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Decomposers in Disguise Take Lives!

Updated: Jan 23, 2023

Misidentification amongst mushroom species leads to increased poisoning risks among mushroom foragers and consumers.

Referencing the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), there is an estimated 2.2 - 3.8 million fungi species. There are more than 10,000 species that reside in the United States. Due to the various shapes, patterns, sizes, and colors, misidentification amongst foragers is almost inescapable and, as a result, poisoning rates increase when individuals mistakenly consume the deadly decomposers.

So what is Mushroom Foraging?

Mushroom foraging, in short, refers to the process of gathering mushrooms in the wild, say in the forest or areas where mushrooms call home.

This hobby, however, is not to be taken lightly and should be approached with caution. Knowledge of identifying and differentiating amongst various species of mushrooms is highly recommended whereas using a simple handbook would be quite risky.

The Culprit

The NCBI reports that from cases of mushroom poisoning, 95% occur due to inexperienced foragers misidentifying mushrooms. Consequently, the species of mushroom that is most frequently misidentified is Amanita phalloides, or the Death Cap, and is most often confused with the Paddy Straw mushroom.

Comparing the Death Cap to the Paddy Straw. Drawing by Christian Patino.

So what makes a Death Cap so distinct, one may ask? According to the Australian National Botanical Garden, Death Caps exhibit, a “Smooth, yellowish-green to olive-brown cap; white gills; white stem; membranous skirt on stem; cup-like structure around the base of the stem.”

In comparison to Paddy Straw mushrooms, this species is distinct due to “its pink spore print [that of the death cap is white], and the lack of a ring on the stem.” (Lucid Central).

Hence, although similar, both species of mushrooms have distinct qualities that separate the two.


A 2018 case announced by Radio Farda, an Iranian radio network, shares the tragic death of eleven individuals and the hospitalization of hundreds after the effects of misidentified mushroom poisoning. The Death Cap was reportedly the said species of mushroom that was foraged and sold to the public to which Iranian officials share, “The deadly fungi look very similar to edible ones.”

Another case involving Death Caps dates back to 1693 in Edison, New Jersey, according to the Larimer County Genealogical Society, which shares the death of brothers of Richard and Charles Hooper. The brothers were reportedly foraging and came across mushrooms, proceeded to consume them, and were reported dead in the span of a day.

Another Species?

Coprinellus micaceus or Mica Caps, on the other hand, are in fact edible and easy to identify. According to Edible Wild Food, Mica Caps are associated with “brown caps coated with a distinctive dusting of salt-like or mica-like granules.”

The Mica Cap does have a unique counterpart which is called Coprinopsis atramentaria, the Alcohol Inky. The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) mentions that the Alcohol Inky is distinctly similar in appearance to Mica Caps except for the fact that Alcohol Inkys inhabit a grayish-colored cap.

What makes the Alcohol Inky so unique is that…well it’s in the name. The MDC reports that this species is edible until alcohol is ingested, either 3 days before or after consumption, it becomes poisonous.

Once again, mushroom foraging is no easy feat and should not be taken lightly; consumption of toxic mushrooms can be lethal, ranging from organ failure to death. The most reasonable solution to ensure the safety of foragers and consumers from the deception of these decomposers would be to leave mushroom foraging to the experts and those with experience.


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