SI Vault
Robert F. Jones
May 14, 1984
It had been raining for nearly a week—one of those spells of icy, incessant spring rain of the higher latitudes that fills the glacial lakes to overflowing, turns every trout stream into a roaring, unfishable millrace and sends even the waterproof otter and muskrat scrambling for dry ground. The sort of rain that soaks your boots and trickles down your collar like a foretaste of the grave. It was a rain to make midwinter seem snug and cozy, to hold the hardiest of outdoorsmen close by the fireside. In short, fine weather for fungi.
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May 14, 1984

In Spring, Morel Lovers Mushroom In The Bosky Environs Of Boyne City

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Even if adult Americans are reluctant to seek out and eat wild mushrooms, Smith points out in his Guide that their babies darn well might. Children go through a "grazing" stage during which they'll sample anything. The spread of suburbia and the broad expanses of lawn it generates has opened up ideal mushroom terrain. Many species of poisonous fungi, including the often fatal Amanitas (Destroying Angels), thrive in suburban yards.

Unlike other plants, mushrooms cannot create their own sustenance; they have no chlorophyll, and many must rely on dead matter to feed themselves. (Some fungi prefer living flesh: athlete's foot and allied infections.) Their survival scheme is designed to break down and use the remains of other life-forms. Contrary to popular belief, they aren't the most primitive form in the evolutionary scheme of plant life, depending as they do on other plants (and, in many cases, animals) as food sources. Thus a suburban lawn, freshly bulldozed out of native or second-growth woodland where generations worth of life, both plant and animal, lie slowly decomposing, is prime ground for fungal growth.

The fairy ring sprouts overnight, near the roots of the dying oak in the front yard. Baby Tiffany crawls over the lawn while Mommy runs in to answer the phone. Tiny Tiff sees something white and soft and chewy.... Next stop: the emergency room and a stomach pump. If Tiffs lucky....

Of some 3,000 species of mushroom found in North America, only a few are poisonous Gust as only a few, at the other extreme, are eminently edible). The majority are neither tasty nor particularly dangerous, though some people are allergic to all kinds of mushrooms, even the commercial varieties. The best rule for a beginning mycophagist is to start with sound guidance, positive identification and young, healthy specimens thoroughly cooked and then consumed in small amounts. It's also a good idea to save a few specimens of the mushroom you're eating for the first time; if you do get sick, you'll have something to show the people at the Poison Center to get them started on your treatment.

At least six types of poison are found in mushrooms, and each works differently. According to the Guide, the cyclopeptide poisons are the worst. They're found in the Amanitas—especially A. bisporigera and A. virosa, the classic, pure-white, smooth-capped, gilled mushrooms of the northern woods east of the Great Plains and the higher country of the Southeast. (They're present but rare in the Northwest.) A. phalloides is an olive-gray to olive-yellow kinsman, equally lethal, that has been rare but has expanded its range coast to coast from Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The first symptoms of cyclopeptide poisoning appear from 10 to 14 hours after ingestion (though they may be delayed up to 48 hours): nausea, vomiting and bloody diarrhea. These symptoms abate quickly, and the victim may feel well enough to leave the hospital. Then on the second to fourth day: liver failure (and perhaps kidney failure as well) accompanied by stomach pain, jaundice, convulsions; then coma—and sometimes death. The poison apparently attacks the liver minutes after ingestion. There is no antidote, but with immediate treatment most patients recover. Whenever symptoms of mushroom poisoning begin six hours or more after eating, you should expect the worst—cyclopeptides.

Monomethylhydrazine, a complex organic compound similar to rocket fuel, also holds off for a while before beginning its dirty work, six to 12 hours usually, though sometimes as long as 24. Fatigue, headache, a "full" feeling, as well as abdominal pain, watery diarrhea and severe cramps are the indicators. In serious cases there can be fatal liver damage. Small children (because of their lesser body mass) and older people in poor health suffer the worst. Again, there is no antidote, but fast, sound medical care may save the victim. Unfortunately for mushroom hunters, this poison is found in three early-season 'roons that resemble the tasty, nonpoisonous morels, often growing side by side with them. These false morels, or lorchels, are the Gyromitra esculenta, G. ambigua and G. infula. Esculenta is also called the Beefsteak Morel or Bull-nose mushroom, because of its big, convoluted, reddish-brown to purple-brown head (the other two Gyromitras, closely related, are smaller and less wrinkled). "If it looks like a crushed, rusty tin can," says Smith Weber, "forget it." Mushroom myth has it that the Beefsteak can be rendered edible by parboiling it and discarding the water it was cooked in, and apparently some specimens contain no poison at all. Many mushroomers eat them, but Smith recommends avoiding them entirely. They grow in early spring, "when the serviceberries are blooming," says Smith, and can be found under balsam, pine and spruce and in mixed stands of pine and aspen.

Three other types of poison, less severe, make their effects known quickly, from 30 minutes to two hours after ingestion. Muscarine, seldom fatal in healthy adults, causes sweating, drooling, involuntary tears, cramps and constriction of the victim's pupils. It's the only form of mushroom poisoning for which an antidote is available—atropine, administered very cautiously. Most muscarine poisonings come from "little brown mushrooms," the notorious LBMs of emergency rooms and poison centers—such species as the Inocybes and some of the otherwise edible Boletes. Ibotenic acid and muscimol are found in less virulent Amanitas and cause dizziness, lack of coordination, hallucinations, cramps and deep dreamless sleep. Many people use them "recreationally," as Smith points out. This type of poison is "seldom if ever fatal," he writes, adding that he did hear of a case of a cat dying. Indeed, one of the culprits in this class, Amanita muscaria, is named after the Latin word for "fly," musca; the cap of a "fly mushroom," placed in a saucer of milk, will attract and kill houseflies. The mushroom itself has a warty, "cottage cheesy" cap in colors ranging from red through orange to yellowy white.

Other recreational 'roons contain psilocybin and psilocin, the compounds that alter moods, bring on hallucinations and sleep fraught with vivid dreams. Possession of the active chemicals are illegal—and on the Federal Government's list of controlled substances—but rarely fatal, though at least one death has been traced to these fungi. Some of these mushrooms grow on lawns in the hot, humid dog days of summer, others on manure piles and compost heaps and even in well-manured gardens.

Coprine poison, the mildest of these toxins, is dangerous only in combination with alcohol. It's found in the popular Inky Cap mushroom (Coprinus atramentarius), one of the most abundant of edible mushrooms, sprouting like a weed from spring to fall in rotting wood buried in lawns, in town dumps, in parks and gardens, even along city streets and old railroad tracks where the ties are decomposing. If you sip so much as a glass of wine with your Inky Caps, you may break out in a sweat, experience a metallic taste, blush bright red on neck and head, even become nauseous and vomit—symptoms that pass in two to four hours. Apparently the poison interferes with the body's ability to metabolize acetaldehyde, a byproduct of the digestion of alcohol.

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