Published on 09/25/08

Know wild mushrooms before eating them

By Sharon Dowdy
University of Georgia

Mushrooms are popping up as a result of the rainfall brought to the state by recent tropical storms. Many look just like the ones in grocery stores, but a University of Georgia expert warns they may not be safe to eat.

In fact, Chlorophyllum, a mushroom commonly seen in yards and on golf courses, looks very similar to some edible mushrooms, said Charles Mims, a plant pathologist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Unlike the edible mushrooms, Chlorophyllum is highly toxic and causes severe upset stomach. “It’s one that will definitely make you sick to the point that you might even wish you were dead,” Mims said.

To be safe, Mims recommends not eating wild mushrooms unless you are skilled in mushroom identification. “I would never suggest anyone go out and randomly collect wild mushrooms to eat,” he said. “You have to know what you’re picking.”

Optimum conditions

Conditions are ideal for mushrooms to reproduce right now.

“They pop up when the environmental conditions are right and this is usually triggered by moisture or temperature,” Mims said.

This is why certain species are only seen in the fall of the year and others only in the spring.

“The drought conditions we’ve experienced over the past few years have kept us from seeing [many] mushrooms, but the body of the mushroom, known as the mycelium is present year-round in the soil,” Mims said.

Mycelium grows unseen usually alongside tree roots before forming mushrooms.

Fungus among us

Mushrooms belong to the group of organisms known as fungi, which includes the molds and mildews found on foods and in homes.

“Pathogenic forms cause diseases in plants, animals and humans,” Mims said. “The yeast we use for baking bread and producing alcohol are also fungi.”

Domestic mushrooms sold in grocery stores and served in restaurant dishes were once wild mushrooms, he said.

“Agaricus, the mushroom commonly found on pizzas, came from nature back in 1760s in France,” he said. “Shiitake mushrooms were first domesticated in China in 500 A.D.”

Call of the wild

Some cultures in Europe and Southeast Asia collect and eat wild mushrooms. But amateurs shouldn’t, he said.

“Collecting mushrooms is a big part of these cultures, and it’s a skill that is taught from one generation to the next,” he said.

To learn which mushrooms are edible, buy a good mushroom identification book or join a mushroom club.

“There are a number of excellent books available on mushrooms,” he said. “And there are a lot of people out there who do collect and eat wild mushrooms. There’s a group in Athens that takes mushroom walks and then meets to identify the samples they collect.”

If you harvest wild mushrooms, have a mushroom expert identify them for you. Then, only consume a very small portion the first time you eat a new edible find.

“There are a lot of wild mushrooms that are good to eat,” he said. “And there are some that will kill you. The most poisonous mushrooms in the world belong to the genus amanita. Their poison can destroy your liver and there is no good treatment available.”

If you don’t want to risk getting a stomachache, Mims suggests dining out.

“You can always play it safe and go to a restaurant that serves wild mushrooms,” he said. “Then you get the experience without the risk.”

Sharon Dowdy is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.