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  • Courtesy photo
    This mushroom, known as a "bearded tooth" (species name Hericium erinaceus) was photographed on a tree in Maine recently during a trip by Nashua resident Jenn Dunn. Despite its alarming appearance, it is quite edible.
  • Staff Photo by GRANT MORRIS


    Facebook - Grant Morris of the Nashua Telegraph


    Jenn Dumas searches the woods for Fall-time mushrooms, Tuesday afternoon. Because she couldn't find any she couldn't immediately and undeniably identify, she didn't pick any.
  • Courtesy photo
    This mushroom, known as a "bearded tooth" (species name Hericium erinaceus) was photographed on a tree in Maine recently during a trip by Nashua resident Jenn Dunn. Despite its alarming appearance, it is quite edible.
  • Staff Photo by GRANT MORRIS


    Facebook - Grant Morris of the Nashua Telegraph


    Jenn Dumas,shown in her Nashua kitchen, holds a bearded tooth mushroom that she found in Maine over the weekend. She has been picking and eating mushrooms for years but says she picks only a couple species that lack poisonous "look-alike" versions.
  • Courtesy photo

    The chanterelle mushroom is one of the most popular edible varieties around the world, including in New England. It is easy for beginners to mistake it for the jack-o-lantern mushroom, or other poisonous varieties.
  • Photo by Bob Hammerstrom


    These mushrooms, and many other varieties, were found growing along the edges of a local front yard.
  • Photo by Bob Hammerstrom


    These mushrooms, and many other varieties, were found growing along the edges of a local front yard.
  • Photo by Bob Hammerstrom


    These mushrooms, and many other varieties, were found growing along the edges of a local front yard.
  • Photo by Bob Hammerstrom


    These mushrooms, and many other varieties, were found growing along the edges of a local front yard.
  • Photo by Bob Hammerstrom


    These mushrooms, and many other varieties, were found growing along the edges of a local front yard.
  • Photo by Bob Hammerstrom


    These mushrooms, and many other varieties, were found growing along the edges of a local front yard.
  • Photo by Bob Hammerstrom


    These mushrooms, and many other varieties, were found growing along the edges of a local front yard.
  • Photo by Bob Hammerstrom


    These mushrooms, and many other varieties, were found growing along the edges of a local front yard.
  • Photo by Bob Hammerstrom


    These mushrooms, and many other varieties, were found growing along the edges of a local front yard. This one blows out a cloud of smoke when you step on it.
  • Photo by Bob Hammerstrom


    These mushrooms, and many other varieties, were found growing along the edges of a local front yard.
  • Photo by Bob Hammerstrom


    These mushrooms, and many other varieties, were found growing along the edges of a local front yard.
  • Photo by Bob Hammerstrom


    These mushrooms, and many other varieties, were found growing along the edges of a local front yard.
  • Staff Photo by GRANT MORRIS


    Facebook - Grant Morris of the Nashua Telegraph


    Dumas turns over a log to find a small grouping of mushrooms growing under it. Because she couldn't id them, they were left to grow under the log.
  • Staff Photo by GRANT MORRIS


    Facebook - Grant Morris of the Nashua Telegraph


    A close-up of the Bearded Tooth Mushroom which Jenn Dumas found in Maine over the weekend.
Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Cases of poisoning soar as wet weather brings out more mushrooms

The wet late summer has led to a bumper crop of wild mushrooms in New Hampshire forests and fields, but this colorful profusion which has produced a less happy result: A record numbers of hospital visits by people who ate toxic mushrooms.

As of Tuesday, according to the state, 18 people have gone to New Hampshire emergency rooms in September due to eating mushrooms – almost as many as occurred in the last two years, combined.

This bad news is apparently due to this year’s overwhelming fall crop combined with increased interest in eating local, natural food. It underscores what experience mushroom-pickers have long known: This is a hobby where it pays to be triply careful.

“I’ve heard you should pick a mushroom three times before you eat it, so you know you can correctly identify it,” said Jenn Dumas of Nashua, who has eaten wild mushrooms since she lived in the Midwest, where people often went what can be called “shrooming.”

