By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia
Mushrooms are cropping up everywhere as a result of last month's rainfall. Many look just like the ones you buy in the grocery store. But University of Georgia experts warn that they may not be safe to eat.
In fact, chlorophyllum, a mushroom commonly seen in yards and on golf courses, looks very similar to some edible mushrooms, said Charles Mims, a plant pathologist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
But chlorophyllum is highly toxic and causes severe upset stomach.
"It's one that will definitely make you sick to the point that you might even wish you were dead," Mims said.
To be safe, people should not eat wild mushrooms unless they are skilled in mushroom identification.
"I would never suggest anyone go out and randomly collect wild mushrooms to eat," Mims said. "You have to know what you're picking."
Conditions are ideal for mushrooms to reproduce right now.
"They pop up when the environmental conditions are right and this is usually triggered by moisture or temperature," Mims said. This is why certain species are only seen in the fall of the year and others only in the spring.
"The drought conditions we've experienced over the past few months have kept us from seeing [many] mushrooms, but the body of the mushroom, known as the mycelium is present year-round in the soil."
Mycelium grows unseen usually alongside tree roots before forming mushrooms.
Fungus among us
Mushrooms belong to the group of organisms known as fungi which includes the molds and mildews found on our foods and in our homes.
"Pathogenic forms cause diseases in plants and animals including humans," Mims said. The yeast we use for baking bread and producing alcohol are also fungi."
According to Mims, other types of yeast may cause infection in humans. Ringworm is another type of fungus infection that is harmful to humans.
The domestic mushrooms we now find in grocery stores and restaurant dishes were once wild mushrooms, he said.
"Agaricus, the mushroom commonly found on pizzas, came from nature back in 1760s in France," he said. "Shiitake mushrooms were first domesticated in China in 500 A.D."
Call of the wild [mushroom]
Mims says some cultures in Europe and Southeast Asia commonly collect and eat wild mushrooms, but he doesn't recommend amateurs do the same.
"Collecting mushrooms is a big part of these cultures and it's a skill that is taught from one generation to the next," he said.
Mims recommends buying a good mushroom identification book or joining a mushroom club to learn which ones are edible.
"There are a number of excellent books available on mushrooms," Mims said. "And there are a lot of people out there who do collect and eat wild mushrooms. There's a group in Athens that takes mushrooms walks and then meets to identify the samples they collect."
If you do harvest wild mushrooms, Mims suggests that you first have them identified by someone who knows about edible and poisonous species and that you consume only a very small portion the first time you eat a new find.
"There are a lot of wild mushrooms that are good to eat," he said. "And there are some that will kill you. The most poisonous mushrooms in the world belong to the genus amanita. Their poison can destroy your liver and there is no good treatment available."
If you don't want to risk getting a stomachache, Mims suggests dining out.
"You can always play it safe and go to a restaurant that serves wild mushrooms," he said. "Then you get the experience without the risk."
(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)