Mushrooms: A Cautionary Tale

Natalie Sell | May 9th, 2019

It’s been over a year now since the incident that solidified my respect for fungus. It began at dinner when a family friend remarked that we had an edible mushroom in our front yard. “Chicken of the woods!” he exclaimed. My family was skeptical, of course. The mushroom in question was a bright, neon orange that warned of toxic flesh. Nevertheless, our friend insisted that he knew what he was talking about. He periodically went on foraging trips with experts in search of the best edible mushrooms Michigan had to offer, so he considered himself a professional. The dinner ended with us making him promise to leave the mushroom alone, which he good-humoredly agreed to.

Later that night, we got a call from his daughter. We learned that after the dinner ended, he went out to our yard, took the mushroom, cooked it, and ate it. She reported that he’d been throwing up for six hours. In a whirlwind series of events, my mom drove to their house and took him to the ER, which he kept insisting wasn’t necessary between bouts of throwing up. Thankfully, he was fine after the rest of the mushroom passed out of his system. He still refuses to admit he was wrong whenever the story of the colossally stupid decision is brought up.

“Chicken of the woods,” surprisingly, is actually a common name for a genus of edible mushrooms: Laetiporus-also known as the chanterelle. It’s named for its taste, which some claim is similar to chicken. The mushroom goes for about $12-$25 per pound. This type of mushroom is one of the most well-known types of edible mushroom in Michigan. However, that doesn’t mean that just anyone can go out and correctly identify it. With so many lookalikes, it’s dangerous to go mushroom hunting, as evidenced by the story above.

Laetiporus, also known as the "Chicken of the Woods"

With the information I have now, I suspect that the mushroom in my yard may have been an Omphalotus illudens: the Jack O’Lantern mushroom. Commonly mistaken for the edible chanterelle, the Jack O’Lantern is a toxic fungus that results in severe cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting when ingested. These symptoms aren’t fatal but are often serious enough to send one to the emergency room. The mushrooms are known to be bioluminescent, so mushroom enthusiasts collect them to observe their faint green glow.

Omphalotus illudens, also known as the Jack O’Lantern mushroom

The variety of lookalike mushrooms that professionals warned against led me to research what species actually grew in my vicinity. Michigan is home to 2,500 species of mushroom. Out of that, only 60-100 varieties are edible, and even they can require special preparation. The most famous, of course, is the coveted morel. The morel has thus far stumped researchers by refusing to grow in regulated environments, making them impossible to cultivate. The reason these mushrooms are so valuable is their rarity; each mushroom must be discovered in the wild. If cooked properly, these fleshy mushrooms are perfectly fit for consumption. But foragers must keep in mind that different people may have allergies or intolerances to fungi that they don’t know about.

Foraging for mushrooms can be a dangerous pastime, and participants must be incredibly aware of the risks. Accounting for the inedible and toxic varieties, lookalikes, personal intolerances, and reactions with other foods is a lot to think about, but it’s necessary to stay safe. So take a lesson from my friend, and don’t eat random mushrooms you find growing in the woods. Or in your yard.


Created with an image by Peter Oslanec - "untitled image"

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