Tag Archives: poisonous fungi

Three Serious English Poisonous Mushroom Incidents in 3 weeks

Email: geoff@geoffdann.co.uk


Deadly Webcap (Cortinarius rubellus)

There has been a spate of poisonings and near-poisonings involving wild fungi in England this August. That they happened in August is itself unusual – in many years the toxic species involved haven’t even started fruiting by now. This year the main fungi season has started early, and some species have been fruiting very abundantly, and this includes some of the most dangerous poisonous species. Combined with the ever-increasing number of people foraging for fungi in the UK, a spate of incidents involving poisonous varieties was probably inevitable. However, these incidents expose a persistent myth – a hangover from our long-standing mycophobia. The impression given is that fungi foraging is a dangerous pastime and even “experts” can get into serious trouble. This is simply not true, as anybody who really does know what they are doing will confirm.

The first case involved some fungi picked on Dartmoor about three weeks ago. It has not, to my knowledge, been reported in the national media, but the victim’s friend’s sister notified the

Wood Blewit (Lepista nuda)

foraging community via social media. She told us that the victim “knows his mushrooms”, and that he had offered his friend some too, but she had rejected them because they were too infested with insect grubs. The insect grubs wouldn’t have harmed her, but had she eaten the fungi then she might have died. The victim is currently in hospital, on dialysis, suffering from kidney failure and in need of a transplant. Within a couple of days, confirmation emerged of the species involved: the victim had mistaken a Deadly Webcap (Cortinarius rubellus) for a Wood Blewit (Lepista nuda). The discussion on social media immediately turned to how this could possibly have happened. How could somebody who “knows his mushrooms” have made this particular mistake? The answer is that this is simply not possible. Blewits are blueish-purple-grey, and while there are plenty of Webcaps which are a similar colour, one or two of which are indeed easily mistaken for Blewits, Deadly Webcaps are red-orange. The two fungi also have very different gills and grow at different times of the year – you wouldn’t expect to find a Wood Blewit in England before October, even in a year where everything is early. In short, this is precisely the sort of mistake a novice would make, not an experienced shroomer.

Thai Death Soup (photo by Stephanie Jayne Thomas)

The second case involved absolute beginners: two Thai ladies who had never been mushroom foraging before. They had encountered a local forager who’d been picking Blushers (Amanita rubescens), and they decided to pick some for themselves. What they didn’t know was that beginners and Blushers don’t mix well, because it is far too easy to mistake a Panthercap (Amanita pantherina) for a Blusher, and Panthercaps are dangerously poisonous. These two ladies were lucky enough to run into some people from Glamorgan Fungi Group, who, having noticed their bucket full of Blushers, asked them what they were doing. They offered to go through the collection, and check to see whether any Panthercaps had crept in by mistake. No Panthercaps turned up, but something far worse did. In amongst the Blushers were some Deathcaps. More than enough to kill not only these two Thai ladies, but most of their families as well, had they got home and made the wild mushroom soup they had planned. No experienced forager would have made this mistake either. (And I’m not even going to start on the state of this pile of mushrooms, ruined by dirt even without the lurking Deathcaps – what a pointless waste).

A third case emerged yesterday, reported in a local newspaper in Essex. Details are scarce, but what we do know is that an “experienced mushroom picker” who lives in Southend has eaten a Deathcap and has been “hospitalised for several days with severe illness”. It might be true that this was an experienced forager, but I simply don’t believe it. These stories get reported like this, both by the traditional media and on social media, by people who do not understand the risks associated with fungi foraging. Yes, it can be dangerous, but only if you are over-confident, foolish or complacent. “Experienced foragers” do not make these sorts of mistakes – only people who themselves do not know much about fungi make the claim that “even experienced foragers can easily make fatal mistakes”, and this includes both journalists and friends of victims.

Deathcap (Amanita phalloides), deadly but does not really look like either The Blusher or a Panthercap, regardless of being related.

Foraging for fungi is perfectly safe provided you take the time to educate yourself about the risks. The two species of fungi involved in these incidents are very well known, and have been responsible for countless previous poisonings worldwide. For any particular edible species, we know what you are likely to confuse them with, and how to tell them apart. The people who end up poisoning themselves (and their friends and families) are nearly always either beginners who didn’t understand the risks, people who are foraging in foreign lands with unfamiliar fungi, or people who made a very stupid mistake that could easily have been avoided. The truth is that people who do take their time, make a bit of effort to learn about fungi and then take a reasonable amount of care, do not end up eating any poisonous wild fungi.

If you want to learn more about safely foraging for fungi then there’s two things you need to two. The first is to buy a good book (mine came out last year, and is the most comprehensive and up-to-date book on fungi foraging in northern Europe).  For details see the link at the top of this page, or reviews on Amazon . The second is to go on a forage (for food) or a foray (just about mushrooms) with somebody who really does know what they are doing, because this greatly accelerates the rate at which you can learn.

Below are some photos of the fungi involved in the recent incidents, and some other of the “usual suspects”  and I’ll leave you with one other comment posted on social media a couple of days ago:

“Has anyone ever eaten a poisonous mushroom? I know they all have varying effects but is the worse that can happen sickness and or diarrhoea? I’m more up for trying mushrooms but my other half is really adamant unless we can know 100% what it is which I find hard as a lot have poisonous look alikes”.

The Blusher (Amanita rubescens), edible but looks like a Panthercap.

Panthercap (Amanita pantherina), poisonous but looks like The Blusher.

