CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) - On a Sunday afternoon at Middleton Place, local mushroom forager Brian Wheat licks the opalescent liquid dripping from the underbelly of an unearthed Milkcap.
“It’s spicy,” says Wheat, an agricultural sustainability instructor at Trident Technical College who in 2016 received his mushroom foraging certification, two years after South Carolina launched the pioneering program. Nearly 1,000 gatherers have now completed it.
Wheat and his fellow certificate holders can identify at least 40 regional mushrooms so are at little risk of ingesting the wrong variety. But hobbyist foragers without proper training aren’t out of the woods when it comes to accidental self-poisoning.
As some South Carolinians comply with health officials’ advice to spend more time outdoors during the pandemic, they are now flirting with a different lethal threat: Toxic mushrooms. According to the S.C. Poison Control Center, there have been 95 reported cases of mushroom poisonings so far this year, up from 70 in all of 2019.
“So many more people are harvesting mushrooms and posting about them on social media,” Wheat says. “There’s a lot of uncertainty out there and room for error. If you haven’t done a proper course or learned proper identification, it can be dangerous.”
While mushroom-related deaths are fairly rare - with just three or so each year in the U.S., according to the National Poison Data System - around 7,500 people experience significant harm, from nausea to liver failure. That’s simply from eating the wrong species or preparing mushrooms incorrectly.
“Mushroom foraging is an incredibly risky thing to do,” says Dr. William Richardson of the S.C. Poison Control Center. “Even mycologists have trouble identifying certain types of mushrooms, and there are plenty in South Carolina that have similar appearances.”
According to his colleague, Dr. Jill Michaels, the cliche holds: “There are old mushroom hunters and bold mushroom hunters, but no old, bold mushroom hunters.”
And it’s not just overeager gatherers who stand to suffer when they pluck the wrong fungus. One of the state certification program’s main goals is to prevent toxic mushrooms from reaching restaurant plates.
“When people see gold in them there hills but have never taken a class and just say, ‘I think these look like what’s in the book’ and those end up in a restaurant, that’s not safe,” Mushroom Mountain founder and farmer-scientist Tradd Cotter says.
Before the certification program, within a black-market, back-door system that existed because of the state’s murky mushroom resell laws, there was no way to trace a poisoning back to a specific forager or mushroom growing location.
Now, a wild mushroom poisoning can be tracked to its source. Each certified forager is given an identification number and must log their foraging sites, dates and varieties harvested.
There have been no poisoning reports associated with a certification course graduate, according to Cotter. But if a certificate holder is found to have presented a poisonous mushroom as good to eat, there are consequences.
Foragers have 10 points on their license, similar to a drivers license, and there is a 2-point deduction for trespassing or collecting in prohibited areas, and a 5-point deduction for a poisoning case. Any case involving a deadly mushroom will result in a revoked license.
One of the area’s deadliest mushrooms, the Destroying Angel, is luckily one of the easiest to identify, Cotter says.
But familiarity with just South Carolina mushrooms won’t see a certification hopeful through the exam. The program has reciprocity with North Carolina, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Virginia and New York, so Cotter has updated the curriculum to include both edible and dangerous mushrooms which grow in those states.
In its most current iteration, the two-day course has gone virtual, with more content covered and a more thorough exam to account for the lack of in-person instruction. Cotter says students still examine specimens, just as they would in an in-person course.
More than half of Mushroom Mountain’s certified graduates are simply interested in getting educated for their own personal harvesting purposes. But for those looking to turn a profit, Charleston-area varieties like Lion’s Mane, Black Trumpets and Chanterelles are popular among local retailers, restaurants and farmers market vendors.
At local restaurants, some mushroom varieties go for $20 or $25 a pound, according to Chubby Fish executive chef James London, who can buy upwards of 30 pounds in a given week in the height of the season.
London, a Chanterelle devotee, says he used to have just one or two foragers knocking on his door a couple of years ago. Now that the certification program is well-established, he sees five or six, which he describes as more than he needs.
Supply and demand aside, Wheat recommends the certification program for everyone from chefs to consumers curious about the natural world.
He also advises friends who have plucked caps from their yards to pause before throwing them into a pan.
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