It happens every year. Someone eats poisonous mushrooms and winds up in the hospital—or worse. Then I get well-meaning emails from concerned friends and acquaintances.
This fall a Connecticut woman poisoned her whole family. Reports say the mushrooms she picked in her back yard and fed to her husband and two daughters was the notorious Destroying Angel, Amanita bisporigera (pictured at top). If that's true, the family got off lucky. Three of them were released from medical care last week with their own livers. A fourth remained in the hospital, and—lucky for her—was being treated with silibinin, an experimental drug widely used in Europe and only recently available in the U.S.
The toxins in deadly Amanitas such as the Destroying Angel and the Death Cap (Amanita phalloides) inhibit cell production in the liver and kidneys. Symptoms often don't occur until several hours after ingestion and include vomiting and severe abdominal pain, followed by liver and kidney failure, hepatic coma, and death. There is no antidote. Patients are typically treated with charcoal solutions. Silibinin, made from an extract of milk thistle, seems to have antihepatotoxic properties—that is, it protects liver and kidney cells from toxins—and looks to be the most promising cure at the moment.
Great new experimental drugs aside, the best cure is to not eat poisonous mushrooms in the first place! Stories like this scare people. But it's still possible to enjoy the many pleasures of mycophagy (mushroom eating) without a trip to the hospital and a long recovery. Simply observe foraging's golden rule: never eat anything that you can't identify without 100 percent certainty.
To learn the skills of mushroom identification, take a class, join a mycological society, go into the field with a trusted mentor. Learn key field characteristics by studying actual mushrooms with mushroom experts—not by looking at pictures in field guides. Respect the limits of your knowledge. Some species are easy to learn. Chanterelles, porcini, and morels are among our tastiest wild mushrooms and relatively easy to identify. Other species require more skill. Go slow and enjoy the process.
The consequences of blithely nibbling your way through the wild are too grave. For another Halloween mushroom scare fest, read this harrowing account of a near-fatal encounter with the Destroying Angel.
Photo at top by Cornell Fungi.