While wild mushrooms continue to draw the admiration of artists and photographers, they can also be deadly to eat.
Three elderly people died this month reportedly from eating a soup made with poisonous mushrooms picked in the backyard of a senior care facility in Loomis, Placer County, according to news reports.
So far this year, the California Poison Control system has received 11 calls involving Napa County residents suffering from mushroom poisoning — seven more than in 2011, said Stuart Heard, executive director of the California Poison Control System, a unit of the School of Pharmacy at UC San Francisco. The center provides callers with information and 24-hour help in case of poisoning.
Of the 11 calls, five involved children 5 years or younger, Heard said. Four cases were either older children or teenagers up to 19 years of age, while the other two were adults. None of them involved a fatal case and only five people were hospitalized, according to the center.
Jennifer Henn, an epidemiologist at Napa County Public Health, said the county is not aware of any mushroom-related deaths in the past eight years.
Still, as the rainy season has arrived in California, plenty of mushrooms are expected to sprout in backyards and in the wilderness. And it does not take much rain for mushrooms to grow, Heard noted.
Heard has seen plenty of mushrooms, including in north Marin County where he lives, he said. “Now is the time for people to be very alert,” he said.
Poisonous mushrooms look like most edible mushrooms and eating wild mushrooms is always a risk. Most people are not experts in mushrooms and should not pick them in the wild, including those that grow in backyards, Heard said. That’s what leads to tragedies, he said.
“They should leave them alone,” he said.
Artist, naturalist and mushroom expert Debbie Viess, of the Bay Area Mycological Society, loves everything about mushrooms. “It’s an obsession,” she said.
Yet she, too, urges caution. Foraging for food is fun, but mushrooms can kill, she said.
“Don’t eat what you know you don’t know,” Viess said.
Symptoms of mushroom poisoning include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and sweating, according to Heard.
And while fatal cases are relatively rare, the poison control system receives calls all the time. Out of 836 calls the center received in 2011 statewide, seven cases were for major poisonous exposure to mushrooms, 40 for moderate exposure and 54 for minor exposure, according to the center. The other people suffered either no or minimal effects or had not been exposed to a toxic mushroom. Dogs and cats are also susceptible to toxic mushrooms, experts stress.
Napa County, which has no mushroom expert on staff, refers calls about identifying or eating wild mushrooms to the Sonoma County Mycological Association, said Napa County representative Elizabeth Emmett.