By Burt Constable
I'll take a bite from the nonwormy part of an apple that falls from our backyard tree. I'll chew on stems of clover in our grass. I'll nibble on mint that grows wild near our fence. But I won't eat anything else I find in our yard, even when it's an unopened bag of Cheetos Crunchy Flamin' Hot Limon Cheese Flavored Snacks chips from the nearby 7-Eleven.
Some lawn-grazers aren't as picky.
That's why the Illinois Poison Center gets 150 calls a year from folks who eat mushrooms they find growing in their yards, parks and forest preserves.
"We get one batch in the spring and another in the fall," says Carol DesLauriers, senior director of the poison center. "There are a couple of really toxic mushrooms in Illinois."
Unlike poisonous spiders or snakes, which often have distinct markings or bright colors to warn of the danger, poisonous mushrooms can be pretty vanilla.
"A lot of toxic mushrooms can look like regular mushrooms," warns DesLauriers, who has a doctoral degree in pharmacy and is board-certified in toxicology.
Many local mushrooms can make you sick.
"Yeah, you'll be miserable for a day, but the other two will destroy your liver," she says, highlighting the dangers of the Amanita bisporigera and the Galerina marginata.
The Amanita bisporigera looks more appetizing than most store-bought mushrooms. The cap, stem and gills are a pristine white, as is a ball at the base of the stem. But don't be fooled.
"It's known as 'the destroying angel,'" DesLauriers says, noting that one helping of the Amanita bisporigera can kill a person who doesn't seek medical attention quickly. "People sometimes need a liver transplant."
Nearly as toxic is the Galerina marginata, which often is regarded as just another "little brown lawn mushroom," she says.
In the children's books about Babar the Elephant, the elephant king dies after eating a toxic mushroom. You can find similar stories on websites dedicated to mushroom foragers. Even the Mushroom Council, established by Congress to promote mushrooms, warns on its website: "Because there are thousands of varieties of inedible and poisonous mushrooms, it's important to never eat wild mushrooms without the guidance of a trained mycologist, or mushroom expert."
Fortunately, the poison center can call on several mycologists, including Greg Muller at the Chicago Botanical Society.
"This is a booming year," Muller says. "We get good edibles and a number of calls to the poison center."
Some calls are from parents whose toddlers grabbed a snack from the yard. Some are from people who misidentify a 'shroom, or confuse psychedelic with poisonous. Pet owners call, too. Some mushrooms that might not sit well on a human stomach can kill a dog or cat.
"If you've got mushrooms in your lawn and you've got kids or pets, pluck them and throw them in the garbage," DesLauriers says. "Our strong recommendation is not to pick and eat wild mushrooms."
Just as homegrown tomatoes are tastier than those on grocery shelves, wild mushrooms boast extra flavor, says Muller, who has written books on edible mushrooms.
"But there are no simple rules," Muller cautions, noting the poison found in the Amanita mushroom family "is one of the most toxic natural substances on Earth."
While numbers fluctuate, eight or nine people die each year from eating a toxic mushroom. "We've had a lot of people get pretty sick, maybe wish they'd die, but we haven't lost anybody in recent years," Muller says of Illinois.
Members of the North American Mycological Association have a wise saying:
"There are old mushroom hunters and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old-and-bold mushroom hunters," Muller says. "There are those who live on the edge, and that's who the Poison Center calls me about."
If you have concerns about mushrooms or any toxins, call the poison center at (800) 222-1222 or visit illinoispoisoncenter.org.