Mushrooms, those little fungi that pop up in your lawn, charm you on your walks in the forests, and delight the curiosities of our intrepid, little explorers. The Pacific Northwest is mycologically rich and this time of year you can find wild mushroom hunters selling their finds in farmers markets booths across the city. Portland hosts mycological societies and now you can take your whole family on mushroom hunting expeditions, overseen by experienced mushroom hunters. Mushrooms offer a wide variety of ways to explore nature that piques interest in children and gets them invested in the natural world.
I am all for a hands-in-the-mud family adventure, but with the increase of amateur interest in mycology and our current damp climate, it's important to temper enthusiasm with caution.
Mushroom hunters have an old adage: There are old mushroom hunters and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters. The Pacific Northwest is home to several very dangerous mushrooms, but even relatively benign mushrooms can be dangerous as mushrooms readily absorb toxins in their environment including heavy metals. Correct identification of a mushroom doesn't necessarily rule it safe; think about lawn treatments and fertilizers. Further, if a mushroom is poisonous, cooking it won't make it safer and instead may cause the toxins to go airborne. Uncooked non-poisonous mushrooms can still make you sick. Critically, while most mushrooms will make you sick within a couple hours at most, some can take 24 hours to develop symptoms and by then, liver damage will have already occurred.
Correct identification can be particularly tricky with wild mushrooms - sometimes experts differentiate between two mushroom species based on how or where the mushroom grows because the physical features are too similar or have enough variance to be unreliable. Furthermore, mushrooms can display different features and patterns based on where they are growing so knowledge gained in identifying mushrooms on the East Coast may not translate to mushrooms growing in the Pacific Northwest. Oregon has many harmless fungi, and most mushroom identification books include cautions about look-alikes. However if you have a mushroom growing in your backyard that may or may not be dangerous, the North American Mycological Association has Identification Consultants that can help you determine if it's truly dangerous or not free of charge.
The take away here is that mushrooms provide great learning opportunities as many kids are naturally interested in them. But if your toddler puts a wild mushroom in their mouth and you haven't already had the mushroom identified, you need to call Poison Control (1-800-222-1222) and call right away.
-Here is a more in-depth overview of how to prevent mushroom poisoning.
-Here's an article on poisonous mushrooms that grow in urban areas.
-Click here to report a poisoning
-For more information on wild mushrooms of Oregon, visit the Oregon Mycological Society
-Here's some fun educational activities involving mushrooms