Fool’s Funnel (Clitocybe rivulosa), another well-known seriously toxic species, though rarely deadly.

Livid Pinkgill (Entoloma sinuatum), just about as dangerous as a mushroom gets without actually being deadly.

Deadly Fibrecap (Inocybe erubescens) (photo by Andrea Kunze)


Sheathed Woodtuft: Too Dangerous to Eat?


There are quite a few poisonous/edible lookalike pairs of species of fungi.

The most famous of these pairs is probably the death cap (Amanita phalloides) and the horse mushrooom (Agaricus arvensis), but there really isn’t any excuse for getting these two confused.  Yes, they look rather similar, and they can grow in similar places, but a death cap emerges from a sac (a “volva”) and a horse mushroom does not.  In other words, provided you do a bit of basic research, and keep your eye on the ball when it matters, then there is no reason to worry too much about getting them mixed up.

It is considerably easier to confuse fool’s funnel (Clitocybe rivulosa) with the miller (Clitopilus prunulus), and although the C. rivulosa is less dangerous than a death cap, it is still dangerous enough to regard the very-tasty miller as a species which should be left alone until you have got a good idea what you are doing.  You certainly shouldn’t go near it until you’re absolutely certain you know how to identify the poisonous Clitocybes.   But again…there’s no reason to regard the miller as too dangerous to eat.

The same cannot be said of sheathed woodtuft (Kuehneromyces mutabilis).

Sheathed woodtuft (Kuehneromyces mutabilis)

Sheathed woodtuft (Kuehneromyces mutabilis)

This species, I have recently discovered, is very tasty indeed.  I now regard it amongst the very best of the edible wild fungi – one of the few that are worthy of being included in a recipe specifically as the main source of flavouring for the dish.  It is also common – not very common, but common enough that I expect to find it every year, and with the added advantage of regularly appearing outside of the main mushroom season, as well as fruiting in abundance more often than not.

So what’s the problem?  The problem is that this one has a lookalike that is not only deadly (containing the same toxins as the deadly amanitas), but which is extremely difficult to reliably distinguish from sheathed woodtuft.   It goes by the name of “funeral bell” (Galerina marginata) and it is a species for which I had been searching, without success, for over a decade.  Maybe I was missing it, or perhaps I was mis-identifying it as a Psathyrella, or a member of some other group that is of little interest to foragers.  I suspect, though, that I just wasn’t lucky (or maybe unlucky) enough to find it.

I have always had a rule, you see, about edible/poisonous pairs of fungi: I don’t eat the edible one until I’ve found and identified the poisonous lookalike.  Last autumn (2012) I broke this rule.  I ran out of patience, having come across what I was convinced was sheathed woodtuft for the umpteenth time, and knowing they were supposed to be good eaters.  So I decided to employ a new tactic, specially for this case.  First I nibbled just a quarter of a cap (they are small).  Just enough to get a taste, and to see if there would be an adverse reaction.  Having survived this first taste (and discovering it was indeed very tasty), I ate one whole cap the next day.  Again I waited, and again there was no adverse reaction.  The following day, with the mushrooms still sitting in my fridge, I ate three of them.  Again I waited, and again I woke up the next day having sufffered no ill-effects.  By now I was confident of my identification and I finished off the rest of them, and they did not disappoint.

Then, on December 17th, while out on a walk across the South Downs organised by a friend of mine (not specifically a foraging walk, and not a route I had chosen) I was surprised and delighted to find, and identify in the field, the poisonous lookalike.  My walking companions couldn’t quite understand why I was so excited about finding a mushroom that could not be eaten, but for me it was like any sort of collector who has come across something very special they have been seeking for many years.  There it was, innocently sprouting from a log in a small, unmanaged tract of ancient woodland, nestled in the hills between Brighton and Lewes.  I’d completed the pair, and I now feel considerably more confident for the future.

Funeral bell (Galerina marginata)

Funeral bell (Galerina marginata)

I still know nobody else who has eaten sheathed woodtuft.  I have not given it to anyone else to eat (customers or friends), and I know of nobody in the foraging or mycological communities who’ve been brave (or silly) enough to take what looks like a pointless risk with their lives.

So why are they so hard to tell apart?  They look very similar, and they grow in similar habitats (although sheathed woodtuft prefers deciduous stumps and funeral bell prefers conifers). They have a similar growth habit (at least sometimes they do, and that is enough.)  Sheathed woodtuft tends to occur in greater numbers, and in much denser tufts, whereas funeral bell troops (it is distributed more sparsely over the log/stump.)  The stems are also slightly different (funeral bell has a silky stem, sheated woodtuft is more “hairy”) – at least usually they are.  And they also dry out differently after being made wet (sheathed woodtuft dries from the middle outwards, funeral bell dries from the edge inwards).  The problem is that none of these distinguishing features is completely reliable, and when you’ve only ever seen the deadly lookalike once (or no times at all) then it is almost impossible to be 100% confident of your identification.  Plus there’s always the nightmare possibility of both species sharing a stump.

So I’m afraid I still can’t recommend anybody go out foraging for sheathed woodtuft, and for now I still regard it as too dangerous for me to send customers home with, or give to my friends and family to eat.  It is one thing taking a possible risk with my own life, but quite another to take risks with the lives of others.

Perhaps I’ll feel differently next time I come across what I now consider to be a delicacy.  More likely, at least until I’ve eaten them a few times, or come across funeral bell a few more times, I shall just use the danger-factor as an excuse to scoff the lot myself!