The New York Times had a very useful article at the time of his death, Jenise. I was surprised to read that 95% of the reported deaths are casued by the same species of mushrooms.
HOW safe is it to pick and eat wild mushrooms? The dangers were underscored last week with the death of Sam Sebastiani Jr., 32, a member of one of California's most prominent wine-making families, who ate mushrooms gathered near his home in Santa Rosa, Calif.
The recent torrential rains in the San Francisco Bay area have led to a bumper crop of mushrooms, and nine people have been hospitalized in the last month after having eaten poisonous ones they apparently picked themselves.
Experts who know an Amanita muscaria from a Boletus edulus (the first is poisonous, the second is not) are warning inexperienced mushroom enthusiasts to leave the picking to trained mycologists, who will not be fooled by poisonous varieties that closely resemble their nonpoisonous cousins.
''Sometimes even experts need to examine spores under a microscope to know what they are doing,'' said Roseanne Soloway, the administrator of the American Association of Poison Control Centers, a nonprofit educational corporation in Washington, which maintains that most people should not pick and eat wild mushrooms at all. ''A level of presumed expertise is not enough to save your life.''
But consumers who buy mushrooms in stores or eat them in restaurants need not be alarmed.
''Of all the millions of pounds that go into commercial production, I've never heard of a single poisoning,'' said John Gottfried, an experienced mycologist and a partner in Gourmet Garage, the discount market that supplies wild mushrooms to 160 restaurants in New York day in and day out.
The mushroom Mr. Sebastiani is thought to have eaten was an Amanita phalloides, also known as the death-cap mushroom. It is the cause of 95 percent of lethal mushroom poisoning worldwide and is fatal more than 35 percent of the time; toxins in its cap destroy the victim's liver by rupturing the cells.
Mr. Sebastiani was one of three victims awaiting a possible liver transplant at the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center when he died. Several of his relatives stepped forward as would-be donors for a partial liver transplant (in which part of the donor's liver is grafted onto the patient's liver, and the healthy liver often helps the damaged cells to regenerate). A liver transplant was ruled out in his case because his body was too heavily infected.
The most common poisonous mushrooms, and some of the most deadly, are of the genus Amanita. ''They are the prettiest things you ever saw,'' said John Trestrail, the managing director of the Blodgett Regional Poison Center in Grand Rapids, Mich. ''And they should all be totally avoided.''
Amanita are tall gilled mushrooms with long stems, which grow around trees in pine forests. They range in appearance from vivid orange (the edible Amanita caesarea, which is highly prized in Italy) and shiny white (the deadly Amanita virosa) to the classic fairy tale mushroom, with bright red spotted cap (Amanita muscaria), which is also poisonous).
''Eating Amanita is Russian roulette,'' Mr. Gottfried of Gourmet Garage said. ''It gives some people the same thrill as eating fugu fish in Japan. Despite my years of collecting, I don't play with them at all. For all their culinary legend, I would just as soon be safe. The death cap is doubly dangerous because people can pick it in the infantile stage before its characteristics become clear.''
To identify a mushroom they are unsure of, mycologists take a spore print by placing a cap, gill side down, on white or black paper and leaving it for a few hours. The print that is left will mirror the spaces between the gills, which aids identification. But this is not a job for amateurs.
''I call the Amanita phalloides the prime seductresses of the forest,'' said Jack Czarnecki, author of ''A Cook's Book of Mushrooms'' (Artisan/Workman, 1995) and the chef and owner of Joe's Bistro 614 in Reading, Pa. ''They are bright greenish-white, and because they are poisonous they haven't had to select camouflage characteristics. But when these mushrooms are wet, they could look like a wood blewit, which is pale white up to deep purple. Of course, any trained mycologist could tell the difference by looking at the bottom.'' Amanita have a cap at the bottom of their stems; wood blewits do not.
The balance of the article is available only by paid subscription.