The Poison Mushroom: A Cautionary Tale

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.

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.



    1. Yeah. Thank you.

      Honestly, the worst part of it–I mean, those three hours huddled between the sink and the toilet were pretty awful–but the worst in the long run is everybody’s disappointment that my impeccable mushroom identification skills could have proved so catastrophically not impeccable.

  1. Over the last few years I have enjoyed eating Boletus Sensibilis mushrooms that grow on my land here in New Hampshire (USA) under red oak trees. They stain black immediately on the pore surface (within two seconds). You can draw anything on the underside and it will render beautifully as line art. The flavor when browned has a strange tinge to it, but it grows on me. Now (late July) they are growing and I sautee up a large one and eat it in one sitting; probably about five so far this year. Yum. I did once get sick on Boletes as a kid. They are tricky to ID, but according to some lore none are deadly poisonous. Also cook very well; as in dried out and crispy brown; then the flavor is wonderful.

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