Delicious, Deadly, Deceptive Deathcap Mushroom

Already, underground along the margins of our pasture, the thready future of our largest mushroom is taking shape. And with the first warm weeks of spring, the plate-sized yellow parasols of this fungus will appear, off and on, for six months.

This is certainly the most visible mushroom around, and very familiar—the Deathcap (or Deathcup) mushroom, Amanita phalloides–a species name that I cannot verify to mean of or resembling a…well I can’t confirm that so maybe it was named after J Alfred Phallo. Who knows.

Very familiar. Yes. But I learned a thing or two about A. phalloides from this article at Slate.

1. It is not a native of the US
2. It was only introduced around 1938, apparently from a small population of founder-fungus probably in the soil of a transplanted European tree.
3. It is said to be delicious to eat. Don’t.
4. It is not necessarily fatal if: you DRINK LOTS OF WATER; and call the number at the end of the article for a drug that is effective against the kidney and liver death that can kill.
5. The genetic plasticity if such that this fungus has taken a wide leap in its preferred host trees—from oaks to pines in the US. This is actually pretty amazing but I’m prepared for you to yawn. Go ahead.

Poisonings are common since the range of this mushroom is bringing it before mushroom eaters for the first time in some parts of the country.

But come on people. The CUP and VEIL of the Amanitas should be plenty enough clues to say DO NOT EAT. Some, this article says, have confused it with the field Agaric (which we also have). But  Agarics campestris has distinctly brown-pink gills. You can’t miss them, and no cup and no veil.

Give these lowly adaptors the respect they deserve. As the climate warms, the Fungal diseases are on the rise, and they are coming for us.

During the past century, fungal diseases have felled great forests of elms, chestnuts, pines, and other trees around the world, overturning ecosystems and leaving grassy wastelands in their wake. The chytrid fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis is thought to have wiped out hundreds of species of amphibians and has been fingered as the cause of frog die-offs worldwide. Scientists recently reported that the fungus is also infecting and killing crayfish. White-nose syndrome was discovered affecting a few unfortunate bats in New York in 2006; the fungus responsible for the disease has since killed more than 5 million hibernating bats in 21 states and four Canadian provinces.

As we tear up forests and turn over soil, we unleash spores from their slumber, including species that humans and other animals have rarely encountered before. World trade is helping strains of fungus spread and hybridize. And our wanton use of antibacterial medicine, including in farm animals, kills the microbes that could help keep fungus levels in check.

“The environment is changing quite dramatically,” Heitman said. “Logging, gardening, forestry, and other things that perturb the environment and move around soil or trees that are contaminated with the fungus are a major contributor.”

Fungal Forays

An assortment of Goose Creek fungi late August 2010

This collection of three images is posted just to remind myself what I’ve been up to these past few weeks photographically and botanically (though the latter term is only true in the era in which fungi were lumped with “everything not an animal” and therefore considered plants.)

Since the ample rain of early August, we’re back into a rainless period and the above-ground parts have pretty much dried up–or rotted: been consumed by other fungi who see in their brethren a food source–nothing personal. But when the next rains come, there promises to be a new surge of fungal forms to photograph. And I MIGHT be getting a new camera. (!)

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And in the End…

In Death, Life: The Fate of Fungi

The Kingdom Fungi is so varied in form that for mushrooms to be the sum total of our understanding of the group is a grotesque labeling that gives scant credit to the role these organisms play in the Bigger Economy. And yet, it’s understandable that mushrooms represent this group of living things as they are the most visible manifestation of a largely invisible life form.

Mushrooms also are so interesting in their growth habits, shapes and colors that it is easy to think of them the way we think of bird song–as being about melody, tone and a pleasant happy “singing” for our benefit. And all along, the Fungal Way is about dissolving their host organism–which is usually but not always  dead already–like this maple tree.The fact that we find some of them interesting, lovely or edible is neither here nor there from the Fungal point of view.

I cut off the forks and branches from the top 30 feet of this fallen hardwood a few years back, and many BTU’s of firewood energy warmed my home and then escaped up the smoke stack or radiated into space from our walls. The rest of the trunk still on the ground will yield an equal amount of energy that will go into producing fungal threads that permeate these hundreds of pounds of cellulose. Here, where the thousands of miles of fungal threads contact the outer world in its orange papery form, spores from that maple-digesting mycelium will launch out to find other fallen but not consumed logs in other forests.

Still, knowing this feeding-on-death job description for Fungi, I do enjoy wallowing about on our hillside for Fungus Glamor Shots. More to come. Headed out now for some chanterelles spotted on this morning’s dog walk.

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