For the death-dyers outdoors enthusiasts there’s a thing called “wild mushrooms roulette.” It’s similar to the Russian roulette, and both are played much the same, and both are equally dangerous. Learning to tell the difference between edible and poisonous wild mushrooms will help you score some food in the wild, and you won’t have to try your luck with the abovementioned game.
To play wild mushrooms roulette simply gather a mushroom that “looks” like an edible type, check it carefully to see if it will tarnish a silver spoon, or if there are teeth marks on it (animals always know what’s edible), then pm. pare it in any of your favorite recipes. Bon appetite! Have an expensive bottle of wine to wash it all down with, and share this dinner with your favorite love, You might as well enjoy yourselves, it could be your last meal.
A few years back a family of emigrants hat had just recently moved to nearby — unwittingly played wild mushrooms roulette… and lost. What likely happened was that they mistook Amanita virosa (the famed “destroying angel”) for the delicately flavored Leucoagaricus naucinus.
To the untrained eye, they’re quite similar. They’re both about the same size. Both have the same general shape and color, both have white gills, and both can be pan-fried to a beautiful cream-grey color (it’s probable that both even taste good). The only major difference is that if you fry and eat the Amanita, kiss your wild mushrooms hunting days goodbye.
Wild mushrooms and their consequences
In case you ever wondered what death by mushroom poisoning would be like, let me describe it here. After ingesting the poisonous mushroom, two toxins enter the system (complex polypeptide molecules made up mainly of amino acids—one quick acting and the other slow acting) and make their way towards the liver.
There, enzymes in the liver combine with these molecules, to form a compound that attacks the cells of the liver. By the time the victim begins to feel intense pain, the faster-acting poison has already acted, and it is generally too late to pump the stomach. Following the pain comes excessive vomiting, lethargy, and blurred vision.
Miraculously, the victim begins to feel better after only a few hours (when the fast-acting poison is expended), until the slow-acting enzyme comes into play, bringing with it severe pain lasting up to six days. The pain usually ends with death. Should the patient be so lucky as to survive, he can expect a month to recuperate, though his liver may never fully recover from the damage inflicted upon it.
Wild mushrooms and the safe path
So how does one tell an edible variety of wild mushrooms from a poisonous one? And, if the risks are so great, is it a safe hobby to pursue? I’m firm that it is… if one knows what they’re doing.
There are a few general guidelines that can help one avoid the unpleasantly of wild mushrooms poisoning.
Though there’s no sure test of edibility, try to remember these four simple things:
- Don’t eat wild mushrooms with white gills
- Never eat mushrooms that are too old
- Don’t eat mushrooms raw
- Don’t drink alcohol while eating wild mushrooms
When it comes to determining which mushroom is safe, however, there’s only one rule that applies:
“Make damn certain that you have positively identified the Species in question, beyond any shadow of a doubt.”
Otherwise, cock the hammer, spin the chamber, take careful aim and pull the trigger. It’s a much faster way to go. This article isn’t a definitive course on identifying wild edible mushrooms of North America. It is merely a step in the right direction to get the beginning forager started.
Wild mushrooms hunting (and eating) is both safe and rewarding if you know what you’re doing, and there’s really no excuse for mistakes. God made every species of mushroom to an exact blueprint that to the trained eye is as recognizable as the face and body of one human being from another. There’s the size of the cap to consider, the length and diameter of the stem, and the color of the cap and stem.
Furthermore, the careful, wild mushrooms hunter will always ask:
- What color are the gills?
- How far are the gills spaced apart?
- Are they free or attached to the stalk?
- Are the cap and stalk smooth or do they have shingles, hairs or warts?
- Does a ring surround the stalk?
- Are they dry or are they slimy?
- Is there a volva (cup-like tissue around the base of the stem)?
- Does the flesh of the mushroom change color when bruised?
- Is the cap margin smooth or indented?
- How does the mushroom smell?
- Is it convex or concave?
- What is it growing on?
..and so on.
Spore Print Test
More experienced wild mushrooms foragers will also take a spore print. It’s a simple process that requires merely finding two young but fully developed mushrooms, and slicing off the cape.
Set one cap (gill side down) on a piece of white paper and another on a piece of black paper, then leave them undisturbed for eight hours. The spores which are the mushroom’s reason for being, all have their own distinctive color which indicates species. For those species that have the same color spores, further, identification can be made by applying a solution known as “Melzer’s reagent” to the spore print and watching the reaction.
If the spores turn blue, it is called an “amyloid reaction.” A reputable wild mushrooms guidebook will outline these details. Mushrooms can occur any time of year that conditions are right, though generally speaking, they’re seasonal. Spring is the undisputed season for foraging (a season that carries on through the Summer rains), though Autumn also brings much more than just gold to the trees.
Autumn is a time of year when thoughtful nature makes her bounties most prolific, enabling woodland creatures to get ready for the hardships of the coming winter. Autumn is a time of plenty, the last floral extravaganza of the year, and as those rainbow-tinted leaves flutter to the ground providing compost, an abundant mushroom harvest stirs beneath. So don’t let those guidebooks collect dust six months out of the year!
Before going any further, I’d like to dispel a common myth concerning those mushrooms known as “toadstools.” When is a mushroom a toadstool, really? To the vast majority of those people I collectively refer to as “the uninformed” . A toadstool is a mushroom they can’t identify, or to put it another way, a mushroom is a toadstool when someone is afraid to eat it.
