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There’s a Fungus Among Us
Medicine, Poison, and Dietary Pleasure

There’s a Fungus Among Us
  • Voltaire (by )
  • One hundred mushroom receipts (by )
  • Studies of American Fungi : Mushrooms, E... (by )
  • Mushrooms and Their Cultivation; A Handb... (by )
  • Field Book of Common Gilled Mushrooms : ... (by )
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Revered as powerful medicine, feared as deadly poison, and beloved as tasty additions to our diet, mushrooms inspire both dread and gustatory pleasure. We apply the term “mushroom” to over 38,000 varieties of fungus.

Many mushrooms are poisonous. They run the gamut of accidental deaths by people consuming what they thought were edible varieties to deliberate poisonings. Of the latter, see Voltaire’s comment upon the War of Austrian Succession following the death of Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, and the murder of a predatory Union soldier recuperating from wounds at a Virgina girls school in the movie The Beguiled, which is based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Thomas P. Cullinan. Botanists identify the seven most poisonous mushrooms as the:
  • Death cap (Amanita phallodies), found throughout Europe. It closely resembles edible straw mushrooms and caesar’s mushrooms. Famous deaths attributed to  consumption of the death cap include Pope Clement VII in 1534 and Roman Emperor Claudius in 54 A.D.
  • Conocybe filaris commonly grows in lawns in the Pacific Northwest and contains the same mycotoxins as the death cap, which cause gastrointestinal distress within six hours of consumption followed by liver and kidney failure.
  • Webcap mushrooms come in two species, the deadly webcap (Cortinarius rubellus) and the fool’s webcap (Cortinarius orellanus). Almost identical to each other and to edible varieties of mushrooms, the toxins linger in the body for up to three weeks before causing kidney failure.
  • Autumn skullcap (Galerina marginata) grows in the Northern Hemisphere and parts of Australia. It, too, contains mycotoxins that cause gastrointestinal distress, vomiting, hypothermia, and liver damage. It’s often mistaken for the hallucinogenic Psilocybe mushrooms.
  • Similar in appearance to edible mushrooms, the all-white destroying angel (Amanita species) command notoriety as North America’s most toxic fungus. Symptoms appear as quickly as five hours after ingestion: vomiting, convulsions, diarrhea, and liver and kidney failure.
  • Japan and Korea claim the rare, brilliantly red Podostroma cornu-damae, which contain trichothecene mycotoxins that cause multiple organ failure, peeling skin, hair loss, and low blood pressure.
  • Deadly dapperling (Lepiota brunneoincarnata) grows widely throughout Europe and parts of Asia. Its innocuous appearance is easily mistaken for edible varieties, and consumption leads to severe liver toxicity and death.
Various cultures also expound upon the medicinal properties of mushrooms, which contribute intense doses of protein, potassium, and polysaccharides that contribute to healthy immune function. Closely related to mushrooms as medicine are mushrooms as hallucinogens. Hallucinogenic mushrooms gained fame in 1960s counterculture use, although those varieties--specifically the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) served religious and spiritual purposes among Native American tribes, Siberian tribes, Vikings, and Aztecs. The active compounds in such mushrooms are psilocybin and psilocin.

Credit for the introduction of mushrooms to haute cuisine goes to the French, who spread their enthusiasm to the rest of the Western world and raised the truffle to a high pedestal as the crowning jewel of the kitchen. Snuffled out by specially trained dogs and pigs, these lumpy nodules of fungi grow on the roots of oak, hazel, beech, and chestnut trees. Truffles require special handling and the harvest is labor intensive, contributing to their high price.

To add more mushrooms to your diet, consult One Hundred Mushrooms Receipts (1899) by Kate Sargeant, Studies of American Fungi: Mushrooms, Edible, Poisonous, Etc. Recipes for Cooking Mushrooms (1901) by George Francis Atkinson, Mushrooms and Their Cultivation (1909) by Thomas William Sanders, Field Book of Common Gilled Mushrooms (1928) by William Sturgis Thomas.

By Karen M. Smith

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