Fungi 🍄: poisonous mushrooms

In England we suffer with a condition that affects many people: mycophobia, a fear of fungi.

If you ask anyone about wild mushrooms, you’re likely to receive a response highlighting the fear of being poisoned. Cultivated mushrooms are a staple of the ‘British diet’ but people have very little knowledge about ones you can eat from the wild, perhaps because it doesn’t seem worth the risk.

Another thing most of us lack is an understanding of where we can forage if we are allowed to. It’s no surprise, the situation is complicated and in general foraging wild mushrooms is frowned upon, regardless of arguments for or against.

Debunking myths

It’s important to debunk some myths around the edibility of fungi:

  • Just because another animal eats a certain fungus, it does not mean it’s ok for a human to eat. Deathcaps can be consumed by other animals, whereas the result for us would be extreme
  • You can’t get sick from looking at, sniffing, listening to or even tasting a mushroom (on your tongue), but only from ingesting a part of a toxic mushroom. All in all, if you’re not an expert it’s just not worth a taste-test of a mushroom that could cause you serious illness
  • Some species which are edible still cause sickness in people, and not in a way that is predictable for some people
Fly agaric

Meet the Amanita Family

The most toxic mushrooms in the UK are found in the Amanita family, home to famous species such as the red and white fly agaric. They have some extremely sinister names: deathcap and destroying angel, for example. The deathcap is common in the UK, especially under beech trees. There are other similar species like the false deathcap, however, but the similarity is not so close.

The destroying angel gets its name from the fact it’s pure white but deadly poisonous. This is where a lot of problems lie. People confuse the destroying angel for white edible species like horse or field mushrooms.

One of the more common cases of confusion appears to be people from countries in Asia who are new to places like Europe or North America, foraging mushrooms that look identical to destroying angel but accidentally ingesting the toxic variety. Tragically, this has happened in recent months after Afghan refugees ate deathcap mushrooms in Poland after being evacuated from Afghanistan. There is no reason why they would have thought the mushrooms would not be the same as the ones they ate at home. Knowledge is privilege.

Other toxic Amanitas are the panthercap and, to a lesser degree, fly agaric. Confusingly there are some in the family which are edibles, including the blusher and Caeser’s mushroom (the latter named for its favour among Roman leaders). Remember: no one without relevant expertise should ever consider trying to eat an Amanita mushroom.

Magpie inkcap

Mycophobia

The fear whipped up around these species is, unsurprisingly, exploited in the British tabloid press, with the following being printed in one major English newspaper:

“Foragers are being warned about an alarming abundance of Britain’s most poisonous variety of mushroom this autumn.”

There’s mycophobia rearing its head once again, you could argue. Anyone who knows what the deathcap’s features are is unlikely to ever mistake it for something edible. It’s about taking care and time and having the right knowledge.

That said, the impacts of the deathcap on the human body are very unpleasant. Though someone can eat the mushroom and not feel any effects for 12 hours or more, it will slowly be degrading the liver on the quiet and other vital organs, resulting in eventual death if not treated.

This podcast covers quite a lot around the attitudes people have to fungi in the UK.

Sulphur tuft

Other poisonous mushrooms to know

One toxic mushroom that is very common is sulphur tuft. Sulphur tuft grows in woods, parks, gardens and even the street. It’s known to cause mild to severe illness in people.

There are other deadly species which are very common, including such as funeral bell(!) and brown roll-rim. Brown roll-rim can even be found in urban areas, with the first ones I ever saw were in urban south-east London in an old tree-pit next to a main road.

Funeral bell

It’s also important to know that species which are edible to some like chicken of the woods may cause mild sickness in other people.

Honey fungus

The same goes for honey fungus, which is edible but can make people sick, especially after eating a certain amount of it.

This shouldn’t be seen as a guide to avoiding poisonous mushrooms so please don’t treat it that way, nor is it support for a mycophobic view of the outdoors. Always do your research and understand that you need to develop your knowledge over time. My interest here is the role fungi play in our lives, especially the debilitating fear factor – the mycophobia.

Thanks for reading.

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#FungiFriday: 10 miles of mushrooms in the New Forest

Fungi Friday 2nd October 2020

I found so much for this week’s post that it’s a mushroom-packed blog!

