Daniela del Valle is holding an edible Boletus mushroom Photo by: Christopher Nyerges
Daniela del Valle is holding an edible Boletus mushroom found in the Arroyo Seco

Fungus among us

Stalking the wild, delicious and sometimes dangerous wild mushroom

By Christopher Nyerges 03/31/2011

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To most people, mushrooms are a source of mystery, fascination and even fear. They appear suddenly and just as quickly they are gone. They come in a diverse array of colors and shapes, growing in dark, out of the way places, as well as on front lawns. Their diverse properties of both food and medicine have spawned a legion of mushroom aficionados around the country.
 
I began actively studying mushrooms back in the early 1970s. After spending several years studying fungus using books alone, I learned about the Los Angeles Mycological Association and soon spent all my free time with them in the field learning about mushrooms firsthand. 
 
I would learn more on one field trip than I had in my years of self study. Field study with other experts is an absolute must if you desire to eat wild mushrooms. Why? Because we’re always reading about folks who made mistakes, ate the wrong mushroom and died.
 
One of the most common edible wild mushrooms found locally on lawns and fields is the field mushroom, or pinky (Agaricus campestris), so called because of its pink gills. This is one of the easiest for amateurs to identify because it is a close relative of the cultivated Agaricus found in stores. You look for the white cap, stout white stem, which detaches easily from the cap, and the pink gills, which turn brown as the mushroom matures. This mushroom is popular and good-tasting. I have eaten it raw, in salads, sautéed, in soups, dried, mixed with rice, and in countless dishes. During some years, it is so common in the wild that collectors easily fill bushel baskets with them in minutes. 
 
When I conduct wild food outings locally, there are a handful of local wild mushrooms that we routinely eat, though I always tell my students to never eat any wild mushrooms on their own until they are absolutely certain of identification.
 
We have collected and eaten inky caps (Coprinus), which taste great sautéed. However, they should not be eaten if you have had alcohol recently, or you might experience vomiting. This is particularly true with the Coprinus atramentarius species.
We also collect one of the local boletes (Boletus chrysenteron), which is a beautiful mushroom with a taste very much like that of an eggplant when cooked.
 
Another common wild mushroom is the chicken of the woods, or sulfur fungus (Polyporus sulphureus), which actually tastes like chicken nuggets when properly prepared.
 
We have found puffballs locally, which are solid white and taste somewhat like bread when cooked. Believe it or not, morels are also sometimes found locally. They like burned-over areas and are often found growing on old drywall. Morels are hollow and are considered a delicacy, but they too must be properly prepared.
 
You must exercise caution with each and every mushroom you pick. A few members of the Amanita genus are actually edible, and I have eaten them. On the other hand, mycologists generally agree that the most poisonous mushrooms are a few species of Amanita phalloides — commonly called the death cap. These have a ring on the stem, a cup at the base and an olive-colored cap.
 
Two more equally deadly mushrooms are A. verna, and A. virosa, which are structurally similar to A. phalloides, except that they are all white and are commonly referred to as the Angels of Death. When any of these are ingested, a slow painful death is almost a certainty. Because of the slow action of the toxins, most victims do not get proper medical treatment. Then, a day or two later, when the vomiting, diarrhea, and painful cramps occur, the toxins are already at work destroying the liver, the kidneys and the nervous system. Even with medical treatment, blood transfusions and organ transplants, virtually everyone who eats such mushrooms dies in approximately five to 10 days. 
 
Are mushrooms poisonous simply because they grow on lawns? Not at all. You simply must know each species of mushroom that you choose to eat, wherever it happens to grow.

A version of this article appeared in a number of publications in 2002.

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