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Wild mushrooms aren’t all poisonous, but they all require caution

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If you walk out of your back door or into the forest and look down, you may encounter a bleeding tooth, a destroying angel, or, if you’re lucky, dead man’s fingers. These are fungi. With grim names like these, it’s no wonder many people think fungi that exist beyond the grocery store should be feared and avoided (and certainly not eaten).

But other wild fungi have more fanciful names such as eyelash cup and dog’s nose fungus or names that emphasize that they can be eaten, such as chicken of the woods or beefsteak fungus. So it’s not just the names that cause concern.

KidsPost asked Anne Pringle, a scientist who studies fungi at the University of Wisconsin, about fungi’s image problem.

“Unfortunately, there aren’t really a lot of warm fuzzy mushroom stories out there,” Pringle says.

Stories are often about a handful of poisonous varieties that people regularly mistake for edible mushrooms. These few (known scientifically as Amanita, Galerina and Lepiota) pose real risks, especially for curious little kids and pets who don’t know enough the dangers of eating something they spot outside.

Fungi aren’t the only organisms we tend to approach in fear. Snakes and spiders have long been feared outside the pet store. But we now know that not all wild snakes are venomous copperheads nor are all spiders venomous black widows. Similarly, most mushrooms are not death caps. Poisonous mushrooms, like venomous snakes and spiders, when given appropriate space and respect (which for mushrooms means not eating them), seldom hurt us.

Even when we ignore the dangers of mistaken identification or eating them by accident, most people connect fungi with decay, Pringle says.

“Fungi serve primarily as decomposers in the environment,” she says. “They’re basically taking out the trash and breaking down dead plants and animals (and their poop). Who’s going to appreciate that?”

But fungi have another job that’s important, Pringle says.

“Many other mushrooms form essential below-ground partnerships with plant roots helping acquire essential nutrients,” she says.

Pringle first got interested in fungi while studying plants in college. She came to appreciate that below-ground fungi not only helped plants colonize land more than 400 million years ago but also continue to help diverse plants around the world thrive in otherwise unsuitable habitats.

The fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), the white-spotted red mushroom found in video games including Mario and Minecraft, is one such plant-enhancing mushroom. This fungus is part of a group of poisonous mushrooms, so it should be left where it’s found to produce spores that could then disperse to nearby trees and forests and form new partnerships with nearby plants.

As you spend time outdoors, you have a good chance of encountering fungi — maybe even one that hasn’t been discovered. Pringle recommends you get a mushroom field guide from a library or bookstore and check out what fungi are in your neighborhood on iNaturalist or Mushroom Observer. In time you may post your own fungus observations, sketch their diverse shapes and colors, and teach your family and friends about the mind-blowing world of fungi hidden in plain sight. Who knows, maybe you’ll even consider a career in studying fungi.

Matthew Kasson is a professor at West Virginia University who studies fungi and their interactions with plants and insects.

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