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Edible chanterelle mushroom
Poisonous death cap mushroom
Edible chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius, top) and poisonous death cap (Amanita phalloides). Images courtesy Melissa Morris (chanterelle ) and Mike Davis (death cap), Davis Mycological Society.

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 matter.

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 fungi.

David Farr, who studies fungi and works at ARS' Systematic 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 is critical.

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 seconds.

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 aids.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.