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I had no intention of looking for certain mushrooms. I figured the best policy was to stick to those that were known safe, and other than allergic type sensitivities, eat and sell only those mushrooms that were absolutely recommended edibles.
That changed one afternoon as I drove home following the first fall rains. Parasol type mushrooms EVERYWHERE. They were Chlorophyllum Molybdites. The Green Spored Parasol. Renowned for causing more mushroom poisonings each year than any other mushroom, simply because they can be difficult to differentiate from Shaggy Parasol mushrooms (the key is that Shaggies grow in the woods and near the woods, Green Spored grows in meadows, pastures, lawns, and other mowed areas).
In the interest of studying them, I gathered a few. And I learned some really interesting things.
- HANDLING Chlorophyllum Molybdites is sufficient to make you sick. I gathered them twice, about a week apart. I handled them with bare hands. Both times I experienced nausea and general weakness and fatigue starting about 18 hours after handling them, which lasted about 24 hours. This is RARE among mushrooms, I've handled many others since and no other poisonous mushroom has done this.
- Green Spored Parasols grown in lawns that have been treated with herbicides do not show strong green coloration to the gills. They may show none at all, even when fairly mature. Those grown on untreated pastures show the green spore color much sooner, and are easier to detect. Conclusion: Do not gather any kind of Parasol Mushroom from a lawn that has been treated, or which MIGHT have been treated, with herbicides - you need those green spores to show up to identify the mushroom.
- It is actually edible. Yeah. I tried it. In fact, there are reports from other people eating this and NOT getting sick from it. But there is a catch! Turns out, ALL Shaggy Parasol mushrooms are suspect. The ones recommended as good edibles ALL come with a warning - Make sure you COOK them thoroughly. Otherwise they cause digestive upset. That is all Molybdites does - it just causes SEVERE gastric upset (we are talking potential bleeding bowels here, not something you want to flirt with). So I hypothesized that whatever it is in the other Shaggy Parasols that cooks out, is probably the same thing in Molybdites. Just MORE OF IT. So COOK LONGER. I did. I boiled them for 20 minutes. Ate a small sample like I would with any first time mushroom - much smaller with this one since it had a higher likelihood of causing a problem. My husband had some too. No sign of anything. No nausea, no stomach upset, nothing. The rule about cooking is true of a LOT of suspect mushrooms - number one reason why some people get sick from something, and others do not, is insufficient cooking time. Typically boiling 10 minutes, or frying until crispy is sufficient. With Molybdites, double the boiling time, and frying until crispy is insufficient, it must be cooked additionally at a lower temp (so it won't burn). Helpful to know if you are ever in a survival situation, but still best to start with small amounts and work up, since no two people react the same to any mushroom.
- It has potential medicinal benefits. The thing that makes you sick is also an anti-cancer, anti-viral agent. Simply handling the mushroom is sufficient to do the job - of course, since it is also the thing that makes you sick, it is like a lot of medications with side effects. Not something you want to play around with unless you are in a situation where it is needed, and more reliable medical care is not available. I am NOT recommending that you treat yourself. Just providing information, which you are responsible to verify.
That was our first foray into foraging. Since then, I've encountered many mushrooms that are labeled with cautions in the guidebooks, or that many people fear eating, but which others eat with confidence. I have found value in consuming a surprising number of these.
An astonishing number of mushrooms considered to be fine edibles do come with warnings. Matsutake, Wine Caps, Blewits, Chicken of the Woods (L. Conifericola - grows on conifers, especially), Morels, Brown Beech, Hedgehog, Shiitake, and many others come with warnings to not eat them raw, or that they may cause sensitivities. So one of the only differences between some of the "suspect" mushrooms and "safe" mushrooms is that there is a general popularity of one, and no popularity on the part of the other.
Now... I am NOT hasty about consumption. I am not careless about it. I am in fact, very CAUTIOUS, and when a mushroom is listed as having a potential issue, I make DARN SURE I know how to avoid that issue before I dive in.
- I make sure I know for certain the color of the edible Amanitas, and the differences in Amanita look-alikes, so I don't make a deadly mistake.
- I make sure I taste test virtually EVERY Russula I find, and every single one, even if from the same patch, if there is ANY difference in appearance.
- I make sure that EVERY Agaricus that I find is smell tested. I have found 3-5 different strains of Agaricus Subrutilescens all within the same large patch, with phenolic ones nestled right next to savory anise scented ones. So I smell test them all.
- I make sure I know how to overcome any potential problems - by cooking, eating only caps, avoiding alcohol, etc.
But I have learned that many times, when a mushroom is suspect, there is a REASON why. And there is a METHOD to make it safe.
