A first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford.
“Mushrooms are incredibly important, and also incredibly mysterious. My boss likes to say that fungi keep their secrets close to their chests. They’re not like plants, where you can walk right up to them and measure their leaves. You have to dig in the soil. I do a lot of molecular work with DNA to address the questions that fungi try to hide.
“It’s so tempting to just lump them in with plants, because they don’t move around. But we’ve known for a long time that they’re actually more closely related to animals. All fungi need to feed on other organisms, as opposed to plants, which generate their own food.
Mushrooms are no more innocuous than anything under your kitchen sink. A lot of those things are going to kill you too, if you pour them into your cereal. It’s just a matter of knowing what you’re dealing with. If you can’t identify it yourself, don’t be sticking it in your mouth. That’s the rule.
“The ones that will kill you will take 48 to 72 hours before they kill you. They’ll make you feel like you’re dying, and you’ll be spending a lot of time in the bathroom. That’s a good indication that you need to go to the doctor. If people tough it out and wait till their liver has been destroyed, at that point, they feel fine again. That’s when they’re really screwed, because all these toxins are building up in their system, and they’re going to keel over in the next few hours.
“The people who mostly suffer from deadly mushrooms are not Americans. They’re generally people who might be new to the country, and they have look-alikes in their own country that they can eat with impunity.
“There was an article that came out in a regional Illinois newspaper where a guy was showing off these morels that he found. There was a picture of him on the website, and they’re going, ‘This is a fantastic find; he’s going to have a great dinner.’
“It made the rounds to a handful of mycologists here in Chicago, and we could identify automatically that they were not morels. They’re this other species, Gyromitra. The problem is that they produce these toxins that are not unlike jet fuel. You could asphyxiate yourself if you’re cooking them in a closed space. A bunch of us started commenting on the site right away: ‘Sorry to say, those aren’t morels, hope the guy’s okay.’ We didn’t find out what happened.
“I did my dissertation on a genus called Calostoma. The name means ‘pretty mouth.’ Their nickname is ‘puffball in aspic’ or ‘hot lips.’ They produce a little hole on the top that’s shaped like a deformed set of bright red lips. They have these really slimy fruiting structures, like a gelatin that covers the puffball. The look like an alien crawling out of the ground—slimy and gooey and sinuous, and at the same time, oddly beautiful.”