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The Poison Mushroom: A Cautionary Tale

July 31st, 2015

After eleven years hunting mushrooms, eight of those since I built up the confidence to actually eat some of what I found, yesterday I had my first bite of poison mushroom. It put me in the emergency room.

Boletus sensibilis

I was shown no revelations about how all life on earth is intimately connected in a profound but delicate web (though of course I knew this already). I did not see David Bowie. For four and a half hours I felt completely normal. Then, over three hours, my body voided the entire contents of my digestive system between brief stints of shivering on the bathroom floor. Then I sat in a hospital bed for three hours with a saline drip in my arm while a series of medical professionals asked me, “WHY?”

The Two-Color Bolete, Boletus bicolor, is a large, reddish-pink mushroom with a mottled pink and yellow stalk and yellow pores, mycorrhizal with oak and other hardwoods (that means its mycelia intermingle symbiotically with the host plant’s roots), which appears in summer and fall all over the US. Its flesh stains blue “slowly” on contact. It is purportedly a delicious edible. The Brick Red Bolete, Boletus sensibilis is a large, reddish-pink mushroom with a mottled pink and yellow stalk and yellow pores, mycorrhizal with oak and other hardwoods, which also appears in summer and fall all over the US. Its flesh stains blue “instantly” on contact. It is poisonous to some people (me).

Last year around this time I took pictures of a mushroom that could have been either of the above. I went home and did the research. I waited a year and the same mushroom showed up in the same place. I figured I’d take a risk. I took it home, sliced it, watched it turn blue, asked myself “was that ‘instantly’ or ‘slowly’?” It smelled delicious. Like butter. So I decided to take a risk. I sauteed it up in olive oil, took one bite and put the rest away.

Yes, this was stupid.

It seemed like an educated decision at the time. I have taken similar risks before and they’ve paid off in abundance over years. On paper, chanterelles look an awful lot like the poisonous jack-o-lantern mushroom–though in the person they’re actually quite distinct. Honey mushroom, Armillaria mellea, which my family has been enjoying now for at least four generations, is listed in many guidebooks as causing stomach upset for some people. The genus Boletus, however, is not Cantharellus, nor is it Armillaria, and there was no call for me to be drawing those parallels.

WHY, then? It’s been a bad year for mushrooms (first too cool and rainy, now too dry). I love mushrooms, and I was missing them. Also, having found the company of other long-time, dedicated mushroom foragers, I confess I had been starting to feel a bit of peer pressure to be more adventurous, expand my knowledge. Guess I can check that off my list. Learning the hard way.

Who knows, maybe it was the influence of the blue moon. NO, no it wasn’t.

Let this be a cautionary tale. Don’t eat mushrooms you find in the woods unless you research them exhaustively first. And even then, maybe stay away from Boletes.

Yesterday at around 9 PM I was mildly concerned about the possibility of my death. Today I am weak and dehydrated and can’t stand up for more than a few minutes at a time. But wow, that was an experience. What doesn’t kill me makes me a better writer. I really believe that.

Boletus sensibilis pores

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