mushrooms for a long, long time!
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.