The wait is over, the mushrooms are arriving. I had the pleasure of a 10-mile walk in the New Forest in September. It was a warm and sunny day. It was a special walk because it revealed two species I have never seen before. One renowned for its edibility, the other for its deadliness.

The New Forest is a National Park and Special Area of Conservation. It’s of European importance with places left like it in the continent. Its mosaic of woodland and heath is maintained by free-roaming animals owned by commoners. This in ancient land management practice which, around Europe, is often responsible for the conservation of rare habitats and species. The New Forest was established by William the Conqueror at some point after 1086 when the Domesday Book was created. Its old name ‘Nova Foresta’ translates directly to its current name. It certainly ain’t new anymore.

It’s also more heathland than woodland, an open habitat. ‘Forest’ does not actually mean woodland. It means ‘outside of common law’ or a place where Forest Law was enacted. Forest Law was implemented by the Normans to ensure recreational hunting for the aristocracy was protected from the foraging and ‘poaching’ of local people. Its enactments were often violent. The Vederer’s court still exists in Lyndhurst, where hearings took place regarding acts committed within the Forest.

The New Forest is home to lots of spectacular ancient and veteran trees like the hollowed out beech tree above. It has a feel to it that is unlike other places. It is spectacularly rich in fungi, or at least, compared to other areas of the UK.

Much of the land is owned by Forestry England and they discourage foraging.

The first fungus I found was in a car park, on a bank under pine trees. It’s cauliflower fungus, looking a little bit dry in the sudden burst of warm weather. This is an edible species.

In the buttress of an old oak was this beefsteak fungus, a bracket that looks like human organs. It’s an edible species that has also led people to call the police, thinking that a crime had occurred in the woods!

The most common species of the 10 miles was sulphur tuft. It responds quickly to rain and was popping up in lots of places. This is one of the most common species in the UK and is also toxic.

There was a good showing from the russula family (AKA brittlegills). This one had already been picked.

The crowded gills of russulas are a sight to behold. They are, of course, brittle and so break easily. The gills and stipe are always white or cream.

Unless it’s blackening brittlegill!

Deeper into the woods, this greenish species of milkcap was abundant in certain areas alongside the track. They were under either spruce or pine, shown by the needles here. I’m not sure of the species but they may be either Lactarius deterrimus or Lactarius quieticolor.

I think this is the same species, overcome with a blue-green colouring.

This is a wood or field blewit, which are usually found in grassy areas.

This is my first deceiver of the season, so named because it can be confused for others. I have rarely found that to be the case, though! This is a mega-common species and is also edible. It’s said only to be worthwhile in large numbers.

This doesn’t look great but apparently it tastes it! I knew when I saw these apricot coloured fungi that they were hedgehogs. This is a first for me. I looked for the spikes underneath the caps. They are described by professional foragers as one of the safest species to eat. That’s because they’re impossible to confuse with others due to the spikes and that all the hedgehogs are edible.

This is how they look from afar, note the beech leaves for scale. They don’t look like much.

Conifer mazegill is one of my favourite species of polypore or bracket. I love the velvet-like yellow edge to the bracket. It is a beautiful fungus. I think it’s one I’ve only ever really seen in New Forest plantations or heaths.

Fungi is an acquired taste. This is probably egghead mottlegill, on horse or cattle dung! Stay classy. It was alongside a road at the edge of beech woodland.

I wrote about the amanita family a couple of weeks ago. They were out in force in the New Forest. This is the first fly agaric I’ve seen this year. September is a great month for this iconic species. It has such a depth of cultural significance it deserves its own post.

The blusher is a common amanita which is so named for its pinkish colouring. I’ve read that it’s edible, which is weird considering the consistently poisonous nature of the family.

These are probably panther caps, a leathery-looking shroom. I’m not 100% sure because they seem too big.

False deathcaps were common in Mark Ash Wood, the target for the walk itself. It’s a beautiful ancient woodland with an old stream and wet alder carr running throught its heart. It was in the damp area, on a mossy tree root, that I found a special mushroom:

I had to put this out to Twitter to be sure. I think this is a deathcap, one of the most poisonous mushrooms in the Northern Hemisphere. Another first for me! That is a mushroom that definitely needs a post of its own.

Thanks for reading.

More mushrooms