August 23, 2008

Mushroom Season Makes the News

The proliferation of fungal fruiting bodies in Massachusetts this summer is making the news here. While that in itself is a good thing, the press always has to come up with an interesting angle that makes a story one of human interest. In the case of mushrooms, that usually winds up as warnings about mushroom poisonings. In fact, it's often about children being poisoned, even when it hasn't actually happened.

Still, I'm glad when my favorite kingdom gets some press, and in this case that press includes a television interview by WBZ with my PhD advisor:

WBZ-TV Massachusetts Mushroom Story Video
The story is a bit alarmist, of course, because that makes it interesting to people who normally don't care about mushrooms. The "won't somebody think of the children!" angle always sells. What the story also doesn't mention is that even most poisonous mushrooms aren't lethal mushrooms. They'll make you sick, but you won't die — although you might feel like you're going to. Of all the mushroom species found in North America, only a small fraction ever prove lethal, although I can certainly understand why the parent of some kid who eats a bit of an unidentified mushroom would be concerned. A good rule of thumb for reducing the risk if you happen to be a Massachusetts parent worried about your kid eating something nasty in your garden is to keep an eye out for any mushroom that has what looks like warts on its cap, a ring on its stem and a cup or collar at the base. Those are likely to be members of genus Amanita, and thus the most likely to be lethally poisonous. Go through the yard and remove them. They're generally among the more conspicuous fungi you'll see. You can remove every mushroom you see, but you're likely to spend a lot of time at it. Of course, you can also just keep a close watch on the kids, but it only takes a second of one's back being turned for a toddler to pop a bad fungus into his or her mouth. If you would like to see some of the various forms that Amanita can take, click here. Judging from what I've seen around town, the most common species right now is Amanita brunnescens, which has a cap colored various shades of brown and white to very light brown warts. It can get quite large and, while toxic, probably isn't going to cause death.

The Boston Globe is also running a story today on the prolific mushroom fruitings being seen in the area. It talks a bit more about amateur mycologists and not quite so much about the poisonings that haven't happened:

Everything's coming up mushrooms
Summer of rain has silver lining - a rare bonanza of fungi

By Tom Haines

No one loves the rewards of a rainy summer quite like a mycologist does.

"It's just, I'm telling you, cloud nine," said Elinoar Shavit of Concord.

Even on short walks, Shavit has easily spotted Boletus edulis (porcini), Craterellus fallax (black trumpet), Laetiporus sulphureus (chicken mushroom), and "chanterelles galore!"

After July brought twice the average rainfall to the region, prompting mycelium to fruit in abundance, mushroom maniacs - whether serious scientists or curious cooks - are reveling in a bounty seldom seen...

There are thousands of species of mushrooms that burst forth when conditions are right with bulbs and caps in craggy shelves and huddled clusters, and more. The mushrooms survive for a few hours or weeks, depending on species; some prefer spring, others summer or fall...

Shapes, colors, and composition also fascinate scientists and others who want to know exactly how things work. Experimenters of another sort favor certain mushrooms, which grow in New England only very occasionally but can cause hallucinations.

This year, though, even the usually disinterested among us are captivated by more kinds of mushrooms, in larger quantity - whether clumps of black trumpets or giant puffballs - popping up in the yard more or less overnight...

Local hospitals have seen a spike in calls, mostly from parents of toddlers who had popped mushrooms in their mouths. Most tastings have turned out to be harmless, and there have been no fatalities this year, according to Alfred Aleguas, clinical manager with the Regional Center for Poison Control and Prevention Serving Massachusetts and Rhode Island...

One close call came before a neighbor contacted Shavit, a contributing editor to Fungi magazine known for her ability to identify different species. The neighbor told Shavit she had picked 30 pounds of chanterelles, an elegant, edible specimen that is tasty when sauteed in oil with shallots and salt. On closer inspection, Shavit determined the suspected chanterelles were Omphalotus illudens, or Jack O' Lantern mushrooms, known to spur vomiting and diarrhea.

Norman "Dugie" Russell, who helps Children's Hospital Boston and Beverly Hospital with emergency mushroom identifications, warns casual pickers to study guidebooks and seek expert advice...
Again, the moral of the story here is pretty simple, aside from the fact that we mycologists and enthusiasts are having a wonderful year. If you don't know the difference between an Omphalotus and a Cantharellus on site, don't eat any mushrooms without having them identified by someone who has a grasp of diversity, because, frankly, it's very easy to tell those two genera apart. Omphalotus always grows on wood and has blade-like gills; Cantharellus grows on the ground and has vein-like "gills." If you think you've found some chanterelles (Cantharellus) and want to know for certain, please let me know. I'll be happy to take a look and tell you whether you've got the right mushrooms... for a small cut of your find, of course, if they do turn out to be chanterelles. I love the things. In fact, LL and I had some Craterellus cornucopioides for dinner just last night. They're my favorite.

It truly is an amazing year for mushrooms, whether they're edible or just beautiful. If you live in New England and have been curious to learn about fungi, this is the time to do it. Contact your local mycological society and get out on a few forays. A better year for sheer numbers and diversity is unlikely to come your way for another decade or two. You can find contact information for amateur mycological societies throughout the United States courtesy of the North American Mycological Association. Here are the ones in New England:
  • Connecticut:
    Berkshire Mycological Society
    c/o Jim Berlstein
    PO Box 247
    Norfolk, CT 06058-0247
    email: berkshiremycology [at]

    Connecticut Valley Mycological Society
    129 Stockburger Rd
    Moodus, CT 06469-1042
    email: janblanchard [at]

  • Maine:
    Maine Mycological Society
    216 Huff's Mill Rd.
    Bowdoin, ME 04287-7138
    email: mjpmm955i [at]

  • Massachusetts:
    Boston Mycological Club
    20 Shirley St
    Ayer, MA 01432-1208
    email: georgeriner [at]

  • New Hampshire:
    Monadnock Mushroomers Unlimited
    PO Box 1796
    Keene, NH 03431-1796
    email: beewing [at]

  • Northeastern US:
    Northeast Mycological Federation
    email: ursula.hoffmann [at]

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