Susan Hubble's daughter, Lydia Balzano, holds a giant mushroom the family plans to eat, but experts say beware.
"The one we found this morning was at the entrance of the Falmouth Country Club," says Susan Hubble, who passes by the club every day to take her kids to school. "And for the past couple days, I've watched this thing grow, and the kids kept telling me, 'No mom, it's a piece of trash that's somebody's thrown out.' But then I saw it this morning and it had grown so much, I said, 'No way.'"
But public health officials are warning foragers such as Hubble that they are taking a serious risk. "We've had at least 16 poisonings just in the period of a month or two, and those are just the ones that we know about," says Karen Simone, the director of the Northern New England Poison Center, which covers Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.
Simone says that foragers typically account for a small proportion of mushroom poisonings. For the last four years, which averaged about 130 cases annually, at least 80 percent involve children who eat the fungi accidentally, or people who are trying to get high off hallucinogenic mushrooms.
But there have been 176 cases already this year. And Simone says the number of sickened foragers is at least three times higher than past years. "Certainly you can associate this with rains, so that there's a large crop of mushrooms growing out there," she says. "But I also have to think that, you know, there's a bad economy and everyone's trying to go back to nature, and most people think that if it's natural it's not poisonous, which is pretty far from being true."
Simone says poisoned foragers tend to be sicker than others who've had bad fungi. "Those are the ones that are in the hospital--we're worried that they might have a liver problem or they're vomiting and having so much diarrhea that we have to give them the same drugs that we give the chemotherapy patients."
Josie Huang: "And why is the impact so much greater on foragers? Are they eating a larger quantity then someone, say, who's eating them accidentally?"
Karen Simone: "That's exactly it. A child usually is going to taste a mushroom and not eat a lot. But these foragers, we had one gentleman who went out in his backyard, he saw that there were some pretty mushrooms growing. His wife was making a pizza and he thought, 'Wow, I'll just go pick those mushrooms and put them on my pizza."
Josie Huang: "What did those mushrooms turn out to be?"
Karen Simone: Well, we really don't know because he ate them all, but certainly a mushroom with bad gastrointestinal toxicity. Luckily, his liver was OK. That's what we worry the most about because you can die, or go into liver failure if you eat the wrong kind of mushroom."
Simone says that some patients got sick off mushrooms they got from people who claimed to be trained foragers. Among those who buy from foragers are restaurants, and they asked the Legislature to address the regulation of wild mushrooms being sold.
"Public safety is really of a grave concern, making sure that people aren't eating poisonous mushrooms--that's number one," says state Sen. Brian Langley, a Ellsworth Republican and restaurant owner who introduced the legislation for the Maine Restaurant Association.
The issue started generating a lot of attention when a couple of Portland chefs got so sick from mushrooms they had to be hospitalized. Langley's bill resulted in plans to create a voluntary certification program for foragers run by mushroom experts. He says that way restaurant owners could buy from these foragers with confidence.
"I'll give you one example: There are two mushrooms that look exactly the same side by side. The only way to tell the difference is when you flip them over and look at the fins that are underneath the caps," Langley says. "So it's a skill, it is definitely a skill."
But for public health officials such as Karen Simone, a certification program doesn't go far enough. "What we need is a guarantee that if somebody is going to forage and sell a mushroom, that one person at least in the chain--the forager, the distributro or the restaurant or the store owner, somebody in that chain--has to be certified as qualified to identify that mushroom properly," she says. "And there's a set list of mushrooms that we feel are safe enough to do that with. There are some mushrooms that are so difficult to identify that we just don't even feel like it's safe to have them on that list."
With mushroom season expected to last until November, Simone is worried that more foragers will get sick.
Susan Hubble says even though she grew up in a family of naturalists who foraged for mushrooms, she still exercises the greatest caution. "Without speaking to someone that's really a professional, I don't dare delve into species I'm not sure of," she says.
But she says she can tell the difference between the 4-pound puffball, 29 centimeters in diameter, that she picked this morning and another near-identical, but poisonous, species. "The way I tell this species is the texture of the skin on it--it has a softer texture on the skin than the one that is similar to it that is poisonous. And that has a sort of bumpy, hard skin to it."