Poisons, Dosages, Food

Because mushrooms are endlessly fascinating, I was excited to see this story on Amanita muscaria in the New York Times.

There was some good stuff in there about what they call a “fairy tale” mushroom, such as the bit about how the “fly agaric” name came about. Apparently, people would put pieces of the mushroom in milk as a bait for flies, which would consume it and lose the ability to navigate properly.

But then it devolved into how the mushroom’s consumption potentially leads to scary coyotes and, finally, of course, its ill effects on humans. (Although if you actually read the linked article about coyotes, it turns out that mushroom consumption is not a likely cause of the coyotes’ behavior.) It concluded with a description of the “nightmarish” qualities of this iconic mushroom.


OK, yes, Amanita muscaria will cause problems if you ingest it without knowing what you’re doing. Amanita muscaria also has some deadly relatives, in particular Amanita phalloides and another group known popularly as destroying angels. (This genus in particular is why I’m cool with eating a relatively limited variety of foraged mushrooms for the time being.)

Boilerplate warning: Don’t eat anything that you can’t positively identify. Just don’t do it. 

But lots of other things contain, ahem, biochemically active ingredients, including many common garden inhabitants and houseplants, such as the monkshood in the lead image (Aconitum; image from a trip to Sitka, Alaska this past summer).

Per a favorite reference book, Botany for Gardeners, here’s a partial list of house and garden plants with toxic potential:

  • amaryllis (bulbs)
  • daffodils (bulbs)
  • azalea (entire plant)
  • foxglove (entire plant)
  • lobelia (entire plant)
  • lupine (entire plant)
  • monkshood (entire plant)
  • philodendron (entire plant)
  • poinsettia (leaves, stems, milky sap)
  • sweet pea (entire plant)
  • tobacco (entire plant)
  • iris (leaves, rhizomes).

Then there are those plants of which we partake freely–apple, asparagus, rhubarb, potato, tomato, apricot, eggplant, peach–by eating the safe parts and avoiding the poisonous bits. We’re all generally familiar with these plants and comfortable knowing how to consume them safely–or having them around as ornamentals–and so most of us don’t even think about their potential toxicity, unless we’re worried about pets or kids eating them.

And yet, when you tell people you eat wild mushrooms that you pick yourself, you get concerned comments about your safety and general odd looks.

This is changing, slowly, but mycophobia runs deep in the United States. In the introduction to All That the Rain Promises…, mycologist David Arora writes that “Fungophobia can be defined as the belief that mushrooms are actively hostile at worst and worthless at best.” I’ve had people warn me against even touching Amanita muscaria due to fears about transdermal toxins. (This is false, by the way. Although the culprits–ibotenic acid and muscimol–are water soluble, so perhaps you could get sweaty and rub the mushroom over your skin to absorb some that way? Do report back.)

I don’t think I fully comprehended this cultural difference until I hiked with a friend from Germany.

In the United States, people who forage and hunt mushrooms tend to be a bit of a breed apart, at least in the popular stereotypes. And yet this friend–who is far more likely to be found at an opera than rooting around in the forest for food–squealed in delight at the bountiful mushrooms we found that day and spoke fondly of memories of mushroom hunting in the Bavaria of her childhood. That is, she spoke of mushroom hunting as something that normal people just do. Not scientists, not specialists, not people with superhuman powers or stomachs of steel, just normal people and their kids.

As it turns out, it’s not particularly hard to avoid poisoning yourself with mushrooms. Know what you’re eating and stick to what you know. Don’t eat things you can’t identify. Eat a limited quantity, especially when trying new species. Keep learning from those who know more.

I myself am a fairly conservative mushroom eater, mostly because I’ve had enough experience with GI discomfort while living and traveling abroad that I don’t relish the idea of inviting more into my life. But this year, with its odd mix of summer drought and wild fall weather (2.5 inches of rain over the past two days, with heavy mountain snows predicted), we’ve been expanding our list of edibles.

In addition to the old favorites (chanterelles, Hericiums) we’ve added lobsters (which we’ve eaten this year because we actually found them) and a Russula olivacea (our specimen looked nothing like these linked images and we ate it only because I identified it in class; in Mushrooms Demystified it keys out to a general group of non-edible mushrooms).

I recently found specimens of Gomphidius subroseus and Chroomphus tomentosus, both of which are apparently edible, if not incredible, but which I didn’t identify in time to test them at their peak. The Chroomphus tomentosus (sometimes called a pine spike) can be confused with chanterelles–our mushroom instructor refers to it as a woolly false chanterelle–but can be distinguished from Cantharellus by their gills.

When I first found the Gomphidius subroseus, it was raining and the viscid purple caps shone in the leaf litter like small jewels. It was a day on which we’d struck out at our usual chanterelle patch, and I was grumbly and cranky and damp. And yet, here were these mushrooms, refracting what dim light came through the forest on a dark day.

Admittedly, I am obsessive about very motivated by finding choice edibles.

But the delight I took in the beauty of that mushroom, without any knowledge of its edibility, was a reminder that there is value in cultivating a less utilitarian view of the natural world.



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