Monday, October 18, 2010

The Case Of The Murderous Mushroom: When Rare Books Get It Wrong

By Nancy Mattoon

A Bouquet of Poisonous Mushrooms.
Number 3 is Amanita phalloides.
From: McIlvaine, Charles.
One Thousand American Fungi.
Indianapolis: Bowen-Merrill Company, c.1900.
(All Images Courtesy of: Farlow Library, Archives, and Herbarium of Cryptogamic Botany.)

Amanita phalloides, his name means "phallus-shaped fungus." Sounds pretty sexy until he gets intimate enough with you to reveal his nickname: "The Death Cap." And once you've had a taste of this fellow there's no turning back, every part of this mushroom is poisonous, and a death cap weighing less than two ounces contains more than enough toxins to kill an adult human.

Detail From: Murrill, William A.
Edible and Poisonsous Mushrooms.
New York: W.A. Murrill, 1916.
Figure 32 - Venenarius phalloides (Amanita phalloides).

According to mycologist David W. Fischer, "No mushroom is worthier of fear than the terribly poisonous Death Cap (Amanita phalloides). This single, widespread species of mushroom is solely responsible for the majority of fatal and otherwise serious mushroom poisoning cases, worldwide as well as in North America. Indeed, one might argue that the Death Cap's notorious, relatively frequent victimization of Homo sapiens is far and away the best explanation (or rationalization) for the widespread fear of edible wild mushrooms."

Bridgham, Joseph
Unpublished watercolor, circa. 1890
Incorrectly identified as Amanita phalloides pale form,
but probably Amanita mappa, which contains almost no toxins.

Alleged victims of the deadly Amanita phalloides, or one of its almost equally lethal kissing-cousins, include Roman Emperor Claudius, Pope Clement VII, Tsaritsa Natalia Naryshkina, and Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. And more recently, Nicholas Evans, author of The Horse Whisperer and his wife, Charlotte, were ill for months and underwent kidney dialysis after partaking of poisonous mushrooms they plucked on a forest walk in Great Britain. To this day, there is no known antidote for the toxins found in the death cap, which attack and shut down the liver and kidneys.

Detail From: M. C. Cooke,
Handbook Of British Fungi,
With Full Descriptions Of All The Species
London, New York: Macmillan and co., 1871.
Plate 2 - Amanita phalloides.
Note at bottom of plate written by William Gibson Farlow,
indicating the identification is incorrect.

Such dire consequences would lead most folks to think that scientists over the centuries would have been particularly meticulous when describing and depicting these delicate dispensers of death. But according to an online exhibit from Harvard University, "For such a deadly mushroom it is truly frightening how often it has been misidentified and misrepresented in mycological literature." The exhibit uses rare books and materials from the Farlow Library, Archives, and Herbarium of Cryptogamic Botany to illustrate the varied--and quite frequently inaccurate-- representations of Amanita phalloides, dating from 1727 to the present, in literature, illustration, specimen, and even in song.

Taylor, Thomas
Student's Hand-Book Of Mushrooms
Of America Edible And Poisonous
Washington: A. R. Taylor, 1897-98.
Plate XV, figure 8 - (Amanita) phalloides Fries.

Included in the Harvard show are several contemporary reports of mushroom poisoning, such as this one from Volume 96, Number 3 (1996) of The American Journal of Gastroenterology:

On a summer day in 1995, a 51-year-old grandmother in Alabama sent her husband to collect mushrooms for a family Sunday brunch. On his return to the kitchen, she breaded and fried the morsels, then proudly served her brunch specialty to her children and grandchildren. The chef and her husband had recently moved from Illinois to the South, and they were happy to find that the mushrooms that they loved to collect up North were plentiful in Alabama as well.

Within twelve hours, the cook and three of the brunch guests were sickened with abdominal pain, diarrhea, and vomiting. The three adults eventually recovered, but the youngest patient, her 3-year-old granddaughter, did not survive—a victim of fulminate liver failure. Unknowingly, the Alabama grandmother had mistakenly served her precious loved ones a heaping platter of deep fried deathcap mushrooms, Amanita phalloides, perhaps the most deadly of the 2000 species of mushrooms found on our planet.

