Mushrooms inspire the imagination with their mystery and beauty. They can also taste really good. But if you're planning to forage for your own ingredients, you'll want to do a lot of research and talk to some pros. Some mushrooms look a lot like their edible counterparts but are dangerously toxic. This list is far from complete, but you'll discover some U.S. fungi you'll want to avoid.
Destroying Angel, aka Amanita bisporigera, has a spooky name and even more frightening effects. This deadly species grows on the ground, mostly in mixed coniferous and deciduous forests in the eastern U.S. It has a smooth white cap that can reach up to four inches in width, white gills, a five-inch stalk, and a distinctive skirt-like ring below the cap.
Destroying angel mushrooms contain amatoxin and are one of the most toxic around. People who ingest them feel fine for the firstsix to 12 hours. After that, they endure up to 24 hours of severe vomiting and diarrhea. Symptoms subside after that phase, but death can occur due to liver failure within five to seven days.
Ergot, aka Claviceps purpurea, is pretty common in North America from July through April. It grows singly or clustered on the flowers of several grass species. Most often, it grows on wheat, rye, and barley heads. It's long and cylinder-like, and it's dark purple to dark brown outside and white inside.
Some authors believe that this mushroom may have caused the strange behavior of suspected "witches" during the Salem Witch Trials of the 1600s. Consuming ergot causes ergotism, also known as St. Anthony's Fire; symptoms include convulsions, diarrhea, vomiting, psychosis, and gangrene. It can ultimately lead to death.
Death cap, aka Amanita phalloides, is, unsurprisingly, a deadly mushroom that appears in groups in mixed woods or in the shade of trees in open fields. It is plentiful in California and on the East Coast from September to October. This mushroom grows among the roots of trees, where it has a mutualistic relationship.
While this fungus might be helpful to our leafy friends, it's hazardous to humans. Ingestion causes nausea and progresses to liver failure and death in about 10 to 15% of cases. The cap is 2.5 to 6 inches wide and rounded, yellowish-green to olive in color, with thin white gills. It has a white stalk about 3 to 6 inches long.
The Jack o' lantern mushroom, aka Omphalotus illudens, makes for some extremely Instagrammable woodland snaps. This fleshy shroom has a beautiful bright orange color. It grows in dense clusters on decaying trees and tree stumps, primarily on the East Coast in autumn. Its gills, which run down the stem and are bright orange to pale orange, glow in the dark, but that special effect fades once you pick them. Their caps can range from 1 to 7.5 inches in width — they kind of have a cookie shape, but don't eat them!
While they won't kill you, Jack o'lanterns can give you an awful bout of muscle cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting. They look similar to tasty, edible Chanterelle mushrooms, so make sure you know the difference if you decide to go foraging.
Autumn skullcap or Galerina autumnalis is a small brown mushroom that tends to spring up on rotted wood. Its cap is about 0.5 to 2 inches wide and feels sticky to the touch when wet. It has yellow gills that turn brown and a light-brown stalk. This poisonous mushroom causes severe symptoms that sneak up within six to 12 hours of eating. It contains amatoxin, which leads to awful abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea for hours on end.
After that first bout of agonizing symptoms, symptoms often subside but the toxins are still at work, attacking the liver. Severe poisoning symptoms, like stomach bleeding and kidney failure, begin after 24 hours, and the effects can be fatal.
Deadly webcap — Cortinarius rubellus — is mainly found in the Pacific Northwest, notably in Mount Rainier National Park, but it also grows in subalpine forests on the northern East Coast. Its cap ranges from tawny brown to orange. The circular shape of the cap flattens, keeping somewhat rolled-down edges, as the shroom matures. The cap is about one to four inches wide, and the stem is two to four inches tall. Its gills range from yellow to rusty brown.
Deadly webcap's rich brown color can sometimes cause foragers to mistake it for orange-hued edible mushrooms. However, it is highly poisonous: ingestion of even a tiny amount can cause kidney failure and possibly death from the powerful toxin orellanine.
Many poisonous mushrooms look like edible mushrooms called morels. Perhaps the worst of the bunch is the deadly false morel or Gyromitra esculenta. This mushroom is dark brown, with an irregular, textured appearance that resembles a brain. It grows across the U.S. in sandy soil below coniferous trees. It can reach about 6 inches wide, with a stem about 2.5 inches tall.
Eaten raw, its principle toxin, gyromitrin, impacts the liver, central nervous system, and kidneys, causing vomiting, diarrhea, and dizziness. Severe cases can cause death within seven days of ingestion. Funnily enough, when cooked, this mushroom is considered a delicacy in the upper Great Lakes region, but we wouldn't recommend risking it on your own.
The inky cap mushroom, aka Coprinopsis atramentaria, is only poisonous when paired with alcohol, earning it the nickname "tippler's bane." This fungus is common across the U.S. from spring to fall, popping up in clumps after rainfall in grassy areas, including lawns and empty lots in cities. It has a characteristic gray-brown "inky" color. It releases a black liquid once it's picked, which people used as ink in the past. Young inky caps have bell-shaped, furrowed caps, ranging from 1to 4 inches wide. The caps later split and flatten, and the white gills turn black.
If you consume this mushroom at the same time or within a few hours of drinking alcohol, a compound called coprine causes symptoms like skin reddening, vomiting, agitation, and heart palpitations. In rare cases, it can lead to a fatal heart attack. Because it stops the liver from breaking down alcohol, the more you drink, the worse the mushroom's effects.
Wooly fibercap, aka Inocybe stellatospora, is an innocent-looking brown mushroom that grows in areas where foragers tend to look for edible mushrooms. However, it is poisonous, causing drooling and excessive sweating within 30 minutes of consumption. It may also cause stomach pain, nausea, blurred vision, and difficulty breathing. Though generally, fibercaps won't make you seriously ill, they can be fatal for people with weakened hearts or breathing issues.
This small mushroom has an umbrella-shaped cap with fibrous, furry-looking scales and gray-brown gills. In the U.S., you'll mostly find wooly fibercaps west of the Cascade Mountain range, growing on rotting wood. The cap reaches no more than one inch wide, and the stem can grow up to three inches tall.
Ivory funnel or Clitocybe dealbata is an all-white mushroom you've likely seen in your yard. This small shroom has a shallow funnel-shaped cap that reaches a maximum of an inch and half wide. Like the wooly fibercap, if ingested, the ivory funnel causes excessive salivation and sweating, earning it the nickname "the sweating mushroom." The poisonous chemical muscarine is responsible for its ill effects.
This mushroom appears in fall and summer, often growing in a fairy-ring formation. It's a particular risk to small children because it grows in grassy areas where they tend to play. While it usually isn't deadly, it can make you quite sick and is potentially fatal to people with underlying health issues.