“There are only a couple of species that I will pick myself, because there are too many others that have poisonous look-alikes,” she said.

Marcia Jacob, secretary of the Boston Mycological Club, the region’s oldest and largest organization of people interested in mushrooms, agreed.

“Some are edible, some are poisonous, some are more poisonous than others. If you’re going to eat mushrooms, you’d better be darned sure of your identification, because there are lots of look-alikes,” she said.

The club offers a series of classes in Cambridge, Mass., for beginners each fall, the most popular time to hunt wild mushrooms, designed largely to help people identify safe species.

“There are many more people (in the classes) this year than previous years,” said Jacob. “It was standing room only last night.”

New Hampshire had 8 cases of emergency room visits from eating wild mushrooms in 2009, and 11 in 2010. So far 2011 has seen 31, 18 of which have come in September. The spate of poisonings isn’t limited to New Hampshire.

The Northern New England Poison Control Center, which takes calls from New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont, has seen unprecedented numbers of mushroom-related calls. Most are gastro-intestinal disorders, with vomiting, diarrhea and fevers. Some were so severe that emergency rooms first thought they were appendicitis.

“It’s not a minor ‘I ate a mushroom and I’m a little nauseous’ situation. It can be very, very serious,” said Karen Simone, a toxicologist and director of the center.

No fatalities have been reported, but many people have been hospitalized for long periods.

There is no single antidote for poison mushrooms, because different species have different toxins. Without knowing what kind of mushroom people consumed – and it’s rare for people to bring a sample with them to the hospital, because it has usually already been cooked and eaten – it’s difficult to treat the ailment.

The spike in cases may be a reflection of a sharp increase in both number and variety of mushrooms growing in our woods and fields due to the wet summer, including Tropical Storm Irene, and a warm start to fall.

Dumas noted that she recently found morel mushrooms, an edible variety which she has rarely encountered here, growing alongside a path in Mine Falls Park, or that on a recent trip to a Hudson grocery store to buy mushrooms she spotted an edible variety known as sulphur shells growing on a stump in a graveyard next to the store.

“I picked those and didn’t have to buy anything,” she said. “It’s been a great year for them. Finding morels in Mine Falls is amazing.”

Jon Nute, a forester for Cooperative Extension who has decades of experience in the New Hampshire woods, agreed.

“I am just astounded at the volume and variety of the mushrooms I’ve seen in the last two weeks,” he said. “It’s good for turkeys, squirrels, deer. For anything that eats mushrooms it’s great - for humans, not so great.”

“I’ve been collecting since 1976 and this is the best year I’ve seen,” said Rick Van de Poll of Center Sandwich, who teaches mycology, the science of mushrooms, at the graduate-school and high school level. He said he usually collects around 150 pounds of mushrooms for his own eating, and around 150 pounds extra for trading with other collectors or restaurants.

Van de Poll said he has seen not just more mushrooms but more varieties, including rare species that he had previously glimpsed only once or twice in his life.

Collecting mushrooms is complicated partly because of the wide variety available. There are literally hundreds of species which live in New England, and which can appear, growing from invisible spores, and disappear in short periods of time.

“During a simple afternoon walk in the woods, I can collect 30 different species without trying,” said Jacob.

This variety and ubiquity makes mushroom-collecting appealing, but it doesn’t make it safe.

“This is not something you where just buy a book or look it up on the web. You really have to know what you’re doing. It’s a true expertise,” said Simon of the Poison Control Center. “I wouldn’t go out and pick a safe mushroom, and I’m a toxicologist.”

“I think part of it is that everybody wants to eat natural,” she said. “Just because it’s natural , doesn’t mean it’s safe.”

Simon said the two most common errors was eating the poisonous lilac-brown bolete (tylopilus eximius) because it looks like the mushroom often called porcini (boletus edulis), or eating the orange Jack-o-lantern mushroom (Omphalotus olearius) because it looks like the popular chanterelle (Cantharellus).

David Brooks can be reached at 594-5831 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com.