R.V. Southcott puts the matter into stark perspective: 'the edibility of most Australian species of fungi is untested' (Southcott, 1996). The aboriginal population are known to have eaten fungi. The Beefsteak Fungus, Fistulina hepatica, was eaten by Western Australian Aborigines, according to a mid-eighteenth century record (Kalotas, 1996), and the Pitjantjatjara and Pintupi of the Australian Western Desert were known to eat the Native Truffle Choiromyces aboriginum. The Arunta of Central Australia, however, believed that fungi were endowed with evil magic and would not eat them at all (Spencer and Gillen, 1904, quoted in Kalotas, 1996).
Recorded from areas around Perth and from states in southeastern Australia , Laccocephalum mylittae, is a large, edible - though not particularly tasty - fungus that grows in rainforest and eucalypt forests. Fungimappers at the Sunnybrae Restaurant in Birregurra, Victoria tried a variety of ways to cook a specimen from the Otways in 2008 - details can be found on their blog.
While Fungimap does not encourage eating wild Australian mushrooms because so little is know about their edibility and many poisonous species are virtually indistinguishable from safe varieties, there is also increasing interest in using fungi as food, both cultivated species such as truffles but also wild-collected fungi.
At the 2012 Fungimap Festival, Fungimap hosted a debate titled 'Eating wild fungi: Fun or Foolhardy?' The debate highlighted the challenges in connecting a population that is predominantly urban-dwelling with the natural environment and also explored the potential mismatch of cultural knowledge about wild food developed in one part of the world (such as Europe), when transplanted to distant localities (such as Australia). To argue for the Fun side were 'Wild FunGi' Patrick Jones, forager and poet, 'Wild FunGi' food writer Graeme Phillips, and 'Wild FunGal' fungi photographer and educator Alison Pouliot. Poisons experts Dr Tom May and Dr Teresa Lebel and mycologist Dr Genevieve Gates argued for the Foolhardy side. (It may be worth knowing that Dr Tom May, Senior Mycologist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne, founder and current Fungimap President, and likely to be the person consulted if you have reason to call Poison Control in Victoria, only eats mushrooms he has purchased from the supermarket!) Both teams provided well argued and at times hilarious reasons, and by the end decided that they kind of agreed with each other - people need to know more about fungi!
A safe and interesting way to enjoy non-supermarket mushrooms is to learn how to grow your own. Fungimap does not offer any specific advice about doing this, but Forest Fungi has a great website about growing mushrooms at home and offers classes to beginners - Fungimap members are eligible for a 10% discount. Forest Fungi also sells spawn and other supplies for growing your own mushrooms.
Tony Young, amongst several others, has advanced the state of the art in Euro-Australian ethnomycology by offering many organoleptic and culinary insights into the character of our native fungi. His book, A Field Guide to the Fungi of Australia, is available for purchase from the Fungimap Bookstore.
There are three kinds of poisonous fungi:
- Ones that will kill you
- Ones that will make you seriously ill
- Ones that will give you hallucinations
Let's start with the ones that can kill you. The most important one on a world-wide basis is the Death Cap, Amanita phalloides, responsible for 90% of the deaths attributable to fungal poisoning in the world (Southcott, 1996; p. 298). It seems to have given all other fungi a bad name. Death from this species is painful and unpleasant. There are no symptoms for the first 12 hours or so, then the victim experiences violent stomach pain and gastroenteritis, followed by vomiting and diarrhoea. Then the effects pass, but only for a couple of days. By that time the toxin has smashed its way through the victim's liver and kidneys, giving A. phalloides an unenviable 50% death rate (Southcott, 1996; p. 300). Should you survive, you are likely to have major kidney and liver damage. "The treatment of choice is often liver transplantation" (David Fischer) If you learn to identify only one fungus in your life (no pun intended), this is the one.
There are other Australian mushrooms which have very similar toxins to A. phalloides. These include many species of Galerina, Gyromitra, Lepiota and Cortinarius.
A much larger group of fungi is the ones which will make you very ill. Tony Young makes the point that this may be due to poisons in the fungus, an allergy, or sensitisation (Young, 1994). Some species, notably Paxillus involutus, can cause acute sensitisation, resulting in death in some cases. Amanita muscaria, the Fly Agaric, easily identified by almost everyone from its constant presence in pictures from fairy stories, will cause gastrointestinal upsets, as will many other fungi. It is so easily recognised that poisoning from this species is almost unheard of. Everyone seems to know it's poisonous.
Photos of Amanita muscaria.
The hallucinatory or psychotropic mushrooms are another group. The most popular of these seems to be Psilocybe subaeruginosa, often known as 'Golden Tops'. While there are obvious dangers to those who drive under the influence of psychotropic mushrooms, some species of Galerina bear a striking similarity to Psilocybe and occur in similar habitats, increasing the possibility of a fatal psychotropic feast. As above, some Galerinas have the same kind of toxins as the deadly Amanitas. Moreover, for many species of hallucinatory mushrooms there is a fine line between ingesting an amount that will produce hallucinations and ingesting an amount that could cause serious organ damage or even death.
Popular (and dangerous) myths about poisonous fungi
There is no magic way to tell if a fungus is poisonous. Not all dangerous fungi taste unpleasant, almost none of them will stain a silver spoon black, only one or two change colour when the flesh is bruised, and an animal (including your dog) is just as likely to try a poisonous mushroom as a non-poisonous one. The only certain way to know if it is poisonous is to identify it.
But so little of Australia's mycoflora has been collected and identified that the chances are good that you could easily be the discoverer of an even more deadly mushroom than the Death Cap. Many Australian species look superficially like popular edible European species. This has resulted in more than a few hospital admissions.
Kalotas, A.C.(1996) Aboriginal knowledge and use of fungi. in: Fungi of Australia. Vol IB. CSIRO:Melbourne, pp. 269-295
Southcott, R.V (1996) Mechanisms of macrofungal poisoning in humans. in: Fungi of Australia. Vol IB. CSIRO:Melbourne pp. 295-313
Spencer, B. and Gillen, F.J. (1904) The Northern Tribes of Central Australia. Macmillan: London
Young, Tony (1994) Common Australian Fungi: A naturalist's guide. NSW University Press: Kensington