Beware of deadly mushrooms in local forests

October 19, 2010

By Warren Kagarise

Local public health officials last week offered a piece of advice to forest foragers: beware.

Public Health – Seattle & King County called for mushroom foragers to exercise caution after a poisoning related to the amanita phalloides — or death cap — species of mushroom.

Eating the poisonous mushroom landed a Bellevue woman in the hospital last month, but she has since recovered.

The poisonous amanita phalloides mushroom has been spotted often in forests and backyards throughout the fall. Contributed

“It takes extensive knowledge to know which mushrooms are safe to eat and which are poisonous,” Dr. David Fleming, Public Health – Seattle & King County director and health officer, said last week. “Amanita phalloides look very much like some edible types of mushrooms and increasingly can be found in the wild, in local parks and even in our own backyards.”

Hildegard Hendrickson, coordinator of wild mushroom identification in the Seattle area for the Puget Sound Mycological Society, said the episode served as a reminder for fungi foragers.

“There are no shortcuts,” she said. “You have to identify every mushroom before you plan to eat it, so that you don’t get poisoned.”

The toxic death cap mushrooms cannot be distinguished from safe mushrooms by taste or smell.

Poisoning symptoms start hours after ingestion, and include abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea. Poisoning may result in damage to the liver and other vital organs — or even death.

Experts long believed death cap mushrooms to be rare in the Evergreen State. However, the cool, rain-soaked fall has led to many sightings of the lethal fungus.

“You have to look at every mushroom from the very top to the very bottom,” Hendrickson said. “The size, the shape of the mushroom, whether the skin is smooth or has scales” and other factors must be scrutinized by experts.

Washington Poison Center Executive Director Jim Williams said the nonprofit center seldom receives mushroom-related calls. The poison centers in neighboring Oregon and British Columbia handle more questions related to poisonous mushrooms, because toxic species do not usually appear in Washington.

Often, patients eat a poisonous mushroom and start to exhibit poisoning symptoms, but refrain from calling the poison center.

“The problem is, if they’ve consumed more than one and they don’t do anything right away,” Williams said.

During a call, medical professionals help assess the situation and, if need be, contact emergency responders for the caller.

Though many edible mushrooms can be foraged in the Pacific Northwest, humans only prize a handful of fungi species as food.

“Some edible mushrooms, after you’ve cleaned and cooked them, could taste like rotten leaves,” Hendrickson said.

Experts also cautioned foragers from gathering mushrooms from manicured lawns or, especially, golf courses, because herbicides and fungicides might have been applied to the turf.

Hendrickson said the season has produced a “bumper crop of wild mushrooms” and prompted a steady stream of people toting in baskets and boxes of mushrooms to identification sessions hosted by the Puget Sound Mycological Society.

“People shouldn’t play Russian roulette with their lives,” she said. “They should have the mushroom identified.”

How to separate good mushrooms from bad

Puget Sound Mycological Society experts offer mushroom identification clinics from 4-7 p.m. Mondays through the end of October at the Center for Urban Horticulture at the University of Washington, 3501 N.E, 41st St., Seattle.

The sessions could be extended, depending on the length of the mushroom season. Learn more about the program at the society’s website.

What to know

Call the Washington Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222 toll free immediately if you believe you have ingested a poisonous mushroom.

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or Comment at

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