Most dictionaries define a toadstool as “… any fungus having an umbrella-like disk, or pileus, borne on a stalk, especially fungi of the genus Agaricus and related species.” I might mention that the common mushroom we find in the grocery store is in the Agaricus genus. What makes the commonly accepted meaning that a “toadstool is poisonous” more ludicrous is that the poisonous hallucinogenic Psilocybin fungi are always referred to as “magic mushrooms.”
When I was a kid, a toadstool was a thing that popped up in the lawn overnight, and turned into an inky, slimy mass of black sludge a day or two later… and I thought for sure I’d be poisoned by just touching it! I now call that same toadstool a “shaggy mane” mushroom (Coprinus comatus), and recognize it as one of the most delicately flavored mushrooms of all, in its early stages.
The inky-cap wild mushrooms
This feared “toadstool” of my boyhood days is as safe a place as any for the beginning mushroom hunter to start, as there are no similar poisonous look-alikes. The shaggy mane belongs to a group of mushrooms called the “inky caps” because of their nasty habit of auto-digestion, a process also known as dissolution.
In other words, they eat themselves out of house and home after maturing, transforming into a blob of tar-like goo as they dissolve to feed the unseen roots (called mycelium). It’s amazing that something so disgusting could taste so delicious, although it is far from edible by the time it reaches the inky stage.
When young it is white with brown-tinged shingles on the outside that make it look much like the tall cap of a drum major in a marching band, and shows a trace of purple on the inside gills. It is at this stage when shaggy mane is at its best. Prepare them by slicing thinly and sauteeing in butter. Like fine caviar, they can be enjoyed by themselves. Because of the shaggy mane’s self-destructive nature, it cannot be picked and stored in the refrigerator to be eaten later and must be cooked at once to neutralize the enzyme that causes its decay.
There are a number of species in the “inky cap” group, most of which are edible.
A word of caution though:
The combination of some species of these wild mushrooms with alcohol can cause intestinal distress and severe vomiting, as can alcohol with other varieties of mushrooms in some people, even the store-bought kinds. This does not justify classifying the shaggy mane as poisonous. However, it would be just as correct to say that alcohol is the poison. The mushroom by itself is far better for your health than alcohol.
The most dangerous mushrooms in the world have white gills (the “destroying angel” included), whereas the boletes harbor no deadly look-alikes.
Boletes are easily distinguished from all other mushrooms by the fact that they have pores (spore tubes) beneath their caps, rather than gills. No bolete is deadly, although there are a species or two that can cause stomach upset or are unpalatable. It’s best to take a nibble from each one collected just to be certain. Boletes are mildly flavored and have excellent color and texture, reminding me of a fluffy egg omelet.
An inedible species of bolete is peppery or bitter. I should mention that this test for edibility should be applied only to the bolete family of fungi. It takes less than a tablespoon of the most poisonous types of wild mushrooms to kill. As delicious as boletes taste they are not my favorite simply because of the effort involved in preparing them. But for the wild mushrooms fanatic, this shouldn’t be too much of a deterrent.
The sticky skin that covers the cap should be removed from the older specimens, as should the spongy layer of tubes. If your freshly picked wild mushrooms need cleaning, do not rinse them off until alter they are prepared as explained, as they will become incredibly slimy. The best way to avoid getting them dirty in the first place is to cut them off just above ground level, instead of pulling them out with the dirt.
Besides boletes, puffballs are the next safest introduction to the sport of wild mushrooms hunting. White-fleshed puffballs (Lycoperdon and Calvatia species) have no poisonous family members, and puffballs are recognizable and easily the most common of our mushrooms after a spring shower. They can almost always be found in flat grassy areas (golf courses and parks are great hunting grounds) often where the soil looks poorer—a couple of days following these showers.
Their main identifying feature is the lack of a stem, and the fruiting body is usually round or pear-shaped. Before eating any puffball, it should always be sliced in half to make certain that what you got is not another type of mushroom in the “button stage.”
Related reading: The Reality of Foraging When There’s No Food
A puffball has no gills or pores like other mushrooms but instead is composed of a solid, spongy mass (called “gleba”) clear through. As easy to find as puffballs, though not so easily distinguishable is the fairy ring mushroom (Marasmius oreades) which forms those familiar fairy rings in lawns. Marasmius is perhaps the most neglected edible mushroom I know, and perhaps the most delicious. Marasmius seems to do best in well-watered lawns and being prone to sprouting up in fairy rings; it appears in abundance.
One of its most amazing features (besides the taste) is that Marasmius doesn’t decay so easily as other wild mushrooms. Should the mushroom pop up after a summer shower one cool grey morning, then be subjected to the blazing afternoon sun, Marasmius will simply dehydrate itself, waiting to turn plump and fresh with the next fall of rain.
In appearance, Marasmius is light tan in hue, with a darker-colored nipple in its center. When young , the cap is convex, but as it matures, it turns concave and develops a scalloped edge. The gills are fairly wide and spaced a ways apart. When picking, take only the cap, and discord the fibery stem, which unless really young, is too tough for even a forager to chew.
There are many other edible species as well that are both delicious and easy to identify. The above were only a sample. For more information check out a good guidebook or join a local mushroom hunting club. For the survivalist, the difference between knowing how to safely forage wild mushrooms and not knowing how is the difference between surviving and surviving in style.