The number one reason for a mushroom to be safe for 90% of consumers and a problem for the other 10% is that it is not cooked sufficiently. Many unsafe compounds evaporate during cooking, and some amino acids convert when exposed to heat. Cooking well is the rule with ALL wildcrafted mushrooms.
Pleurocybella Porrigens (Angel Wing Oyster) is a mushroom I never intended to gather. But as we tromped through the forest one fall, during a period between seasons, there it was. An entire large Douglas Fir stump COVERED in the things. I had never seen it except in pictures, but I KNEW what that was. I instantly knew it was not Pleurotus Ostreatus. It just looks more transparent and ruffly. Next thing I know, we are gathering it and putting it in our basket.
Research indicates that this is another one that depends highly on cooking times - I learned this after I brought home the basket full, but BEFORE I ate any. It has an unstable amino acid - aminos convert under high heat, remember? So it requires sufficient cooking to ensure that it has converted. Since it is a thin and delicate looking mushroom, people tend to not want to cook it long - that is a mistake. Cook it well, and risks diminish.
The next reason for the "I ate it and it was good but someone else ate it and it gave them a belly ache." reports, is hybridization of mushrooms. Mycellium sort of mingles underground sometimes, and an unsafe mushroom can encounter a safe species of the same genus, and end up mingling. You can end up with a mushroom that KEYS as a suspect, but which has been overtaken by a mushroom that is NOT suspect. So you get conflicting reports about it. We have A. Placomyces that have been overcome by something that keys out to A. Tennuiannulatus. The Placomyces is now red capped, and smells of almonds, though the cap still has the characteristic black Placomyces markings. Yeah... it IS Placomyces, we gathered it in the dripline of a Hemlock giant one fall, and a few weeks later gathered the pink ones from the same spot - and could see whiter ones on the side of the patch away from where the Tennuiannulatus grows (pinker ones here, less pink ones in the middle, even less pink on the other side), and the pinker they are, the more almondy they smell. The pink color and almond scent are gradually spreading through the Placomyces patch.
Anyway, many mushrooms do that - and you may never see the types of mycellium that are interacting with one another, because they often bear at different times. So when you get a report of "poisonous but some people report eating this without problems", it is possible that their particular patch of the poisonous mushroom has been hybridized into something not quite true to species.
The third reason why you run into "this is safe.. oh wait, maybe not... then again..." reports, is mistaken identity. I see SO many examples of mistaken identity online, with pictures that are simply NOT what they say they are. Mistaken identity is responsible for far more mushroom problems than people realize, and with mushrooms that are actually quite easy to identify if you pay attention to the key indicators for that species. The point being, when you get a conflicting report on edibility, make sure your ID is correct, and you will reduce the chances of having issues.
A fourth reason is that some mushrooms should not be consumed in large quantities OR with alcohol. Wine Cap mushrooms are one such mushroom - it is reportedly a delicious mushroom, but consuming it in large amounts, or day after day, can cause digestive upset. Many mushrooms do not interact well with alcohol. So if a mushroom is questionable, research to find out if there is not just a caution about edibility, but a REASON, or a GUIDELINE. In most cases, cooking time will ALSO affect these two reasons!
We gathered some Stropharia Ambigua one day. My first time seeing this mushroom. Lovely yellow caps with lace dangling from the edges. I picked a promising looking specimen and hauled it home to see if I could ID it (my only find on a fall day between seasons... but we also located an absolutely HUGE area where the elk and deer had been bedding down... a LOT of elk and deer, so the trek out was not a waste of time).
Got the mushroom home, and started trying to find a yellow capped mushroom that fit. I was not yet well enough versed with the various classes of mushrooms to even categorize it. I knew that the fragile spiky looking veil had to be important, and I KNEW it was not a yellow Amanita (a potential look-alike) because this one had very definitely gray gills. So I was searching using both the internet and software, and suddenly it clicked that I should try Stropharia because of the gray gills. Sure enough, the third one down was Stropharia Ambigua, and there was no mistaking it! But every account said, "Unknown", "Not recommended", "Inedible", or "Conflicting reports of edibility". Until I got to one rather in-depth article that not only told me that it IS indeed edible, but also gave me an identifying odor for it which TOTALLY confirmed the ID! Since it is a prevalent mushroom in some regions, it is worth knowing that it is in fact edible if prepared correctly, and the conditions that make it NOT safe to eat.
As I was reading the info on edibility, something else clicked. King Stropharia is known for causing digestive upset if insufficiently cooked, or if overindulged. Why wouldn't this one be the same? It may have a slightly lower threshold, but would follow essentially the same rules: No more than a moderate serving, and not two days in a row. That is actually a rule I use for MOST mushrooms that I am not highly experienced with, it just gets maintained with Stropharias.
