Amateur Mushroom Hunting is not for Amateurs

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Chlorophylum molybdites (image from flickr.com)

I’m going to tell you a not-so-secret about myself…I’m not the brightest crayon in the box. I’m a very sharp crayon that does its job of coloring respectably well, but I’m just not that bright in the common sense category. My life is a collection of mishaps of the type that humans that are blessed with common sense usually avoid.

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of having to live off the land in the event of a disaster, so I like to carefully sample different wild plants after doing some research. I’ve done this with many of the fruit-bearing trees and shrubs in the San Diego area. The apartment complex I was living in a couple of years ago had big, white, luscious-looking mushrooms growing on the lawn. I was curious if they were edible. They were large, creamy white mushrooms with brown freckles and pink gills. First, I googled “poisonous mushrooms southern california” and checked a few different lists to make sure it wasn’t on any of them. None of the mushrooms matched its description. After reading a couple of articles about common mushrooms in southern California, I decided my mushroom was Chlorophyllum rhacodes, the shaggy parasol mushroom, which is edible. So I cut off a bite about a centimeter squared and ate it. I decided I would wait for a few hours, and if I had no adverse reaction, I would eat some more.

Unfortunately, the adverse reaction happened in an hour — I started feeling very queasy. Then came the vomiting. And wow, it was intense. My thinking was rather muddled but I remember thinking I hadn’t eaten very much, and it was definitely out of my system now, so I should be okay. The next thing I remember thinking was “Why am I laying my head on the toilet seat? That’s gross. Huh, I don’t remember putting my head on the toilet seat.”

I realized I must have blacked out and fallen against the toilet.

“Time to call 911 now, or the next time I black out, I might wake up in the next life,” I thought.

I called 911 and explained I had eaten a mushroom growing on my lawn and couldn’t stop throwing up (which I illustrated with retching during the call). When the paramedics came, they asked me again what had happened. I explained.

“Why the hell would you do that?” the paramedic yelled at me.

I angrily yelled “Because I’m stupid, OK!?”

I hadn’t expected the paramedics to shame me for my stupidity. It was embarrassing enough that I was forced to call 911 while wearing my oversized red-and-white striped nightgown and sporting spots of zit cream on my face. And I hadn’t meant to be stupid; I was trying to be very careful with my mushroom researching. I was carried in a stretcher to the ambulance and given some sort of medication to stop the vomiting.

When I got to the hospital, a nurse was sent in first to see me. After taking down my info and asking a few questions to make sure I was coherent, she asked me, “Were you trying to get high?”

“No,” I said.

“Were you trying to hurt yourself?”

“No! I was just trying to see if it was an edible mushroom!” I said. She gave me a skeptical look and left.

A doctor came in later and asked the exact same questions about my intentions in eating the mushroom as the nurse. Why didn’t they seem to understand that sometimes people just like to try to find edible mushrooms to eat? I had brought along another of the mushrooms in a plastic baggie for the doctors to hopefully figure out what it was. I waited in my bed for what felt like a very long time.

The doctor came back and told me they had been waiting to talk to someone in poison control. Poison control had told them the only lethal mushroom in the western United States was Amanita phalloides, the death cap mushroom, which was not what I had eaten. If you eat that one, you might feel fine for a couple of days — but by the time you start feeling sick and throwing up, the liver and other organs are already damaged, and you might die. They still didn’t know what I had eaten but since they knew it wasn’t the really bad one, they sent me home.

A week or so later, I noticed a different cluster of the offending mushrooms. I kicked them over vengefully and saw their gills had changed color from pale pink to pale green. Wait, I remembered reading something on the poisonous mushroom list about a green-gilled mushroom — I looked up the list again and learned the name of my mushroom was Chlorophyllum molybdites, also known as the “vomiter” mushroom. Well, that was a good nickname for it. When they’re young, they have pink gills and look like the shaggy parasol mushroom. When they’re older, their gills turn green and mark them as one of the most poisonous mushrooms in the United States.

Later, I told my mom about my misadventure. “Oh honey, you got that from me,” she said, and told me a story from a few years prior when she had also done some amateur mushroom hunting with nauseous results. I felt a little better about myself; at least I could partially blame my lack of common sense on someone else. I learned the hard way that being able to google a subject and read about it does not qualify one as an expert.

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I’m a biotech professional who loves to read, write, and create art. I enjoy writing about the strange and humorous experiences life has given me.

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