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Is this poisonous? For UF mushroom expert, COVID-19 means more concerned calls, texts

Above: Lactarius paradoxus or ‘milky cap’ mushrooms gathered by Matt Smith in the Gainesville area. While this particular species is edible, there are mushrooms that look similar that are not edible, which is why Smith urges caution. “If you’re not 100% sure of the identity of a mushroom, don’t eat it,” Smith said. “Other than correctly identifying the species, there is no sure way to know if a mushroom is safe to eat.” Photo by Matt Smith

For mushroom identification expert Matt Smith, spring is usually a slow time of year.

“Mushrooms are less common during the spring in Florida, so this time of year I hardly have anyone contacting me about someone having eaten a mushroom that might be poisonous. But since everyone started staying home because of COVID-19, I’ve been getting more calls than usual,” said Smith, an associate professor of plant pathology at the University of Florida/IFAS.

A few factors related to the pandemic may be driving the uptick, Smith said.

“People often get in touch because they want to know if a mushroom their child or pet ate was poisonous. With everyone being stuck at home, that probably increases the chances that a child or pet will come across a mushroom. If they look for answers online, they often find their way to my lab’s mushroom identification services,” Smith said.

Smith stresses that the vast majority of mushroom species are not poisonous, though one should always be careful. A few high-quality photos of the mushroom in question are usually all he needs to determine if it’s a poisonous species. Smith has a detailed guide online to help Florida residents if they need to submit a sample.

However, if someone eats a mushroom and then feels ill, they should seek medical attention without delay, Smith emphasizes.

“If you, your child or your pet is experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea and vomiting and you suspect a mushroom poisoning has occurred, definitely call poison control or consult a physician,” Smith said.

In suspected poisoning cases, Florida Poison Control, UF Health or UF veterinary services coordinate with Smith to identify the mushroom. “There are so many different species of mushrooms out there, and some that are poisonous look very similar to ones that aren’t, so poison control, doctors and vets ask for my help to make an identification,” Smith said.

Fortunately, none of the cases he’s responded to so far this spring have involved poisonous mushrooms. “It feels good to let people know they didn’t consume something poisonous,” Smith said.

Summer is peak mushroom season, so Smith expects more calls in the coming months. If you’re concerned about mushrooms on your property because you have small children or pets, you can simply pick them and throw them out, he said. “Just handling a poisonous mushroom won’t lead to poisoning. You have to put it in your mouth and eat it for it to affect you,” he said.

For adults interested in foraging for wild mushrooms, Smith has a few words of caution.

“You probably wouldn’t eat wild berries unless you were sure they weren’t going to make you sick. The same goes for mushrooms: ‘if in doubt, throw it out.’ If you’re not 100% sure of the identity of a mushroom, don’t eat it. Other than correctly identifying the species, there is no sure way to know if a mushroom is safe to eat,” he said.

However, this doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate the mushrooms around you, Smith said. “I don’t want to discourage people from taking an interest in mushrooms — they’re fascinating! I suggest using an app like iNaturalist to record and identify the mushrooms you come across and learn more about them.”

So, if you discover mushrooms on your property and you aren’t concerned about children or pets eating them, just leave them be, Smith suggests.

“After all, there are also plants in our landscaping that would make us sick if we ate them, but since we don’t eat them, it’s fine to have them in our yards,” he said. “Mushrooms are nature’s composters and help break down materials other organisms can’t, so they are an important part of the environment.”

And what if you’re still hankering for some locally grown mushrooms?

“Do some research about local mushroom growers in your area who sell their mushrooms directly to consumers or at farmers markets while social distancing. You can find some unusual and tasty varieties that way, and you’ll be supporting local agriculture,” Smith said.

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