Use caution before taking a bite into that fabulous fungi
It’s estimated there are several thousand edible wild mushroom species in North America — along with a couple hundred species that are poisonous. So the odds seem to say that the mushroom you found in the woods is safe to eat.
But is it worth the risk?
According to Geisinger clinical dietitian Coryn Kalwanaski, RDN, many toxic mushrooms look a lot like their edible cousins. So, unless you really know the difference, it’s best to avoid eating any you find growing in the wild.
The prize for most commonly ingested poison mushroom in North America goes to green-spored parasols. When young, they look just like the white button mushrooms commonly used on pizzas and in salads — but stick to buying rather than harvesting your pizza and salad toppings. Within 2 hours of eating a green-spored parasol, diarrhea, vomiting and stomach cramps can ensue.
“Morels are another type to watch out for,” cautions Kalwanaski. “They’re a delicacy and they grow wild all around us — along with ‘false morels,’ their evil twins. Unless you know what to watch for, it’s very easy to get confused.”
What if you’re lost in the woods?
People do get lost — and it can become a survival situation. Eventually, you will have to eat, but avoiding mushrooms and other fungi is still a good rule of thumb. Luckily, survival experts have developed a protocol known as the “universal edibility test” that should only be used as a last resort.
“Eating even a tiny bit of a toxic plant can be very dangerous,” says Kalwanaski. “This process takes some time. But even if you are extremely hungry, it’s important to follow the steps — they could save your life.”
The universal edibility test
If it’s a survival situation — and it’s not possible to positively identify the plants you’ve found in the wild — use this test to figure out if they’re okay to eat.
- Separate the plant into roots, stems, leaves, buds and flowers. Focus on one piece at a time. Make sure there's no evidence of worms, parasites or rot.
- Does the part smell okay? A bad odor is a bad sign.
- If it passes the sniff test, place the plant part on your wrist for 15 minutes. If after 8 hours your skin hasn’t burned, gotten itchy or numb or broken out in a rash, boil a small portion of the plant part. If you did have a reaction, throw the whole plant away.
- Before taking a bite, hold the plant to your lips for 3 minutes to test for burning or itching. If your lips are fine, take a small bite, chew it and hold it in your mouth for 15 minutes. If it tastes bitter or soapy, spit it out and move on to a new plant.
- If after 15 minutes all is well, swallow the bite and wait 8 hours to make sure you’re okay before boiling and eating more. Since some plants have edible and inedible parts, do not assume that it is okay to eat the whole plant. Follow the same procedure for each of its parts.
Other plants to avoid – even if you’re really hungry
“Nature has a way of warning us when things should be avoided,” says Kalwanaski, adding that there are certain characteristics that mark a plant as probably poisonous. These include:
- Shiny leaves
- Umbrella-shaped flowers
- White or yellow berries
- Milky or discolored sap
- Seeds inside a pod
- A bitter or soapy taste
- A scent of almonds
- Leaves in groups of three, like poison ivy
Hopefully, unless you’re on a reality show like Survivor, you’ll never need any of these tips. And if you do go hiking in the wilderness, you could always pack a few extra energy bars or a guide that identifies edible plants and inedible poison plants — just in case.
Happy (and healthy) trails!
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