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The Destroying Angel and the Death Cap: Killer... Mushrooms?

By Edited Apr 28, 2016 0 0

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.

Identification

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.

Amanita ocreata
The Destroying Angel is entirely white, with a pure white stalk and cap that typically reach 6-8 inches tall and up to 5 inches across. The white gills under the cap are “free”, meaning that they are fully detached from the adjacent stalk. A spore print should be collected by placing the cap gill-side-down on a dark piece of paper; a Destroying Angel will create a visible print as the white spores are dispersed from within the gills. Like most of the Amanita family, the Destroying Angel has a ragged annular ring on the stalk and a cup-like base, or volva, that are remnants of the universal veil that encapsulated the young mushroom as it first emerged above ground. Be aware, however, that the volva may be buried a few inches below the soil at the base of the stalk.

Amanita phalloides
The Death Cap tends to have a pale yellowish , greenish, or light brown cap that reaches up to 6 inches across. Like the Destroying Angel, the white gills under the cap are completely detached from the stalk. The Death Cap also produces a white spore print, has a ragged annular ring on the stalk, and has the characteristic cup-like volva (often buried) at the base of the stalk. When identifying any mushroom, it is essentially to gently brush away some of the dirt around the stalk to search for additional identifying features below the surface. The presence or absence of the volva may make a significant difference in identification.

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.

Notable Poisonings

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.  

Staying Safe

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.

Emerging Destroying Angel
Many myths abound regarding the edibility of mushrooms. There are no generalizations that can be made about edible fungus. Certain beliefs such as “edible varieties can be peeled” are absolutely false. Always carefully identify the mushroom and never rely on generalizations.

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:

Mushrooms Demystified
Amazon Price: $39.99 $19.04 Buy Now
(price as of Apr 28, 2016)
This is THE go-to book for comprehensive mushroom identification. Many consider this "the Bible" of all guides.
All That the Rain Promises and More: A Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms
Amazon Price: $17.99 $8.15 Buy Now
(price as of Apr 28, 2016)
A handy pocket guide to mushroom identification - this book covers common species found in the western U.S.

Don't want to gather your own? Try growing your own!

Back To The Roots Mushroom Farm
Amazon Price: $22.99 $19.00 Buy Now
(price as of Apr 28, 2016)
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