Eating Wild Mushrooms
by Michael Kuo
You may be surprised when I tell you that I don't eat many wild mushrooms, even after many years of experience collecting and trying to identify just about any fungus I can find. The truth is I'm scared of being poisoned--and my main goal writing this page is to make you scared, too. Eating wild mushrooms is far more dangerous than most people suspect--a fact that is made clear by the many e-mails I receive from people who have found mushrooms, have no idea what they are or how one would go about identifying them, and are considering cooking them up for dinner.
Just so we're clear about what the risks are, here is a photo by contributor Dianna Smith:
. . . and before you decide that the tombstone above is obviously very old, from a time when people weren't as smart as we are now, I invite you to read the North American Mycological Association's 2004 Report detailing the mushroom-consumption deaths of three people and eight dogs in the United States for the most recent year the report is available.
For information on some of the toxins in poisonous mushrooms, please see Mushroom Toxins.
Accurate Mushroom Identification Takes Years of Practice
Mushrooms are not like most other organisms we are used to seeing in nature and identifying with field guides or pictures on the Internet. While there are about 200 species of trees native to North America, there are tens of thousands of fungal species, many of which are currently undocumented by science. And while identifying trees can be frustrating (have you ever tried to decide if you were looking at a Black Oak or a Northern Red Oak?), it can usually be accomplished with some patience and a good guide to trees. Not so with mushrooms. Identification often requires the use of a microscope and highly technical scientific literature--and there is no one on earth who can look at any mushroom you find and tell you what it is.
My book 100 Edible Mushrooms (2007) advises readers not to eat any mushrooms they pick in the wild for one to three years after beginning to study these fascinating organisms. It really does take this much time to develop the knowledge base and observation skills required to avoid accidentally poisoning yourself. The strategy I use in the book is to begin the process by focusing on store-bought mushrooms, exploring their features and details--then gradually transferring this knowledge to the woods. I believe that if you are the slightest bit impatient with this learning process, you risk death.
I have been collecting mushrooms for about 15 years. In that time period two mushrooms widely proclaimed in field guides to be safe edibles (orange-capped species of Leccinum and Tricholoma flavovirens) have been discovered to be poisonous. This fact is particularly troublesome, since the possibility obviously remains for other mushrooms we currently assume to be safe.
Learning about Mushrooms
If you have an interest in learning about mushrooms--and you are willing to abandon the idea of spending a few minutes on the Internet looking at pictures in order to find out whether you can eat a mushroom you've found in the wild--I invite you to join me and the thousands of people who have mushrooming as a hobby. To get started, I have three recommendations for you:
I have provided only a representative sample, and I have not included any searches that probably represented typing mistakes and were immediately followed by searches with corrected spellings. My point should be obvious: All kinds of people who can't even spell "hallucinogen," "Psilocybe," (or even "magic") are cruising the Internet trying to figure out how to pick wild mushrooms and get high. If you are one of these people (as soon as I publish this page, the search engines will catch the misspellings and lead you here), I am not trying to make you feel like an idiot. Despite two graduate degrees in English, I have to pull out my driver's license to check the spelling of license every time I have to write the word.
But I do want to convince you (and people who can spell "hallucinogen" but also want to pick hallucinogenic mushrooms) to drop the idea immediately; you are going to kill yourself. I am not some stuck-up old man who cares whether you take (safe) drugs. I am just worried about your safety. Please take the time to read the rest of the material on this page; you will see why it is a very bad idea to try eating magic mushrooms you have picked in the wild.