A few years ago, my dad told me a story about a guy who had a cabin across the lake from our family’s place up north. Legend has it he picked some mushrooms and brought them home for his wife to cook up. When she expressed her doubts, he proclaimed, “I know my mushrooms!” and slammed his fist down on the table. She cooked, he ate, he died.
Now, I have no idea what those mushrooms were. What I do know is that people die or become very sick every year from mushroom poisoning, or mycetism. It is unfortunate but almost inevitable. My wife works with gastrointestinal doctors, you know, the ones who try and keep you alive when you eat the wrong mushrooms and your liver fails. Whenever they hear that I eat wild mushrooms, they always express their grave concern. This, of course, is not without cause. There are several types of mycotoxins (poisonous compounds produced by members of the fungi kingdom), and they produce symptoms that include vomiting, visual disturbances, temporary coma, kidney and liver failure, and death. (Honestly, “death” sounds like a pretty good option compared to some of the ways it can go.) What’s more, symptoms may not start for hours, days, or even weeks, making diagnosis and treatment potentially difficult. Personally, “extreme gastrointestinal distress” is enough to scare me off of being too careless. The North American Mycological Association has a great page that delineates the possible poisonings. One brief look should be enough to open one’s eyes to all the possible routes to suffering and death. Have a look and take it seriously.
Most mushroomers have probably heard the saying “There are old mushroom hunters and there are bold mushroom hunters. There are no old, bold mushroom hunters.” So, what steps can beginners take to keep from spending any (and especially their last) days in a hospital? Here are some tips- some time-honored and some more practical- that should help in the age of the internet and renewed interest in foraging.
Learn from an expert if possible
One can only learn so much from either field guides or trial and error. If you find an experienced mushroomer to act as a mentor, they can teach you much, from helpful tips to identification to rules about safety. There is no replacement for real-world experience or hands-on learning, so take advantage of it if possible.
Don’t pick everything you see
If you’re new to mushroom hunting, let me tell you a little secret: probably 90% or more of the mushrooms in the woods are no good. Most are inedible, and of the edible ones, many will be in bad condition. (Knowing which specimens are in good enough condition to pick is yet another reason to learn from an expert.) No matter what, most of the time you will never be able to bring a basket big enough for everything in the woods, and most people won’t have the patience to wade through all the resources necessary to identify everything in the woods. If you can’t identify it in the field, leave it there. Or, as they say, “when in doubt, throw it out.”
If you pick everything you see with the hope of identifying it later, you also run the risk of poisoning yourself. If you mix edible mushrooms with inedible ones, the edibles will quite possibly become contaminated by the spores from the inedibles. This alone is enough to poison a person.
Choose only a few edible mushrooms at a time to learn and find
For some reason, I see a lot of beginning mushroomers trying to identify every mushroom in the woods. What a time-wasting endeavor. Many will fall under the category “LBM”: Little Brown Mushroom. This is a broad category of mushrooms that contains mostly inedible or hard-to-distinguish members (now that you know that, you can walk on by). Many mushrooms of other colors will be poisonous or otherwise inedible. They are simply not worth the time. Knowledge is power, but trying to know too much at first will probably only lead to confusion, and confusion can get you killed.
Instead, learn only a handful of mushrooms at a time. Begin with those mushrooms recommended for beginners and especially those that don’t have poisonous look-alikes. In the spring, try morels, aspen oysters, and dryad saddles. Learn their identifying characteristics, where they grow, any poisonous look-alikes, and any rules of thumb that may apply. In summer, learn about chanterelles, hedgehogs, and lobsters. Later, learn about oysters, Chicken of the Woods, puffballs, black trumpets, and Hericium spp. Of course, in your area different mushrooms may apply. Add to your list of known mushrooms as you gain experience and confidence.
Spore prints are not for beginners
I’m not saying that spore prints aren’t important, because they can be useful for identifying mushrooms at home. What I am saying is that there are enough identification markers for beginner-level mushrooms that there is no need to use spore prints. If you can’t tell in the field whether or not you have Laetiporus sulphureus, or Morchella spp., or Hydnum spp., or Hericium spp., etc., you have already missed the boat- badly. You need to go back to the basics of mushroom identification. When you are much more experienced, spore prints will come in handy when trying to differentiate between species of boletes or russulas or something. Don’t get hung up on that now.
Cook your mushrooms, and try only 1 new mushroom at a time
Broad advice given always dictates that wild mushrooms should be cooked. If for no other reason, this is to kill environmental contaminants that could cause illness; many harmful bacteria live in the soil, including anthrax, tetanus, and botulism. Those are just names you should recognize; the list doesn’t end there.
It is also recommended that when eating wild mushrooms, you save a sample of the mushrooms eaten. If you get sick- related to mushroom consumption or not- a sample will help doctors and experts determine the cause as well as the course of treatment. After all, you might get horribly sick after eating a dish made with chicken and wild mushrooms, but treatments for salmonella and amatoxins would presumably differ greatly; your life could depend on a swift and positive diagnosis. Likewise, a case of mistaken fungal identity by a beginning forager could be straightened out quickly with a sample, which would be extremely important when your chances for survival wane with each passing hour.
Another important consideration for beginners is that there is always a possibility for an allergic reaction when trying a new food. An allergic reaction to mushrooms (probably stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhea) might be severe, but is not generally life-threatening. To know which mushrooms you are and are not allergic to (allergies are generally unlikely), it is recommended that you eat only one new type of mushroom at a time. It would be a shame to be afraid of eating all mushrooms if you’re only allergic to one.
Do not ask for an identification through the internet
I’ve seen it many times, and it always makes me uneasy. The scenario is terribly familiar by now: somebody posts a blurry cell phone picture to facebook, gives little or no other information, and asks others to make their identification for them. People are often very eager to offer their “help.” Replies like “yes, oysters!” and “looks like chanterelles” make me wonder why anyone would dare to identify a mushroom they can’t inspect for stem type, size, color, gill characteristics, etc. This is reckless, both for the asker and for the answerer. Whenever I set out to identify a mushroom (especially a new one), there are many questions that must be answered before I feel comfortable eating it. One picture is rarely good enough to satisfy all the criteria. There is just no replacement for a mushroom in hand when it comes to identification. I’ve said it before, and I still believe it’s only a matter of time until somebody becomes horribly or fatally ill due to over-the-internet advice (litigation, no doubt, could ensue). Heck, it’s probably already happened somewhere. If you have any inclination to eat a new mushroom, do your liver a favor and learn how to make a positive identification for yourself.
If you are a mushroom hunting greenhorn, all this is not to discourage you from taking to the woods in search of edible mushrooms. Instead, this is to encourage you to take all the proper precautions so that you don’t hurt yourself or others. Eating mushrooms, like other wild foods, can be a satisfying pastime. (Setting a timer so you remember to take your liver transplant meds is a somewhat less satisfying pastime.) After all, mushrooms are good for us, as are exercise and time spent in nature. So, do your homework and enjoy yourself. And when you get good at it, don’t forget to bring a kid along.