Don’t eat those death caps

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One of the most deadly mushrooms in the world can be found in the Winters region and throughout Northern California. Its scientific name is the Amanita phalloides, but it is commonly referred to as the death cap. This pale toadstool is believed to be the leading cause of mushroom-related deaths in humans.

The death cap is so toxic that it can cause a human or animal to suffer complete liver failure within 24 hours. Historians suspect that it has been used in several famous murders, including the assassinations of popes, tsarinas and emperors.

These death cap mushrooms are common in the Winters area. They may look like edible mushrooms from the grocery store, but can be deadly. Never eat wild mushrooms unless you are absolutely certain what type it is. Ingesting a death cap mushroom can lead to liver failure within 24 hours.
(Courtesy photo)

Originally from Europe, these mushrooms traveled throughout the world on the roots of transplanted trees. The death cap usually thrives in oak’s root systems, but has adapted to trees and habitats across the globe.

This has led to multiple accidental poisonings. The death cap looks very similar to several edible fungi varieties, including the Caesar’s mushroom in Russia and the paddy straw mushroom in Southeast Asia. There have been multiple fatalities in California alone resulting from amateur mushroom gatherers collecting and cooking the deadly death cap by mistake.

Fortunately, these kinds of deaths are not very common in humans. Local mushroom expert Thomas Sears had some insight into the risk of coming across a death cap mushroom.

“Dogs are probably the most affected by these mushrooms,” he explained. “People might eat them because they misidentify them. Dogs aren’t going to know that.”

This was the case at the UC Davis Veterinary Hospital, where they treated a puppy that had eaten the death caps growing in the family’s backyard.

Researchers at UC Davis have found some success in saving animals by conducting a, “total plasma exchange and plasma absorption.” This is a last-ditch effort to remove the toxin from the blood, but it will not be effective unless started immediately.

Sears explained that if a human were to accidentally ingest a death cap, a doctor would probably first try to treat them with activated charcoal, but if they didn’t get to the hospital within the first 24 hours they would be in need of a liver transplant.

The death cap’s toxins are not effected by heat or acid, so the human body can’t break them down.

“When you cook them, the toxins are still stable and they’re still active when they go through the body,” Sear explained.

He also pointed out that the fires in the area have probably increased the number of death caps. The fungus grows in a symbiotic relationship with a tree’s roots. When a trees dies, the mushroom loses its host body. The fungus undertakes what Sears refers to as, “a last-ditch mechanism to stay alive.”

The death cap sends up a large bloom of fruiting bodies in an attempt to spread its spores and reproduce. This results in an explosion of toadstools sprouting around the dead tree.

Sears’ advice for dealing with death caps is to be educated on their appearance.  Because they grow in trees’ root systems, it is difficult to fully eradicate the organism.

“I would say that there’s not any way to combat them other than being able to identify them and pick them as soon as possible.”

The death cap has a large fruiting body, with a pale yellow or greenish cap between 2 and 6 inches across. It begins with a round cap that flattens and grows with age. They tend to grow under oak trees, and thrive in wet, foggy winters.

“I’ve heard that they taste delicious,” Sears joked.

In the case of the death cap, nobody is going back for seconds.


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