by Lauren Pope, Staff Writer
The original version of this article has been updated with corrections pertaining to certain identification factors of species.
We’ve been working on our Mushroom story for our Summer Safety Series for the past several weeks. It expanded into something much larger, and so we were holding off on publishing it until we were able to go on a promised mushroom hunt (stay tuned for that!). Sadly though, getting the story out has become more urgent due to recent news of an entire family dying due to mushroom poisoning. We’ve talked to a lot of mushroom experts, and are here to make sure that our readers stay mushroom safe.
Our first stop for untangling the truth about mushrooms was with Cyrus Lester from Mushroom Maggie’s Farm. He explained that the poisonous mushroom he sees most often is called the Jack O’Lantern (Omphalotus) mushroom . These guys look a lot like Chanterelles to the untrained eye, although experienced foragers can make the distinction because the Jack O’Lantern has gills, while the Chanterelle has false gills. If you have no idea what that means, don’t worry, Mushroom Maggie makes sure to triple examine all foraged mushrooms to prevent any vomit-inducing Jack O’Lanterns from making their way into your tasty dish.
But while that eases our fear about eating forged culinary mushrooms, it doesn’t make us feel much better about the deadly Death Cap (Amanita phalloides ) mushrooms from the tragic Australian tale. For more about these, we spoke with Jackson surgeon and mycology (mushroom) enthusiast Dr. Steve Antrobus. The first thing he told me was that we do have close cousins to these mushrooms in Louisiana. We don’t have the exact species, which has a yellowish-green metallic sheen to its cap, in the Gulf South. That said, we do have a deadly Amanita species here. They’re typically found in wooded areas and around trees, but since so many of our yards here in Louisiana are wooded, there’s a good chance you could find them in your yard. The toxin they produce is deadly. It causes liver damage and there is no known antidote. The treatment is supportive care, and if necessary, a liver transplant, but they are still often deadly.
That’s the scary news. The good news, at least for us here in Louisiana, is that these mushrooms don’t resemble any of our culinary mushrooms. They do resemble an edible Asian mushroom though, so sometimes recent immigrants from countries where that mushroom is endemic might make the deadly mistake. Here though, it’s unlikely to be confused for anything else.
Gulf South Mycological Society president Logan Wiedenfeld explains these to the Death Cap mushrooms from the Australian story, colloquially called Destroying Angels (Amanita ocreata) as “White. Some are big and impressive and others are more dainty, but they all have the same basic morphology. They have a white cap, ring, bulbous base, and a cup like structure called a volvo that looks like half of an egg . It’s formed when the mushroom emerges from a universal vale, and when it breaks there’s a layer of tissue that surrounds the mushroom and as it expands there’s a cup like sac that remains at the base of the stem.” In simpler terms, what to avoid is a mushroom that is:
- Stark White
- Ring on Stem
- Bulbous base (if you’re careful and dig up the base you’ll see a cup that’s the tissue from which the mushroom emerged)
- Located near oaks and pines
Another deadly toxic mushroom you might encounter in Louisiana is the Galerina Marginata ominously nicknamed “Funeral Bells”. These mushrooms belong to a class called “Little Brown Mushrooms”. These mushrooms are typically found in large groups and growing on dead trees. They have a tiny ring on the stipe and a shiny cap. They’re somewhat more difficult to identify than other toxic mushrooms, so the best bet is to just avoid any little brown mushroom that you see growing on a dead tree!
If, however, a child or pet does ingest one of these, or any other unknown mushrooms, there are some good best practices to help the doctor identify the toxin.
- If there are other mushrooms of the same type around, go ahead and take one. Don’t put it in a plastic bag though! Those quickly damage the mushroom and turn it to mush. Putting it in a paper towel or napkin is better.
- Take pictures from as many angles as you can. Try specifically to get the cap, gills, stipe, and base.
- Note any trees that are in the area and the location of the mushroom in relation to the trees.
- On the way to the ER, or while you’re waiting to be seen, post the pictures to the Facebook group called Poison Help: Emergency Identification for Mushrooms and Plants. Note: this is a group recommended by poison control, but it is ONLY for emergencies after a confirmed ingestion. It’s not the place to ask if it’s ok for you to eat a mushroom you found on your hike!
It’s far more likely, though, that people might be poisoned by a mushroom sometimes nicknamed the “Green Vomiter”. Thankfully this one isn’t deadly, but you might wish you were dead with all of the stomach discomfort it causes. These mushrooms pop up all over the lawn and they are huge in size. They grow in fairy rings and kids might try to punt them to see who can kick them the farthest. Wiedenfeld says “These are scientifically called Chlorophyllum Molybdites. They’re green gilled and don’t require trees to grow. A lot of poisonous mushrooms are mycorrhizal which means that they grow in association with certain trees – usually oaks and pines in our area so they’re more likely to be seen in the woods. Green Vomiters grow everywhere because they decompose the cellulose in grass. These are the most common offenders when it comes to mushroom poisoning. It’s not lethally toxic, but it could be lethally toxic for pets and can land you in the hospital with an IV for severe GI distress.”
While fighting against mushrooms is a losing game, especially since they’re actually helping your lawn, if you notice big white, splotchy mushrooms popping up in your yard where your children or pets play, you can safely dispose of them simply by pulling them up and tossing them in the trash in a tied plastic bag. Thankfully, mushrooms are only poisonous if they are ingested, so you don’t need to be overly precious about protecting your hands or anything like that. Just wash them well afterwards as you would after handling anything else.
The final point that all of my mushroom experts agreed upon is that even if a mushroom isn’t toxic, it might just not set right with your stomach. If you’re eating a new (safe!) mushroom for the first time, the best practice is to fry up a tiny bit and see how you react to it before diving in face first. Also, make sure you cook all your mushrooms thoroughly. Most people can’t tolerate raw mushrooms, and dogs especially can get very ill from non-toxic raw mushrooms. If your dog gets into some mushrooms and throws them up, go ahead and save whatever you can from the vomit to bring into your vet. Chances are, it will be a non-toxic variety, but if not, they can usually identify the toxic varieties even after they’ve been partially digested.
Our next mushroom story will be examining the wonderful and whimsical world of mycology…but we had to get safety out of the way first!