Dangers of hunting wild mushrooms

COLUMBUS – For many Ohioans, spring means it is time to head for the woods and hunt for mushrooms. But be careful of what you pick.

Some poisonous mushrooms can look similar to edible varieties, said Lanny Rhodes, Ohio State University associate professor of plant pathology.

Mushrooms pose danger.

If people mistakenly eat a poisonous mushroom, they could become seriously ill, or even die, Rhodes said.

“You should always know what type of mushroom you are picking,” he said. “Never eat anything if you’re not absolutely sure what it is.”

In Ohio, there are nearly 2,000 kinds of wild mushrooms in a variety of forms, colors and textures. Mushroom varieties grow from early spring through late fall, with most species appearing in the fall.

The good kind.

But when most people think of mushrooms, they think of the edible morel or sponge mushrooms, Rhodes said.

Morels have a white, gray or yellowish stem with a brown, black or yellow cap that is pitted or sponge-like with a pointed appearance.

“Morels are the most hunted and they grow strictly in the spring in Ohio – from March through early May, depending on temperatures and location,” he said.

“That’s why the typical mushroom collecting time for most people is the spring.”

What are mushrooms?

A mushroom is the fruiting body of a fungus. The microscopic, threadlike fungi grow on dead organic matter such as leaves, wood, grass thatch or dung, depending on the species.

When the fungus has stored enough nutrients, and there is sufficient moisture, it grows a mushroom, which produces and releases spores.

Mushrooms are most common in woodlands or other areas with high levels of organic matter. They often help break down logs, leaves, stems and other organic debris.

Many species are specific about their food source and will be found only under or near certain kinds of trees.

The dangers.

The potential danger of picking morel mushrooms for food is that poisonous false morel, or Gyromitra, mushrooms look similar to morels, grow in the same places and during the same time of year, Rhodes said.

“Mushroom hunters should watch out for false morels, because they are poisonous and potentially deadly,” he said.

The effect of eating poisonous false morels varies by the individual. Some people could eat them with little or no effect, while others could die, Rhodes said.

Most deadly mushroom.

The most deadly Ohio mushrooms are the Amanitas, which typically appear in the late summer and fall. They are pure white with an egg-shaped cup at the base and a skirt-like ring on the stem just below the cap of the mushroom.

Symptoms of Amanita mushroom poisoning usually appear from six to 24 hours after eating and include abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and other forms of gastric distress.

“The danger is that the symptoms then lapse for a while and people think they are safe,” he said. “But then the symptoms come back, along with liver or kidney failure, convulsions, coma and sometimes death.”

The people most commonly poisoned by mushrooms are people from foreign countries who mistake a poisonous U.S. mushroom for a species from their country that is edible, Rhodes said.

Know the difference.

“If you enjoy hunting mushrooms, you need to identify with certainty one of the proven edible species and pick and eat only those positively identified,” he said.

“You should also learn to identify some of the common poisonous mushrooms, especially those that are similar to edible kinds.”

One good way to learn the difference between edible and poisonous mushrooms is to get and study some of the standard mushroom field guides, such as the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms or Peterson’s Field Guide to Mushrooms of North America, he said.

There also is a lot of good information about mushrooms available on the Internet, as long as it is from a reputable source.

Resources.

Mushroom enthusiasts can join the Ohio Mushroom Society to learn more about the various mushroom species.

More information about the Ohio Mushroom Society is available on its Web site: www.denison.edu/ohmushroom/.

Do not trust old, unsafe methods of detecting edible versus poisonous mushrooms, such as if a mushroom peels it can be eaten, or all mushrooms in meadows or pastures are safe to eat. There is always an exception to each of these rules, Rhodes said.

“Clean the mushrooms you gather, in some cases boil them, and make sure you know what you have,” he said. “Mushrooms are not worth getting sick or risking your life over.”

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