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Death Cap Mushrooms – How to Identify and Avoid Them

Death Caps

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The death cap mushroom, also known as Amanita phalloides, can cause severe illness and may even be fatal if consumed as it is one of the most poisonous mushrooms in the world. As they resemble certain edible mushrooms, death cap mushroom identification knowledge is crucial.

So, where are death cap mushrooms found, and how can you identify them? Let’s dive a bit deeper to find out.

What Does a Death Cap Mushroom Look Like?

Here’s a quick death cap mushroom identification summary.  The death cap mushroom has a large cap of around 40-160mm wide with a skirting beneath. It is usually pale green to yellowish in color with a faint, honey-sweet smell. As it looks similar to edible mushrooms like puffballs and paddy-straw mushrooms, you must be confident and extra careful in picking the right one.

Lying Deathcap

Where is the Death Cap Mushroom Found?

Death cap mushrooms are found worldwide. They are not native to North America but were introduced decades ago from Europe to the western and eastern parts of North America. They were found on the roots of imported trees like oaks, beeches, chestnuts, birches, filberts, and hornbeams, as well as on conifers like pines and spruces. Apart from this, you may even find them on historically grown nut trees like hazelnut and sweet chestnut.

What Are the Symptoms and After-Effects of Ingesting a Death Cap?

Let’s just put it this way – consuming a single death cap mushroom can kill a healthy adult. After ingesting a death cap, the first symptoms — vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea — will appear between six and 24 hours. At that point, severe liver damage will begin to develop and death will soon follow.

The toxic substances in death caps cannot be removed by soaking, drying, or cooking. The poison is present in all parts of the mushroom, including the cap, stem, spores, and gills, so peeling them doesn’t help.  There is no way to safely consume this mushroom.

In fact, many experts recommend that you avoid even touching death caps.

Keep Yourself Safe

Because of the threat that death cap mushrooms pose, it is important that you learn how to distinguish these death cap mushrooms from others.

Unfortunately, death caps can vary in appearance at different stages of their lives.  Because of the danger that these mushrooms pose, we recommend that foragers avoid ANY mushrooms that could be confused with death caps, especially when they are starting out.

One type of mushroom that is often confused with death caps is the straw mushroom, so whatever you do, avoid foraging for straw mushrooms, and make sure you know the source of any straw mushrooms that you eat.

Another potential issue is with puffballs.  Puffball mushrooms are delicious, but young, undeveloped death caps can look quite similar to puffballs.

As you become more skilled at identifying mushrooms, you will develop a better feel for which mushrooms to eat and which to avoid.

How to Identify Death Cap Mushrooms

Here are some tips to help you get accustomed to death caps. This list is by no means exhaustive.

Identify the Death Cap MushroomsImage Source: Unsplash [Created by Jeremy Cooper]

Identify the Cap

  • Note the tint of the mushroom’s cap – The cap will be whitish, with areas of green or yellow tint. In general, the caps are off-white and will have tints of color ranging from pale green to yellow. You may even see a brownish tinge if the mushrooms are old.
  • Measure the cap’s diameter – when mature, it will be somewhere between 2 and 5 inches.
  • Check if the mushroom has crowded white gills below the cap – Toxic death cap mushrooms have thin white gills. To check, flip the mushroom’s cap upside down using a stick, and take a close look below the gills. Do not touch the mushroom.  If you see that the gills are attached to the stem and are densely crowded with each other near the outer edges, it is probably a death cap mushroom.

Deathcap Gills

Image source: Michel Langeveld

  • Check the cap’s shape – In the case of young death cap mushrooms, the cap is bowl-shaped, i.e., quite rounded. In fact, it is so rounded that it almost touches the stalk of the mushroom. On the other hand, the matured mushrooms have a more flattened shape of the cap. Remember, no matter if the mushroom is young or mature, they are equally toxic.

Young Deathcap

Inspect the Mushroom’s Stalk

  • Measure the whitish stalk of the mushroom – You can measure its height by removing the soil near its base and then digging the mushroom out with a stick.  Again, do not touch the mushroom with your hands. The white-ish stalk of a mature death cap should be about 2 to 5 inches. This is an important indicator while identifying a death cap mushroom as the stalk is either white or yellow and is tall and thick. Sometimes, you can even see a light layer of fine scales over it.

Death Cap Stalk

  • Check the top of the stalk – If you see a skirt-like membrane on its top, it could be a death cap mushroom. It will be white in color, and in the case of a very young mushroom, you’ll even see this skirt covering the gills by going from the stem to the edges of the cap.

Smell the Mushroom

  • Smell the flesh of the mushroom – There’s a technique that you need to follow if you want to smell the mushroom. Take a sniff by keeping the mushroom at least 3 inches away from your nose. Did you get an ammonia-like odor? If you are unable to identify the mushroom by its physical appearance, applying this smell test may help you tell if it’s a death cap. It’s not failproof, so don’t use this method on its own.
  • Check if the cap is sticky – You can check this by tapping the mushroom lightly with a leaf or a piece of paper. If it’s a death cap, the cap will slightly be sticky.  Do not touch the mushroom with your hand.
  • Check the spore print – The spore print of a death cap mushroom is white in color. Place the cap on any dark-colored paper overnight while ensuring that the gills are facing downward. The next morning you can check the spore print by lifting the mushroom cap.

How to Avoid Consuming Death Cap Mushrooms

Follow these simple rules to avoid these toxic mushrooms, especially if you’re a novice:

  • If you see mushrooms with white gills, a skirt, or a ring around them, it’s best to avoid them. While you may miss some great edible mushrooms, you will also be avoiding consuming the deadly mushrooms like a death cap.
  • Do not pick mushrooms that have white stems or caps. Again, you may miss some good mushrooms, but this will help to keep you from picking up poisonous ones.

And the most important rule: never consume mushrooms unless you are 100 percent sure it is edible.

It’s frustrating to leave what could be delicious mushrooms in the ground, but foraging for wild mushrooms is a risky business, at least for beginners.  As you become more familiar with mushrooms, you will slowly build a repertroire of mushrooms that you feel comfortable picking and eating.

Wrapping it Up

As said earlier, it is easy to confuse death cap mushrooms with some edible mushrooms. It’s best to follow the ways mentioned above to identify them closely and only consume if you’re 100 percent sure about the mushroom type.

Death cap mushrooms have some fatal consequences, and it’s not worth taking the risk. Simply follow the rules and consider asking an experienced mushroom hunter to accompany you for foraging.

Avoid picking wild mushrooms unless you are sure about their identity or you have in-depth knowledge about the local varieties of mushrooms. In an unfortunate incident where you suspect the consumption of a death cap mushroom, rush to the nearest hospital without any delay and bring it to your doctor’s attention.

Keeping a sample of the mushroom for testing will help identify its type. This, in turn, can assist in deciding your line of treatment while helping you recover completely.

Visit our YouTube channel for all sorts of mushroom information.

To learn more about poisonous mushrooms, read our article about another killer, the destroying angel.

And to learn more about foraging edible mushrooms, check out our Ultimate Mushroom Foraging Guide.

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Death Caps

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