Ken Gilberg knows the risks firsthand after eating the rare mushroom Tylopilus eximius on a camping trip in Maine. That meal sidelined him with vomiting and diarrhea instead of letting him enjoy his vacation.
"It's a rare mushroom that not many people have tried, and although my books didn't identify it as poisonous we got sick from it," said Gilberg at his home near St. Louis. "The risks are rare, but you should know exactly what you're eating. The old adage is that there are old mushroom hunters and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters."
University of Missouri mycologist Johann Bruhn echoes that warning.
"In the Ozarks, we're blessed with some of the best-tasting edible mushrooms, but also some of the most poisonous," said Bruhn, who researches mushrooms at the MU Center for Agroforestry. "I recommend that if you want to eat a morel or an oyster mushroom for example, you should learn all about it and any fungus that even looks vaguely similar so you don't make a sickening mistake."
Bruhn noted that just because a mushroom tastes good doesn't mean it isn't poisonous.
"Some of the most poisonous mushrooms apparently taste very good," he said. "I know of a woman who once ate a very poisonous type of deadly white Amanita in southern Michigan, went into a coma and when she luckily recovered, she cried and said it was the best-tasting mushroom she'd ever eaten."
There are many misleading myths about mushrooms. "People say if it's growing on wood it's safe; if it tarnishes silver it's poisonous, but the only rule of thumb is -- there is no rule of thumb," said Bruhn. "People have to learn one kind of mushroom at a time along with look-alikes."
Despite Gilberg's bad experience, he's become an avid mushroom hunter who has scoured the woods for more than 28 years looking for tasty finds. He notes that there's no substitute for really knowing and checking your mushrooms.
"You could confuse a zucchini and a cucumber if you didn't know what each was, so it's not hard to see how it could be confusing when there are thousands of mushrooms," he said. "The risks are rare, but there are deadly mushrooms in the Ozarks, so you can't just go out and eat anything or you can end up quite sick, or even dead."
Bruhn says he doesn't want to frighten off would-be mushroom hunters. "My job is to scare people silly first and then build knowledge. For me, mushrooms are inextricably linked to food, friends and enjoying the outdoors. There aren't many dishes that can't be improved by mushrooms and they can truly add to the importance of food and camaraderie in our lives."
For pictures and more information on mushroom species, visit www.mdc.mo.gov/.
You can learn more about mushroom hunting through the Missouri Mycological Society, or by visiting their Web site: www.missourimycologicalsociety.org.