August 29, 2018

Searching for Mushrooms Is Fun But When in Doubt, Throw It Out

MUSHROOM MADNESS: Searching the woods for mushrooms is a popular pastime, especially during hot, wet, humid summers like the one that is winding to a close. While varieties like these chanterelles are prized, officials caution that cooking and eating mushrooms without knowing what they are can be toxic. (Cantharellus cibarius. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

By Anne Levin

Growing up in upstate New York, Steve Omiecinski learned from his father how to hunt for mushrooms in the woods. “My dad used to go out with his grandpa, so he knew what to look for,” said Omiecinski, a Princeton resident who has continued the tradition in local areas he will not disclose.

“It’s like a beauty secret, or a good fishing hole,” he said. “No one is going to share where they go looking.”

Omiecinski has been hunting mushrooms for years, and he knows what he is looking for. But for those less informed, the New Jersey Poison Control Center cautions that picking and eating mushrooms growing in gardens, woods, on lawns, and on trees can be a dangerous game. As of last Friday, there were 56 cases of mushroom poisoning in New Jersey, which can range from nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting — to death.

“People think they know what they are, but it can be deceiving,” said Bruce Ruck, managing director of the Center, which is part of Rutgers New Jersey Medical School’s Department of Emergency Medicine. “There was one case where the mother in a family died because she was cooking the mushrooms they picked and tasting them as she went along. The father and son were hospitalized, but they survived.”

Savvy mushroom hunters know which varieties to avoid. “There are professional foragers and they know what they’re doing,” said Ruck. “But if you are not one of them, and you see a mushroom on your lawn and you have kids and pets, dig it out and throw it out. Don’t take the chance.”

Princeton architect Jeffery Clarke defers to his friend Omiecinski as the expert on mushroom hunting. With Omiecinski’s advice, he recently harvested a puffball from his back yard, cooked it, and ate it — with no ill effects. “It can be a huge risk,” Clarke said. “But that being said, there is an easy way to check some of the common varieties. If you cut them open and they don’t have gills, that’s good.”

The Poison Control Center warns that some edible mushrooms have toxic lookalikes. Depending on the variety, eating even a few bites can cause serious health issues. For anyone worried about exposure to poisonous mushrooms, time is of the essence. Instead of waiting for symptoms to appear or searching the internet, call the Poison Help Line at (800) 222-1222, 24 hours a day. For New Jersey residents, the Poison Control Center can arrange for an expert to identify the mushroom.

“Remove any remaining parts of the mushroom from the person’s mouth and place those fragments and all mushrooms that are in the immediate vicinity of the incident into one or more paper bags, NOT plastic,” reads a statement from the organization. “Take a digital photograph of the mushroom in question. It helps to take a picture of the mushroom next to other objects such as a coin, ruler, etc. to provide a sense of scale.”

But for the professionals and those who know how to distinguish the good from the bad, mushroom hunting is a popular pastime. “It’s something nice to do outside. It gives you a reason to walk,” said Omiecinski. “I would say I know about four or five places I can go to and know what I’m probably going to find.”

There are about seven or eight mushroom varieties that Omiecinski feels comfortable with. He welcomes the Poison Control Center’s advisories. “I think it’s good that people are scared,” he said. “Because it can be dangerous. And hey, it means more for me.”