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The Good, the Bad, and the Deadly....Knowing the Poisonous Mushrooms

To those who love mushrooms, what could be finer than sauteing up a mess of freshly collected 'shrooms to go along with your freeze-dried dinner or the trout you hooked in the backcountry of a national park? A teaspoon of garlic, a dash of salt, and a couple cranks of the pepper mill and you'll have a wonderful complement to your meal. Unless, of course, you picked the wrong mushroom, in which case this could be your last meal.

I'm one who loves mushrooms, and who enjoys collecting them in the long as I'm with someone who actually knows which are good and which can be deadly. For me and many, many others, though, there's a bit of help out there that can move us in the direction of knowing which 'shrooms are edible and which should be given a wide berth. Taylor Lockwood's second video, The Good, the Bad, and the Deadly, Knowing the Poisonous Mushrooms, offers a solid introduction to how you can safely navigate the woods when collecting these tasty fungi.

Divided into three sections -- Introduction and Background, Basic Mushroom Identification, and Mushrooms by Groups of Toxins -- this $24.95 video, which falls ten minutes shy of an hour in length, isn't intended to be the one and only key in your schooling to becoming a highly skilled, and long-lived, mushroom hunter. Rather, view it has a fairly hefty primer -- one that can be tongue-twisting, given the many Latin names that somehow roll smoothly from Mr. Lockwood's mouth -- into the thousands of mushrooms that exist out there, into how appearances can be deceiving, and into what toxins they can possess. Billed as a boot camp geared for "mushroom hunters, chefs, parents, pet owners, and medical professionals," The Good, the Bad, and the Deadly should be supplemented by going out with experienced, (and preferably aged) mushroom hunters, joining a mushroom hunting club, and keeping things simple to improve your skills and protect your health, says Mr. Lockwood.

"If you're going to hunt for mushrooms," he says, "stick with the easy ones. It's not worth making a mistake."

Of course, the best advice dispensed by Mr. Lockwood, who has built a career on photographing mushrooms as well as on dispensing the do's and dont's of collecting them, is don't even think of eating a mushroom if there's any question in your mind as to its toxicity. As he puts it, if you're not positively certain a mushroom at your feet is edible, it's not. End of story.

"The bottom line is this: We all need to respect nature," he says. "It can give life, and take it away as well."

Indeed. And the problem with mushrooms, Mr. Lockwood points out, is that they are so easily misidentified. There are tasty morels, and dangerous false morels. There are delightful chanterelles, and potentially deadly false chanterelles. There are gilled mushrooms -- almost all poisonous mushrooms have gills, he says, but so, too, do many edible varieties --; mushrooms with "tooths" beneath their caps, none of which has been proven deadly, and; mushrooms that look nothing like mushrooms but which, naturally, can be deadly, or not.

The most deadly mushroom? That would be the "Death Cap," or Amanita phalloides by its Latin name, says Mr. Lockwood. It is responsible for 80-90 percent of mushroom deaths around the world simply because it's so easily confused with mushrooms that are quite edible, he explains. Sometimes the toxins in mushrooms are quick-acting and rapidly symptomatic, and sometimes those symptoms can be delayed, a dilemma that poses a significant problem.

"By the time symptoms appear, the toxins have already started damaging the liver and other organs," Mr. Lockwood explains in discussing potentially deadly galerinas, lepiotas and amanitas. "Long recovery time and liver transplants are common, if the patient is lucky enough to survive."

In his folksy style Mr. Lockwood also runs through some popular myths about mushrooms -- just because an animal can eat them doesn't mean the mushroom in question won't make you sick or worse, for instance -- and also offers some photography tips for shooting the wild 'shroom.

Now, adding somewhat to the complexity of mushroom identification and hunting is knowing which national parks allow mushroom collecting for personal use. Confuse these parks and you could find yourself facing a fine. For example, while it's been estimated that Glacier National Park harbors more than 1,000 types of fungi, it's illegal to collect mushrooms within the park's borders. However, at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where morels grow, collecting for personal use is allowed. At Point Reyes National Seashore, where mushrooms are found throughout the park's various habitats, collecting is also permitted.

Bottom line: check with park officials before you head off with pail or mesh net in hand.

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