Fungi can be fun

Mushrooms
June 14, 1996

Denis Benjamin is director, department of laboratories, children's hospital and medical center, Seattle, Washington and professor of laboratory medicine and pathology, University of Washington medical school. Despite these onerous occupations he has found time not only to pursue his "passion" for fungi but also to write a very entertaining book about them. I warmed to his approach when I read in the preface, "no reason exists for a medical or a scientific book to be unreadable". How true, and what a pity that so many readers are denied an appreciation of the wonders of life through an adolescent brush with a turgid text.

Benjamin's book is in three parts, mushrooms and health, mushroom poisoning and mushroom poisoning syndromes. It is therefore concerned with mycophagy, the ingestion of macrofungi and its consequences, one of which may be poisoning, or to use the scientific term, mycetism. This is distinct from the more insidious and more widespread phenomenon of mycotoxicosis, the result of eating food that has been contaminated with toxigenic fungi. The panaceas of the title refer to supposed remedies stretching back to the times of the Greeks and the Romans. Pliny, for example, extolled the virtues of Suillus which removed freckles and blemishes on women's faces, was a lotion for sore eyes and, after soaking in water, was a salve for such diverse disorders as foul ulcers, eruptions of the head and dog bites. Moreover, truffles were regarded as the cast off testicles of stags and were prized as aphrodisiacs rather than, as now, for their taste. In the words of Benjamin: "Ah, for the days before the 'double blind' clinical trials and the Food and Drug Administration."

The consumption and other methods of using mushrooms as panaceas has ceased except for those who wish to "take a trip" by eating such specimens as the fly agaric, Amanita muscaria, detailed by Benjamin. However, he emphasises that the chances of a pleasurable experience are poor but less dangerous than other more infamous products associated with "the rave culture".

So why do people continue to eat mushrooms? Young children may do so because they are at the stage when anything that can go in the mouth will do so, while adults eat them because they enjoy the taste. In some cultures, particularly Asian and some European, mycophagy is part of life. Although the hazards are overrated in comparison with other activities (such as using the road) they are real. Chapter nine, which is devoted to the incidence of mushroom poisoning, tells of only 39 fatalities in England and Wales during the period 1920-1950. When death does occur it is generally caused by amanitin-containing species, of which Amanita phalloides is the most notorious. One reasonably-sized cap of this mushroom is enough to kill a human. Details of symptoms are given, together with methods of managing the victim (when all else fails a liver transplant is called for) and long-term prognosis for survivors.

Two very useful sections are the colour photos of the most poisonous mushrooms and a section printed on grey paper for easy reference giving advice for the general management of poisoning (usually people get better without special treatment if they have not been too greedy). This book is fun to read and is one that I shall continue to enjoy dipping into.

Richard N. Strange is senior lecturer in biology, University College London.

Mushrooms: Poisons and Panaceas, A Handbook for Naturalists, Mycologists and Physicians

Author - Denis R. Benjamin
ISBN - 0 7167 2600 9 and 0 7167 2649 1
Publisher - W. H. Freeman
Price - £54.95 and £24.95
Pages - 422

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