Amanitas: Nightmares of the Woods
Updated: Jul 26, 2020
The Amanita family of mushrooms is home to some of the most ubiquitous and classically beautiful mushrooms on the planet. That stereotypical image of a mushroom with a white stem and a red cap and white dots all over the cap is most likely amanita muscaria. Those tall, pearl white slender mushrooms you may sometimes see in the woods is amanita virosa. A group of small mushrooms with a perfect nutty brown dome, each of which is growing out of its own individual egg could be a cluster of amanita calyptrata. The point is these mushrooms are common and eye catching enough to be very familiar indeed. Several of them are also the most deadly mushrooms on the planet. They’re the mushroom that gives all wild mushrooms a bad rep in mainstream America.
There are a variety of species of Amanitas, of course. Fly agaric (amanita muscaria mentioned above) can make folks sick or be deadly in large quantities but it is also a potent hallucinogenic (one that is ill advised to tamper with given the possibility of ingesting lethal amounts of muscarine even in small amounts of mushroom). The Destroying Angel (amanita virosa mentioned above), named for its angelic white appearance, is extremely deadly, containing large amounts of amatoxins which will cause liver and kidney failure, the effects of which can be irreversible after only a day. Coccoli (amanita calyptrata), considered by some to be a very good edible, is an example of the exception to the rule: not all Amanitas are poisonous and several species are considered to be excellent edibles. With that said, if you are new to mushroom hunting, it is extremely dangerous to attempt to identify the edible Amanitas. Equally deadly to the amanita virosa is its little brother, amanita phalloides, or known as Death Cap. The Death Cap, like some of the edible Amanitas, can also have a light brown or yellowish cap, but it will, like the Destroying Angel, almost certainly kill you. Attempting to harvest an edible mushroom and accidentally harvesting a deadly poisonous one is the number one thing we want to avoid while mushroom hunting! To make that easy, I want to talk about how to identify the Amanita group.
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, all amanitas are gilled, mycorrhizal (do NOT grow on wood) mushrooms which grow from what is called a volva. A volva is easiest to imagine as a soft almost rubbery egg with a small mushroom inside. As the mushroom begins to grow larger the volva breaks open, first around the edges of the cap of the mushroom. With the right conditions, the mushroom’s cap and stem continue to grow very large, and the remnants of the volva persist as little bits of debris left behind. Often as the base of the stem of an amanita, you will find a little cup the stem grows out of--this is the volva. Further, on the cap of the mushroom, many amanitas will have raised white patches or dots or sometimes a little cap on top of the cap, like a white yamaka! These are also remnants of the top of the volva. Given that the volva is composed of a very thin membrane, some amanitas, and many when they are older, will have a volva which nearly completely disintegrates, leaving very little evidence of its existence behind. It is due to this phenomenon that it is extremely important to be aware of several other defining characteristics of amanitas.
The next one is that all amanitas have a white spore print. A spore print is when you cut the cap off of a mushroom and leave it over a sheet of paper. After a couple of hours, and sometimes it can take longer, the mushroom will drop its spores from the gills and there will be enough of them that they form a powdery print on the page. Spores can be almost any color and is a key to identifying fungi. Amanitas always have a white spore print. Many species in the agaricus family (think the store bought white button mushroom) with its white cap and stem and can, especially when young, appear to be an amanita, until a spore print has been conducted (Agaricus species typically have a brown spore print).
A third identifying feature of the amanita is that most of them, not all, but most of the amanitas will have a ring around the stem. This ring is a remnant of a veil which, much like the volva, was a thin membrane connecting the inner edge of the cap to the stem. As the cap grows up and outward, this thin veil tears off the cap and loosely dangles from the stem. Some mushrooms lose this ring after a while as it, like the volva, can disintegrate over time due to its delicate nature.
Amanitas come in a range of colors, but typically they have a white base, stem and gills with a white to pale green or yellow to orange to red to brown cap, depending on the species. In a lot of ways, their overall color schemes are similar to the Russula family of mushrooms, but amanitas tend to be much more delicate (taller and thinner) and, of course, possess the remnants of a volva (also called a universal veil) with a white spore print.
Though I caution against consuming amanitas for the sake of safety, it is important to note that there are a number of other deadly mushrooms not in the Amanita family. There is the Satan’s Bolete, Deadly Galerina, the Deadly Webcap, and many many other poisonous and deadly mushrooms. As noted previously, some amanitas are excellent edibles. In fact, David Arora has an interesting paragraph regarding whether or not to eat amanitas:
“I for one do not subscribe to the wholesale philosophy (as expounded by many mushroom mentors) that Amanitas should not be eaten under any circumstances. In my humble fungal opinion, it is just as easy to carelessly overlook the volva and mistake a deadly Amanita for an edible mushroom of another genus as to mistake a deadly Amanita for the coccora (A. calyptrata) or grisette (A. vaginata). True, it is sheer stupidity to risk your life for the sake of a single meal, however delectable it may be. But the key word here is risk--and in the case of a few species such as A. calyptrata, A. caesarea, and A. vaginata, I don’t consider it a risk for discriminating amateurs to eat them, provided they become thoroughly familiar with their characteristics and those of their lethal counterparts. Simplistic slogans or catchwords such as “Do not eat-a the Amanita.” often accomplish the precise opposite of what they intend. Rather than encouraging people to use their eyes and nose and they grey mass between their ears, to approach each and every mushroom with discrimination, intelligence, and respect, such adages reinforce people’s desire for expediency by fostering an unhealthy, mindless reliance on shortcuts and glib generalizations. Those who need simple rules should learn how to play dominoes or Scrabble rather than eat wild mushrooms. Adages such as the above can even be misconstrued to read: “If a mushroom isn’t an Amanita it won’t kill you”--a dangerous assumption!”
With that said, for the purposes of using this website for ID advice, I still fall into the camp of: “why bother with an Amanita?”. There’s so many delicious mushrooms out there, let’s just skip that genus. Though, in Arora’s defense, I generally agree with him, for the purposes of a guidebook. The purpose of a guidebook is to identify mushrooms. If he operated with the mentality that “folks, you can ID all those other ones out there following these guidelines, but not the Amanitas, it would call into question the whole guide book. The website, however, as I’ve said before, is not meant to replace or be a guidebook, but rather is to offer experiential field advice, commentary on foraging, recipe preparation, and best practices within the foraging community.
There’s also the fact that some mushrooms which are both edible and excellent to some, can be deadly to others if that person has a severe allergy to a common edible mushroom that they were not aware of. The consumption of all mushrooms must be done very cautiously. Reading these articles that I post is not enough to 100% safely identify a mushroom alone. I would recommend consulting an experienced forager or an expert mycologist or a group of mycophiles at a local mycology club. At the very least, you should positively identify your mushroom based on metrics and descriptions from at least 3 different mushroom guidebooks.
It is not enough to know that your mushroom is not an amanita to consider it safe. You must know with one hundred percent certainty that it is the exact species you think it is before you ever eat the mushroom. I recommend first just trying to identify as many different types of mushrooms as you can before and getting used to the characteristics that you should look for. If you’re new to mushroom hunting and are interested in more advice regarding how to get started with the intimidating task of foolproof mushroom identification read this article on mushroom ID for beginners.