Bulliard, Pierre.
Flora Parisiensis : Ou, Descriptions Et Figures
Des Plantes Qui Croissent Aux Environs De Paris.

Paris : P.F. Didot, 1776-1783.

Plate 625 -
Fungus phalloides Vaill.

Also part of the exhibit are some poetic takes on our fickle friend, the death cap:

Don't eat amanitas--you'll quiver,
You'll fall to your knees and you'll shiver.
Poison mushrooms, that's why,
And you'll probably die.
If you don't then you'll need a new liver.

by Meg Beagle
Omnificent English Dictionary In Limerick Form

A salad with diced amanita
Will kill with the sped of a cheetah.
Though it's mushrooms you've bought,
Added toadstools are thought
By a killer to make things much sweeter.

by Isaac Asimov
Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine
May 1984

Asimov's limerick takes more than the usual amount of poetic license. One of the truly unfortunate aspects of Amanita phalloides poisoning is that the acute initial symptoms--violent vomiting and diarrhea, accompanied by severe stomach cramps--disappear after about 24 hours. (They start about 6 hours after ingestion.) This leads victims to believe that the "food poisoning" is over, and they are on the road to recovery. Especially in the case of misdiagnosis, even doctors will assume the danger has passed, and the patient will be discharged. In reality, the liver and kidneys will continue to be attacked, leading to jaundice and renal shutdown, which causes coma, organ failure, and/or death.

Lenz, Harald Othmar.
Die Nützlichen Und Schädlichen Schwämme,
Nebst Einem Anhange Über Die Islandische Flechte.
Aufl.: Gotha, Becker, 1840.
Taf 1, 1 - Agaricus phalloides.

There are tens of thousands of species mushrooms and toadstools worldwide. The terms go back hundreds of years, and are essentially interchangeable, having never been properly defined. Between 1400 and 1600 A.D., the terms tadstoles, frogstooles, frogge stoles, tadstooles, tode stoles, toodys hatte, paddockstool, puddockstool, paddocstol, toadstoole, and paddockstooles were used synonymously with mushrom, mushrum, muscheron, mousheroms, mussheron, or musserouns. It was generally thought that to be called a toadstool a fungus had to be inedible and perhaps poisonous, while the moniker mushroom meant it was tasty and harmless. In fact, the killer Amanita phalloides is actually quite delectable.

The best advice about picking and eating wild mushrooms might come from the punchline of the favorite gag of mycologists. When these experts are asked whether of not a particular mushroom is edible, their answer is likely to be, "You can eat any mushroom once!"


  1. "And more recently, Nicholas Evans, author of The Horse Whisperer and his wife, Charlotte, were ill for months and underwent kidney dialysis after partaking of poisonous mushrooms they plucked on a forest walk in Great Britain."
    Nicholas Evans, his wife and two relatives did not eat any of the deadly amanitas. They ate Cortinarius speciosissimus, which does not contain amatoxins, but rather the toxin orellanine. There is a much longer delay in onset of symptoms, and the primary organs affected are the kidneys, followed by the liver and other organs. According to reports, the two male victims have been on a kidney transplant list for several months, and one of the females is getting along with dialysis, but is expected to require a transplant eventually. Fortunately, the couples' children did not eat any of the mushrooms.

  2. PS It is unfortunate that you show images of Amanita muscaria, misidentified as species phalloides. While you have made clear in reference to these historic depictions that many are misidentified, in this case the mushroom is distinctive, causing some readers to think that it is deadly, too. A. muscaria is not deadly. It contains no amatoxins, but does contain ibotenic acid and muscimol. These cause rapid onset symptoms often including vomiting, in-coordination, muscle spasms, hyperactivity, alternating with lethargy, and often eventually a coma-like sleep. Visual distortions also occur. This and related species are used by some as an hallucinogenic, but they are not true hallucinogens.

    Most of the article is quite good and the information accurate, except for the items I have pointed out.

  3. We had been brought up with the knowledge ( probably insufficient) that an edible mushroom is "pink or brown under side and peelable on top and that toadstools are non of these" We had no idea the eating the wrong one could make more than sick. I can only thank God for His protection.


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