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To eat or not to eat?

by timber press on August 31, 2017

in Food, Natural History

Amanita bisporigera, or the destroying angel,  is a common large white mushroom in mature forests, but also is found in grassy areas if a host tree species are present. Photo by the author.

Not all mushrooms are edible, not all mushrooms are poisonous, but if you wish to use macrofungi for food, you should become an expert at identifying the edible and the poisonous species.

This approach will serve you well. If you decide to use wild mushrooms in your cuisine, as many people throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and even North America have done for centuries, I strongly recommend, whether you are a beginner or have some experience, that you thoroughly learn targeted species and use only a small number of these edibles to start: tooth fungi (Hydnum repandum), puffballs (Lycoperdon), sulfur shelf polypore (Laetiporus), porcini (Boletus edulis), and morels (Morchella) are easily mastered. I recommend this approach because making a mistake can be very uncomfortable or even deadly.

You might ask, why bother learning about the poisonous species, I am only interested in the edible ones? First of all, it is important to know which ones not to consume, but also because you will see these beautiful poisonous species quite frequently on excursions into the forests in late summer and fall. Amanita bisporigera and A. virosa, the destroying angels, are mycorrhizal with beech and oaks and are rather commonly encountered. They are large, white, and by all accounts taste pretty good. But after ingesting even just a small amount of one of these mushrooms, the cellular toxins absorbed in the blood stream after ingestion begin to disrupt and destroy cells in your liver and that may lead to death after several days of extreme discomfort. There are no known antidotes for such a poisoning.

Molecular studies indicate a broad variation in form and color for the North American Boletus edulis. They are edible with excellent flavor. Photo by the author.

As a general rule, learn the following genera and avoid using any of the species for food until you become an expert at identification. Some species within otherwise poisonous genera, such as Entoloma abortivum, are actually quite good and worth learning. I recommend putting these on your admire-but-do-not-eat list: Amanita, red-pored boletes, Chlorophyllum (or any mushroom producing a green spore deposit), Cortinarius, Entoloma, Galerina, Gymnopilus, Hebeloma, Inocybe, small Lepiota species, and Omphalotus (the false chanterelle that glows in the dark, or any mushroom that glows in the dark). This is not a complete account of the poisonous mushrooms, but these genera will be commonly encountered when fruiting conditions are favorable, and you should be able to recognize them.

Not all poisonous mushrooms are deadly poisonous. Most cause gastric distress, diarrhea, or other uncomfortable symptoms, sometimes only if alcohol is also consumed. Recovery from such incidents is usually rapid and complete. Also, to become poisoned you have to actually eat the mushroom. Even the deadliest toxic mushrooms are safe to handle. Contact dermatitis is caused by a few slimy-topped boletes in the genus Suillus, and only for those who are sensitive to these mushrooms. Touching a highly toxic mushroom like a destroying angel or a deadly Galerina species will not cause any ill effects.

Not very many humans are actually poisoned each year. Most of the suspected poison case reports involve incidents with no symptoms and therefore no real danger.

The real poisoning issues come from individuals who collect and eat mushrooms with little or no knowledge. These are usually recent immigrants who have safely used a species in their former country, that looks very similar to our toxic one. Also a seriously at-risk group are those looking to eat psychoactive fungi for recreational purposes.

For a detailed discussion of the different types of toxic mushrooms, and the various sorts of toxic symptoms these mushrooms cause, please the resources posted by the North American Mycological Association.


Timothy J. Baroni is a Distinguished Professor of Biology in the State University at New York. He teaches at SUNY–College at Cortland and works on biodiversity research of macrofungi globally, but with emphasis on mushrooms and other fungi found in the Americas.


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