A Little Local Color: Amanita Mushrooms

- September 4, 2011

"This is the stereotypical "toadstool" that looks like it should have a garden gnome leaning against it..."

August and September are prime months for mushrooms, toadstools, slime molds and fungi of all varieties. One of the most stunning in our area, beloved by artists and photographers, is fly agaric or Amanita muscaria.

This is the stereotypical "toadstool" that looks like it should have a garden gnome leaning against it: a scarlet cap flecked with white spots over a snowy white stalk. They can be large or small; caps may be up to 6 inches across. Though not as numerous as in some past years, Amanitas are sprouting up in the Santa Fe ski basin and other high-elevation mixed conifer woods right now.

While we have a number of edible mushrooms to delight the palate, we have even more that will send you to the poison control center. According to Larry Renshaw of the Colorado Mycological Society, who I spoke with last year, most of the toxins fall into the "kill you now" or "kill you later" categories.  (A few fall into the "god, let me die" category but survival is likely.)

Amanita muscaria is responsible for "a fairly large percentage" (Evenson) of the serious poisonings in the Rocky Mountains. Older mushrooms may lose their distinctive coloring and become more pale as they age, and emerging buttons resemble edible puffball mushrooms. Mistakes are possible and effects can be serious.

The two active chemicals are fast-acting neurotoxins of the central nervous system usually having an effect within 30 to 90 minutes after ingestion.  Symptoms look like inebriation, with stumbling, slurred speech, sometimes manic behavior. Tremors, muscle spasms and nausea follow, then a deep coma-like sleep. Most adults recover but because of dosage children, dogs and cats may not.

Wild mushrooms are delicious but if you are a beginning collector or are new to an area, it will pay to go out in the company of a more experienced mushroomer for a time of careful introduction.  As the saying goes, 'there old mushroomers and there are bold mushroomers, but there are no old, bold mushroomers'.

Evenson, Vera Stucky.  Mushrooms of Colorado and the southern Rocky Mountains.  Denver: Denver Botanic Gardens, 1997.