Wild mushrooms, tragic deaths, and the importance of understanding nature

A sad and timely news story caught our eye this morning: the death of two young Afghan boys in Poland who were poisoned after their family collected wild mushrooms to make a soup. Other members of the family were hospitalised. As Karin read out the story to me, I was moved by the tragedy of these events for a family fleeing a war zone, but also angered by pointlessness of the loss of those brothers’ lives, just more death-by-wild-mushroom statistics. In Europe we read about such events every year in the autumn, the peak of wild fungus foraging. And quite often the deaths are of people who have recently moved to an area and mistake poisonous mushrooms for edible ones from their country of origin.

At their root, these tragic stories of lost lives and broken families are stories of misunderstandings about nature. In particular, they are about not appreciating that plants, mushrooms, animals, and other wildlife, are not the same all over the world. There are biogeographic differences between regions that reflect the long-term history of life on our planet. Plants or mushrooms that look superficially similar in different parts of the world may have very different evolutionary histories. Histories that can make the difference between good to eat and deadly poisonous, between life and death.

The mushroom which killed the boys was a Death Cap (Amanita phalloides) which is found across Europe and the Mediterranean basin. As far as I can tell from its GBIF records, it does not occur in Afghanistan. The family presumably mistook this mushroom for one with which they were familiar, perhaps a different species of Amanita, which contains both deadly types and some that are good to eat. This terrible and fatal mix up could so easily have been avoided.

I’m not certain if resettlement agencies provide information about the foraging of wild food, or if basic facts about local nature are provided to those new to these areas. This is a simple action that could save lives and further tragedies for families trying to recover after the disruption of moving to a new country. It may be that this family was trying to carry on traditions of foraging in an effort to feel at home.

Since we arrived in the Odsherred region of Denmark, where Karin and I intend to settle, we have been exploring the woods and beaches on our newly bought bicycles. Much of the natural history is familiar to me from Britain, but there’s also some interesting differences and in future blog posts I’ll discuss this further. Last week we happened across a Lithuanian woman and her mother who had been foraging for mushrooms in the forest around their summer house. They were pushing a baby’s pram, the lower basket of which was stuffed with fungi. Picking and eating wild mushrooms has been something I’ve enjoyed since I was a teenager, so I had to stop and chat with them. They showed us some of their finds, including species with which I wasn’t familiar and that I will research further.

Lithuania and Denmark are of course quite close to each other geographically. Nonetheless the younger woman was still discovering which of the local mushrooms were good to eat: ‘I learn one new edible species each year’ she told us ‘That’s a good rule, then you don’t get confused’.

Since that meeting we’ve had several meals from mushrooms collected in the area, including some very fine ceps (Boletus edulus). I will keep in mind the woman’s words and proceed cautiously when it comes to discovering what is edible and what is not.

To end this rather sad but hopefully thought provoking post, Karin and I send our deepest condolences to the Afghan family and our heartfelt wishes that they can recover from these tragedies that must have deeply affected their lives.

9 thoughts on “Wild mushrooms, tragic deaths, and the importance of understanding nature

  1. Helen

    Good luck in your transition to life in Denmark. And happy fungi foraging.

    I’m too scared of making a mistake with fungi to eat wild mushrooms. Only once have I picked mushrooms under very expert guidance – and ate far too many of them, which wasn’t great!

    I hadn’t heard about the Afghani boys who sadly died from poisonous mushrooms. What a tragedy! And we all have so much to learn about accommodating those fleeing terror elsewhere in the world.

  2. Gina Rackley

    In Abney Park Cemetery, London, last year, there was a poisoning by a dog eating a mushroom on a path side. I didn’t get to find out what it was as there was little left of the cap to identify. The most poisonous cap in there for humans is the yellow stainer, which some people mistake as edible and react against, but the dog was on a drip for a couple of days before recovering. Dogs might have different tolerances to humans. Tricky things mushrooms.

