Edible chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius,
top) and poisonous death cap (Amanita phalloides). Images courtesy
Melissa Morris (chanterelle ) and Mike Davis (death cap),
Tasty Toadstool or Fatal Fungus? Federal
Researcher Makes Call By
Erin Peabody November 28, 2005
With names like puffball, fairy ring and bird's nest, it's hard to
take some fungi seriously. But, as mushroom experts with the Agricultural
Research Service (ARS) know, even the
most innocent-looking toadstool sprouting from your lawn can be a life or death
This is an especially important reminder in the fall months, when
mushroom hunters across the country are trolling damp grass and groves in
search of savory, golden chanterelles, meaty maitake mushrooms and other edible
Farr, who studies fungi and works at ARS'
Botany and Mycology Laboratory in Beltsville, Md., knows firsthand the
dangers of munching on a mystery mushroom.
For 20 years, Farr has been a point person for several Washington,
D.C.-area hospitals treating patients who've eaten a suspicious, potentially
poisonous mushroom. Treatment depends, in part, on how deadly the ingested
mushroom is-which is why a quick and accurate identification by a fungus expert
In some instances, Farr has been able to rule out that the mushroom in
question is lethal, allowing a patient to avoid the uncomfortable procedure of
having his or her stomach pumped.
Technological advances, like cell phones and digital cameras, are
making Farr's job easier. He used to rely on descriptions given over the phone,
but hospital staff can now send him a digital picture of the fungal specimen in
Most of the cases Farr has encountered involve one of two groups:
curious adults who can't resist nibbling on pretty-looking mushrooms growing in
their yards, or young children who don't know better than to pluck a toadstool
and take a bite.
In addition to extensive experience identifying mushrooms, Farr also
helps manage the nation's largest collection of fungi, which is housed at the
Beltsville, Md., laboratory.
To avoid unnecessary mushroom mishaps, Farr encourages anyone
searching for edible fungi to use up-to-date guidebooks and identification
ARS is the U.S. Department of
Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.