Mushrooms: revered, feared, and often misunderstood, these fungi range from deliciously edible to deadly poisonous. While common edible varieties such as buttons or shiitakes are widely known, there are thousands of other varieties that remain relatively obscure.
Many fungi are toxic, though the degree of toxicity varies considerably. Some are mildly toxic and, if ingested, may cause mild gastrointestinal distress. Some, however, are deadly poisonous if consumed. Two of the most deadly mushrooms in the world are the Destroying Angel and the Death Cap; both common names are well-deserved monikers for species with a deadly history.
The name Destroying Angel can actually refer to a few closely related species: Amanita bisporigera, Amanita ocreata, and Amanita virosa. Death Cap, on the other hand, exclusively refers to Amanita phalloides.
Please note that this information is provided for reference only. Mushrooms can vary considerably in their appearance depending on environmental factors, age, etc. They must be identified by a broad combination of features and not merely by matching the appearance to a photograph. Never, ever consume a mushroom unless you are absolutely certain of its identity.
Consequences of Consumption
In case the common names weren’t entirely clear, these fungi are fatal. Both the Destroying Angel and the Death Cap contain enough toxins in a single specimen to kill an adult human. Cooking or otherwise processing the mushrooms does not reduce the toxicity or the risk of fatal consequences.
If consumed, the initial symptoms typically include stomach pain along with diarrhea, vomiting, and nausea. The symptoms typically pass within several hours, but kidney and/or liver failure is imminent. Death can occur a week or two later.
Successful treatment of mushroom poisoning relies on early detection and immediate access to health care. If at all possible, the victim should provide doctors with a sample of the mushroom that was consumed in order to provide positive identification of the toxins. If the toxins have severely damaged the liver and/or kidneys, the best treatment may be an organ transplant.
The Death Cap is widely considered to be the most deadly of all mushrooms; its consumption is estimated to be responsible for at least 50% of all mushroom-related deaths. One of the reasons for this distinction is that it bears a close resemblance to the edible Paddy-Straw mushroom which is widely collected and consumed in Southeast Asia, where the Death Cap is not found. Immigrants may mistakenly consume this deadly fungus without realizing it is not the edible variety with which they are familiar.
The pure white Destroying Angel resembles the common white button mushroom when it is young, often resulting in a case of mistaken identity. While it is not responsible for as many deaths as the Death Cap, it is still considered among the most deadly of all fungi.
The Death Cap has been implicated in a number of famous poisonings, though these legends have been debated over the years. The Roman Emperor Claudius may have been murdered by means of a Death Cap delivered as a deadly meal. Many years later, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI is considered to have died after accidentally eating a prepared plate of the deadly mushrooms. Pope Clement VII, the leader of the Catholic Church in the early 1500s, fatally consumed a Death Cap in 1534.
Despite the dangers of poisonous mushrooms, there is no reason to avoid responsible, careful gathering and consumption of edible mushrooms. A given specimen must be positively identified by a number of factors. A reliable field guide will provide numerous identifying features – the specimen must match all of the listed features in order to be accurately identified. Never rely on similarities found in photos or approximations of features when identifying an unknown mushroom. If in doubt, leave the unknown mushroom alone.
Another wise tactic is to fully understand the region and the season in which you are gathering mushrooms. If you are unfamiliar with the area and its collection of mushrooms, you may be susceptible to a case of mistaken identity. Have a good field guide that covers the region and/or forage with other experienced collectors who are familiar with the area. Also, many edible mushrooms are known to grow in specific seasons of the year. Know what you are expecting to find in that season and understand what any potential look-alikes may be. Finally, it is good practice (especially for beginners) to hunt only for edible mushrooms that have no dangerous look-alikes. This can significantly reduce the risk of an accidental poisoning.
Be safe, be smart, know how to identify the good mushrooms and the dangerous mushrooms, and stay vigilant. Mushroom gathering can be tremendously rewarding if precautions are taken to avoid the many toxic species that can be found.
Gathering mushrooms? Take these essential guides with you:
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