May 20, 2011

Poisonous Mushrooms

Mushrooms can be a delicious addition to our meals. However, not all mushrooms are safe to eat. With more people foraging for wild foods, the chance of misadventure is increasing.

How can I tell if a mushroom is poisonous?

Dr. Denis Benjamin, author of Mushrooms: Poisons and Panaceas helped the Burke Museum answer this question.

There is no one, simple rule that can be relied on to tell the difference between a poisonous and an edible mushroom. The best advice is to invest in a series of beginners classes to gain the basic knowledge of identifying mushrooms. These are offered by local mushroom clubs, such as the Puget Sound Mycological Society, universities or community colleges.

The three most dangerous types of mushrooms are false morels, amanitas and little brown mushrooms. While some wild mushrooms have few toxic impostors, such as the chanterelle, others have to be very carefully and positively identified before being added to the stew.

Poisonous mushroom Amanita muscaria var. Formosa, photo courtesy of Marilyn Morill Droege

Unfortunately, the Death Cap (Amanita phalloides) has been migrating up the west coast from California and has made a number of appearances in Washington and British Columbia in the past few years, resulting in some serious poisonings. With the coming spring mushroom season, differentiating the delicious true morel from the potentially toxic false-morel look-a-likes is a skill easily acquired if one is made aware of the differences.

If you'd like to become a mushroom forager and mycophagist (mushroom eater), the Puget Sound Mycological Society is a great resource for mushroom identification clinics, classes and workshops.

The Burke Museum partners with the Seattle PI's Big Blog to answer commonly asked questions about the natural and cultural history of our region. This post originally appeared on the Big Blog on May 14.

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