I have also gathered Lepiota Aspera, which is ONLY toxic if consumed with alcohol. As safe as any other edible mushroom if no alcohol is served. Of course, it can cause a reaction a couple of days later if you have alcohol then. But the reaction is not fatal, it just makes you feel yucky. Since I'm a tea-totaler, I have no qualms about consuming this mushroom.
A fifth minor reason is that many mushrooms should only have caps consumed, not stems. Just a few have higher concentrations of certain elements in the stems. This is a prevalent enough reason that many mushrooms come with a "caps only" warning.
The last reason for reports of inedibility is fear due to insufficient experience. This is especially an issue with North American mushrooms. Many European mushrooms have been ID'd here, but others are not so certain. There are also varieties here that just do not have the long history to know what is and is not edible. Sometimes it just is not worth the risk. Sometimes edibility IS known, but the author cannot find it listed, so they write "unknown", or "inedible" just to cover themselves in liability situations. I find this a lot with Russulas and Agaricus, even though there is an easy way to tell with each what is and is not edible. Also, because of mistaken identity fears, many mushroom hunters label all of certain species as inedible - such as Amanitas, Blue Staining Boletes, etc, even though this is not accurate. Deeper research, and knowing the tests for edibility within a genus (when one exists... it doesn't always) is the key to ascertaining correct information regarding what is and is not safe with lesser known edibles.
The problem is that we have lost SO much knowledge of edible wild foods. In many cases where edibility is suspect, it is WORTH searching out that knowledge, so that it can be returned to the body of common use and reference. It is not worth taking random risks. But it IS worth taking the time to learn how to REDUCE the risks so they are reasonable.
- In general, if the mushroom is considered safe, with just a few reports of suspect poisonings, then it is likely that the poisonings were a result of insufficient cooking, or mistaken identity (mistaking a poisonous mushroom for a safe one).
- If the reports are that the mushroom is poisonous but there are a few exceptions to the reports, then it is likely an issue of hybridization or mistaken identity in the other direction.
As I said, I am NOT heedless. I am very cautious. But once I have thoroughly researched, and am certain of the identity of a mushroom (or know a solid rule for determining edibility where ID is ambiguous as it is with Russulas and Agaricus), I am CONFIDENT. You just can't eat ANY mushroom unless you are confident, but that does not mean you are a careless risk taker. It just means you do the necessary homework to make sure your confidence is well-founded.
I think part of the reason I have crossed those initial boundaries is knowledge. I now know more than I did when I set those boundaries. But I think part of it is also opportunity. When you are living more off the land, and depending on it more for your livelihood, you are more compelled to use what is available. And if suspect mushrooms are what is in season, you go out of your way to make sure that they actually are NOT worth the risk before you pass them by and let good food go begging.
Keep the rules for items that are new to you in mind:
- Gather them yourself. Make sure of where they are coming from, and when growing location is a key identifier, make sure you keep look-alikes gathered from different environments in separate corners of the basket.
- Be sure of your ID. If you are not sure of the mushroom ID, don't eat it. Bring samples home - various ages is possible, and always with the ENTIRE mushroom, including root base. Do the spore print, bruising test, smell test. Do a taste test if that is a key indicator and minimal risk. Whether or not you use KOH, or other solutions to test, or buy a microscope is up to you, but if you don't, then stick to mushrooms that can be ID'd or edibility checked without those items.
- If it is questionable, find out WHY, to see if you can reduce the risks.
- Eat caps only on any suspect or new to you mushroom.
- Cook the mushroom well. With any new mushroom, cook it well.
- Avoid alcohol with wild mushrooms. It conflicts with too many.
- Consume a small portion the first time. Wait a day or two before having more, and try a larger portion if you did not experience any problems from the first meal.
- If you prepare a mushroom that is toxic ONLY WITH ALCOHOL, then DO NOT SERVE IT TO GUESTS. Even if you warn them, don't serve it! Because closet alcoholics won't be honest about when they last drank, and won't have the courage to avoid eating it either. Since some can have effects for 2-3 days after consumption, you don't want to send your guests home with a time bomb in case they forget and accidentally take a drink, or start chugging the cough syrup.
- It helps to keep a piece of it on hand, or another specimen on hand, just in case you made a mistake. But if you follow the first few rules, you AREN'T GOING TO MAKE DEADLY MISTAKES.
- Please write about your experience. It helps other people learn more about how to safely eat what is available to them.
Be careful. But learn WHY items are classed as they are. Then you can be confident about your own set of safety rules, no matter where you determine the line should be drawn.