With names like puffball, fairy ring and bird's nest, it's hard to take some fungi seriously. But, as mushroom experts know, even the most innocent-looking toadstool sprouting from your lawn can be a life or death matter.
This is an especially important reminder in the fall months, when mushroom hunters across the country are trolling damp grass and groves in search of savory, golden chanterelles, meaty maitake mushrooms and other edible fungi.
Many look just like the ones in grocery stores, but they may not be safe to eat.
For 20 years, Farr has been a point person for several Washington, D.C.-area hospitals treating patients who've eaten a suspicious, potentially poisonous mushroom. Treatment depends, in part, on how deadly the ingested mushroom is - which is why a quick and accurate identification by a fungus expert is critical.
In some instances, Farr has been able to rule out that the mushroom in question is lethal, allowing a patient to avoid the uncomfortable procedure of having his or her stomach pumped.
Technological advances, like cell phones and digital cameras, are making Farr's job easier. He used to rely on descriptions given over the phone, but hospital staff can now send him a digital picture of the fungal specimen in seconds.
Most of the cases Farr has encountered involve one of two groups: curious adults who can't resist nibbling on pretty-looking mushrooms growing in their yards, or young children who don't know better than to pluck a toadstool and take a bite.
of the Wild
cultures in Europe and Southeast Asia collect and eat wild mushrooms,
it is not something amateurs should emulate, says Charles Mims, a plant
pathologist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental
Sciences. “Collecting mushrooms is a big part of these
cultures, and it’s a skill that is taught from one generation
to the next.".
Get a Guide
To learn which
mushrooms are edible, buy a good mushroom identification book or join a
mushroom club. Some clubs organize mushroom walks and then meet to
identify the samples they collect.
The safest way to get wild mushrooms is to go to a restaurant that serves them or buy direct from a commercial provider.
Direct from the Grower
North American Mushrooms
A Field Guide to Edible and Inedible Fungi
Mushrooms as Functional Foods
Chanterelle Dreams, Amanita Nightmares
The Love, Lore, and Mystique of Mushrooms