By Naveed Mansoori

In September 1534, Pope Clement VII died-some think he was murdered- after consuming the poisonous Death Cap mushroom. The notorious Death Cap has continued to be the cause of 90 percent of mushroom-related deaths.

On New Year’s Day, a family of six from Santa Cruz was admitted to Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz after consuming wild mushrooms from Wilder Ranch State Park located next to the UC Santa Cruz campus. Four of the family members have been released, but two are facing possible liver failure and the need for replacements.

Chris Spohrer, a research ecologist from Wilder Ranch, had some insight about the type of mushroom consumed.

"Based on the time of year, and the area, there is a poisonous mushroom called an amanita phalloides [colloquially termed the Death Cap]. It has a greenish, whitish cast to it, the top is smooth, and it has white gills. It’s pretty typical that people would look at that and think it would be an edible type, but it’s actually quite poisonous."

The Santa Cruz County Health Agency has confirmed that, along with various non-poisonous mushrooms, the family consumed the Death Cap, and the amanita ocreata, also known as the Destroying Angel.

Kirk Langenfelter, Wilder Ranch’s superintendent, said that the park staff initially was not aware of the incident because the family did not immediately call 911.

"Under normal circumstances, if a call came into the 911 dispatching services, the state park would immediately dispatch emergency services as well. That way we get the needed services out as quick as possible, whether it’s fire, ambulance, or state park personnel," he said.

Langenfelter continued, "We’re very concerned for those who have become ill. It’s a very unfortunate incident, but it’s also important to remind everyone that mushroom collecting in Santa Cruz state parks is not permitted and can be very dangerous."

Ryan Laporte, a soil scientist and self-proclaimed mushroom expert in Santa Cruz, explained that it is possible to distinguish poisonous mushrooms from edible ones.

"For the untrained eye they all look the same. I have two encyclopedias. I have a filed guide to edible mushrooms," he said. "You learn over time."

When asked if he or somebody he knew had ever had a frightening experience foraging mushrooms he replied with a tacit, "nope."

However, Laporte cautioned, "if something looks even slightly poisonous, don’t eat it, it’s not even worth it."

While a hands-on approach has worked for Laporte, mycologists-scientists who specialize in fungi-disagree.

Wilder Ranch ecologist Spohrer stated that he would in no way condone mushroom foraging and that the act is illegal in Wilder Ranch State Park. When asked to comment on allegations made by de facto mushroom experts that say they can identify a poisonous mushroom without scrupulous testing he agreed that it was possible, but cautioned anybody who forages.

"They need to be one hundred percent sure that they know the species," Spohrer said. "There are very good keys available. You should have an advanced knowledge of that key and know how to use it. If you can’t do that, you have no business eating mushrooms."

According to the California Poison Control (CPC) website there are no distinct signs for whether or not a mushroom is poisonous. Some assume a mushroom is poisonous if it stains when bruised, secretes a milky sap, turns garlic blue or black when cooked, turns black when rubbed against, tarnishes a silver spoon when cooked with it, or has scales or warts. However, there are edible mushrooms that share similar attributes.

Mushroom foraging is a popular activity on the UCSC campus. UCSC’s recreation department is planning a mushroom foraging expedition to be led by Phil Carpenter, the president of the Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz, on Saturday, Feb. 2. Also, the Fungus Fair will be held Jan. 13-14 at the Louden Nelson Community Center, where hundreds of species of fungi will be presented.

Admonishing the dangers of over-eager mushroom foraging, the CPC website declares: "There are old mushroom hunters and bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold hunters."