  3. spamletblog

    What concerns me at the moment, iss the effect that GPS andsocial media are going to have on susstainability of wild foods. It used to be that only countryside people and naturalists, plus a few real enthusiasts and recording groups, who you would meet while out looking for mushrooms. And, even if you made a great find one year, in woodland, you had the devil of a job finding the spot another time. Not now: there are Facebook groups that seem to be posting pictures of people with barrowsful of beautiful ceps, and other edibles, whereas, I rarely ever found one that wasn’t already full of maggots!
    Overcollecting has already caused foraying in the New Forest to be outlawed, and spoiled it forold fashioned casual walkers, yet these new FB ‘foray groups’ are continuously competing to show off their huge hauls, that one family could not eat before they rot. Yet, if you try to remind them of conservation, or even the law, you are blocked for ‘overcollection shaming’ and treated like the guilty one!
    Withour increasingly desperately overcrowded population, the crazy popularity of wild food cookery programs, and GPS, I think that the final blow is being dealt to biodiversity in the UK. It seems inevitable that our wildlife is all going to go the way of the dinosaur and the dodo, and with the dreadful selfishness of peopleon ‘social media’,there seems no chance of saving anything. 😥

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      I appreciate your concerns, but the studies that have been done on the effects of long-term collecting of fungi suggest that picking per se does not affect their future fruiting success – see here for example: https://www.conservationevidence.com/individual-study/230

      I suspect that the New Forest authorities are more worried about how habitats are being damaged by people visiting to pick rather than the effect on fungi populations.

      Just to pick up on what you said about pickers ‘showing off their huge hauls, that one family could not eat before they rot’ – it’s very easy to preserve edible fungi by drying, pickling, in oil, etc., which is what many collectors do.

      1. spamletblog

        Er: you’ve been very lucky with your mushrooms then!  Unless you have a decent drying oven, you will almost always just have a mass of maggots long before fungi can be dried.  Even if you buy a box of spawn to pick at home, you just end up with a plague of sciarid flies that no amount of expensive nematodes or drenches with peroxide will clear out of your house plants.

        Even Fly Agarics that books tell you kill flies, usually just dissolve into a swarm of maggots overnight.  I left a cap on newspaper in the middle of the floor one night, and was amazed at the starburst ray pattern of maggots that developed all around it for a couple of metres before the fittest ran out of steam! That said, on occasion, when field mushrooms have been just too beautiful to waste, I have been known to make ketchup, and strain out the maggots before bottling!  🙂

        Don’t fool yourself that there will be much home drying of fungi: it’s much too much hassle and takes up much too much room in modern tiny homes. More likely, any drying will be by commercial suppliers to the trade, who will dry all that cannot be sold to restaurants as fresh.

        The idea that picking fungi was just like picking fruit comes from before GPS and before the crazy popularity of wild foods.  It is some time since I’ve been able to join local recording groups, but we saw the build up in ‘members’ who would turn up and pick every mushroom they saw and fill their car boot with them, whereas regular forayers would only pick a few of their favourites for the pot, and just voucher specimens for the Recorder (Alan Outen) to check, otherwise.  Individuals in Facebook groups are now, frequently, showing photos of hauls bigger than I often saw after pooling the combined efforts of up to 30 recording enthusiasts after a full day’s foraying!

        Even when I was having trouble trying to explain to BSBI members how useful it would be to have GPS built into cameras (they could not see how phone tech was going to replace maps and carrying heavy field guides around), the professional wild mushroom suppliers were already following the season around the globe, going exactly to the same sites year on year with their GPS, while there is an ever increasing financial incentive, and little in the way of field skills required.  

        There are far too many people, and much too little ‘wild’ left.  When was the last time you saw salep, or larks’ tongues on sale?  Worthington Smith described them being netted by the thousands on Dunstable downs, to supply the London trade by the new fangled railway… There are about 6 milliard more people to sell to now! The wild stands no chance, be it mammals for China, or fungi for your local ‘gastro pub’.

      2. jeffollerton Post author

        I don’t think that I’ve been lucky, just very careful when I pick and process wild mushrooms. I only take home those that are not riddled with maggots (easy to check in the field) and in the kitchen I slice out any parts with maggots. Drying and pickling is very common across Scandinavia and eastern Europe, not sure why the Brits have such a problem with it.

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