Ed Colby: Be aware of the fungus among us
July 30, 2002
Agrippina, the fourth wife of the emperor Claudius, poisoned him to vacate the throne for her son Nero. She laced Claudius’ favorite Amanita mushrooms with a poisonous Amanita variety – the Death Cap.
Amanitas all look pretty similar, and they all reportedly taste great.
In the summer of 1969 Snakeproof and Bobby both ate three Panther Amanita mushrooms. An hour later Bobby looked scared. “Ed,” he said, “You’d better get me to the hospital. I’m freaking out.”
We’d been stacking logs all day on what is now the Funnel ski trail at Snowmass. Sawyers felled the trees for the new trail and bucked them into chunks you could pick up, and we’d throw them onto burn piles.
We relieved the relentless boredom with storytelling and mushroom hunting. While we stacked logs, we yarned. During our breaks and at lunch we hunted mushrooms. Countless varieties grow in the woods at Snowmass. Some of them won’t kill you. I had a book, The Colorado Mushroom Guide, with color photographs.
You want positive identification of any wild mushroom, but you can probably stay alive if you merely avoid mushrooms from the Amanita family. You could garnish your lamb chops with certain succulent Amanitas. But would you? Some Amanitas contain chemical compounds that, once absorbed into your body, induce profound understanding, possibly madness, and, too often, excruciating death.
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The stately, snow-white Destroying Angel Amanita contains amanitin, a cyclic polypeptide that is one of the most lethal organic compounds known.
The Angel doesn’t kill you outright. It toys with you. For six to 24 hours after eating a Destroying Angel, amanitin wreaks havoc on your liver and kidneys, but you feel just fine. You feel so good you might finish the leftover mushrooms in the refrigerator. Then begins a day of cramping, vomiting and bloody diarrhea. A day later you feel much better, but don’t let the hospital release you yet. The following day you inevitably relapse, and now the end is near. You might experience a second or even a third false recovery, but you generally die within 10 days. An antidote for amanitin has not yet been invented.
While rare around Aspen, I once found a Destroying Angel on Shadow Mountain.
The wart-speckled, red, orange or yellow Sacred Mushroom, Amanita Muscaria, is the classic “toadstool” of fairy tale illustrations. You know the one. People eat it for its hallucinogenic properties. Since the dawn of history people around the world have found the Sacred Mushroom an effective antidote to boredom. No witch ever brewed a cauldron without one. If you took a walk in the woods today, you might find one. Toxicologists consider it poisonous.
Snakeproof and Bobby found a nice little clump of Panther Amanitas. They looked just like the ones in the book – they had the “ring” around the silky white stem, the “cup” at the stem base, the white gills, the gray cap with little white warts. The book said that an eight-year-old boy who ate some in 1965 “described numerous hallucinations during his three- to four-day illness.”
Snakeproof said, “This is the one.”
I said, “Snakeproof, you’d better be right, because if you’re not, you’re dead. That could be a Destroying Angel and maybe the color is just a little off.”
He was positive. “No, man, this is the Panther. I’m going to eat these. You guys want some?” Nobody but Bobby did.
Larry drove us to the old Aspen Valley Hospital. I sat in back next to Bobby, who curled up on the seat, moaning.
Outside the emergency room, Bobby jumped out the open car window, like a frog. The car was still moving. We all tackled him and dragged him into the hospital. When Dr. Baxter said, “What’s he on?” I just handed him the book.
As the straw boss, I felt a certain responsibility for what happened, even though it is a free country. I hung around the hospital. Bobby’s folks lived in Aspen (that’s why I changed his name), and his mother showed up. In a matter-of-fact way, she said, “That kid’s had more than one bad LSD trip. What’s he thinking?”
She sighed, like mothers do. “Besides,” she said, “he’s allergic to fungus.”
[ Beekeeper and ski patroller Ed Colby’s column runs on Tuesdays. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]