Death cap mushrooms made an early appearance in Santa Cruz
Nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea, followed by a brief period of improved health, and then, without treatment, comes liver damage, kidney failure, coma and death.
These symptoms sound like a Pepto-Bismol commercial gone awry. Instead they are the reality of consuming Amanita phalloides, otherwise known as the Death Cap, one of the most dangerous mushrooms found in Santa Cruz County. The Aptos family of six that suffered the death of one and poisoning of five of their members from the consumption of Death Caps in 2007 is still in recent memory. Every year, an average of between six and eight people are seriously poisoned by wild mushrooms they collect and consume in Northern California.
Death Caps generally appear in the Santa Cruz and Bay areas at large in the heart of fall and earlier in winter, during the rainy season. But, this year, they’ve been popping up outside of their usual season.
“It’s surprising to see them at all in the summer time, normally they would start two to four weeks after the first rain, usually early in the fall,” says Phillip Carpenter, CEO of the Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz. Carpenter first saw the Death Cap scattered sparsely on the grounds of his home in Aptos in mid-July.
“When I first started seeing them come up, there were quite a few people, other foragers, from all over the place who said they saw them as well, so they are scattered about the county,” warns Carpenter.
In a normal season, the Death Cap can be incredibly abundant. “There have been years where I have seen the ground covered with Amanita phalloides,” says Carpenter. Its out of season scarcity may have some hand in misidentifications of the deadly fungi.
However, Carpenter says the Death Cap’s early appearance on the mushroom scene isn’t all that strange considering this year’s weather. “This year … it’s because of the really late rains and there’s a lot of residual moisture in the ground, that we can see them even now,” he says. “We don’t generally expect any moisture this time of the year, but that’s because rains don’t typically come until March or April, and this last year we had rains in June.”
Death Caps are typically found in damp areas where there is a lot of shade—“under an oak tree with some heavy canopy, for example,” says Carpenter. Although mushrooms do generally have a regular season for when they come up, those patterns are not set in stone.
Death Caps are mainly found on coast live oaks, although they can also be found on other types of trees including pines and tanoaks. According to Carpenter, foragers should keep their eyes peeled for the following characteristics: a moderately large mushroom (generally two to five inches across); a smooth yellow/greenish/brownish/white colored cap (a tell-tale sign, he says); white gills (on the underside of the cap) and stem; and a stem ending in a particularly bulbous base that is covered by a membranous sac.
Although these defining characteristics can be helpful, Carpenter stresses that foragers who are not 100 percent sure of the kind of mushroom they have picked should check in with an expert, like any of the folks at the Fungus Federation. Their hotline for the latest information on forays, events, local happenings and assistance identifying is 684-2275.
“I would much rather help someone out beforehand than visit them in the hospital afterwards,” says Carpenter. “Why would you possibly take a risk when it’s so easy to get an identification? You can call the hotline, or we encourage people to bring in their samples. While the Death Cap is very serious, there are many other mushrooms that will make you sick. They may not be deadly, but my gosh, why would you want to hug the toilet for a couple hours?”
For Mikey Cohen, a local mushroom forager and four-year instructor of a mushroom foraging class through the Santa Cruz Free Skool, the Death Cap isn’t much of an issue as long as there is proper awareness. “I think that there is a lot of fear—it can be a very pervasive thought that you could get killed by a mushroom,” Cohen says. “However, once you have a basic understanding of mushrooms and know a Death Cap, you can tell the difference between that and a delicious mushroom. It’s as easy as knowing the key characteristics.”