The Problems With the Use of Common Names and Commenting in Public Forums

Greeting all, it’s spring and our hearts are jumping out of our chests to get into the woods and hunt the elusive morel. The time is now to have a good discussion on naming convention and common names, and the edibility of the false morels and what one should responsibly say about them.

Earlier today I followed a Facebook thread, in which several people argued over the common name of one of the Gyromitra species. It wasn’t amusing seeing the same argument between three sets of different people, one calling the Gyromitra by its sometime used common name “Beefsteak” and someone else claiming that the common name “Beefsteak” applied to Fistulina hepatica. Again, this same argument went on several times, and was confusing to the person requesting an identification. And worse yet, had that person looked up “Beefsteak” and gone to the Fistulina hepatica link they’d have seen it was edible and choice.

The main problem with common names is that they vary regionally and often within the same region there are several common names for one fruiting body, and sometimes there are several fruiting bodies with the same name. All the confusion could be solved with some type of naming convention!

And has been. For 300 years.

When Linnaeus wrote Systema Naturae I’ve read there was already much argument within the Royal Society of Britain,  Hooke and Boyle up late nights arguing naming convention, defining scientific method, attempting to create a standard where none existed, they had it done for them by Linnaeus. There is certainly no cause to re-argue the ultimately worthless arguments that Boyle and Hooke had, when Linnaeus solved them for us and them 300 years ago.

The use of Latin names for fungi clears up many of problems; there is only one species of mushroom to each name, this takes the guess work out, the regionality, and in fact the Latin name is used internationally.  You can walk up to a Russian or Belgian or a Korean and they’ll know what you’re talking about when you mention G. frondosa but will be dumbfounded when you speak of “Sheepshead” mushroom. Several years ago I was hunting Maitake (G. frondosa) and an old timer came up to me in the woods, my bags were almost full, and his were about empty. I offered him some, and let him choose which he wanted. He managed to explain the difference between a “Hen of the Woods”, a “True Sheepshead” and a “Sheepshead mushroom”. I bit my tongue and out of respect for my elders kept my mouth shut.

One of the main problems that many of us (myself especially) have with using the Latin name may be two fold, we were brought up – archaic knowledge given to us secretively – by our personal experts, and possibly we simply weren’t trained to use the terminology. I personally have a problem pronouncing Latin names as do many mycologists that I know. And you know what? Seldom has someone corrected my Latin. It’s kind of like going to a foreign country and attempting to order in their language, and mangling the order terribly, they’re so happy you’ve even attempted to learn how to pronounce something that they’re appreciative and happy, and strive even harder to help.

We certainly don’t need to always use Latin nomenclature, but when we’re in a public forum, and the possibility of confusion is prevalent, we need to make that attempt.

That takes us to the responsibility you must have when you’re writing in public forums and there is a serious danger that someone that has less experience than you have will take your opinion as gospel. This certainly isn’t a problem when one has misidentified L. cincinnatus for L. sulpureus, but certainly becomes a concern when what your beliefs are and what you’ve been taught go directly against science. Specifically, since it’s morel season, I’m speaking of the edibility of Gyromitra sp. and Verpa sp.

Many folks are traditionalists, they were taught that “False morels” are delicious and safe, and have been eating them all their lives. In reality the science isn’t perfect on the vector of poisoning from Gyromitra and Verpa, but it is clear. Both contain toxins that could build up in your body to toxic levels. When that occurs that could be deadly. 2 -4% of fatal mushroom poisonings are due to these to species of “false morels”.

UW La Crosse Professor Tom Volk states:
“Gyromitrin is a hemolytic toxin (i.e. it destroys red blood cells) in humans, other primates, and dogs. It is toxic to the central nervous system and damages the liver and gastrointestinal tract. It may act by interfering with transaminases, particularly those having a pyridoxal phosphate cofactor. Vitamin B6 is used in the treatment. As in cyclopeptide poisoning, a relatively long latent period ensues (6 to 12 hours) between ingestion and symptoms. The symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, distention, weakness, lassitude, and headache; if the condition is severe, these may develop into jaundice, convulsions, coma, and death. Methemoglobinuria and very low blood sugar are found in laboratory tests.”

We’re talking about a family of mushrooms of which it is assumed that all contain some amounts of a toxin, though some G. caroliniana for example, likely has lower concentrations of gyromitrin (N-methyl-N-formylhydrazine) which your body synthesizes into monomethylhydrazine, a component in rocket fuel, but not all of them have been tested, and tests certainly haven’t been run broadly or regionally. In fact the taxonomy is still in dispute.

In Michigan in 2012, 53 people were sick enough to call poison control from eating Verpas and Gyromitras. 11 of them were hospitalized.  While we are free to make our own choices, to gamble with our health, to spin the barrel until we get to the chamber with the bullet, telling a new comer that it’s safe to do is disingenuous.

Our society of foragers and mushroom hunters are repositories of knowledge and we need to not only welcome the new hunter, but ensure that they are given the best information, without expecting them to hold the barrel of the gun to their head without knowing that one of the chambers contains a bullet. When we impart our knowledge it’s important to give them the whole of the knowledge. It’s up to them to suffer the consequences, but they can only make that decision if they know everything.

Experienced mycologists and mushroom hunters would never attempt to have a new comer to hunt above they’re experience level. Without knowing the specific characteristics of the mushroom that they’re about to trying to identify, and have a handle on look-alikes it’s like throwing a chicken to the wolves.

“Michael Kuo, who runs the website, used to have a line up on there that said “If you hear someone brag about how heavy their morel was, you are talking to an idiot.” writes Leon Shernoff mycologist and publisher of “Mushroom; the Journal of Wild Mushrooming”.

But, of course, as I write this piece the chime on my Facebook goes off, and I see my comment of caution has gotten a response, “I’ve been eating them for 25 years and I ain’t been sick one time.”


Must be a “Sheepshead” err, “True Sheepshead” look how big it is
Big hen



2 thoughts on “The Problems With the Use of Common Names and Commenting in Public Forums

  1. Reddit user armchairepicure wrote this up, I think it’s great!

    Hello /r/mycology!
    Last night, a user submitted a very popular post regarding the harvesting and consumption of a Gyromitra species. As a result of its content, I thought I might submit a little PSA regarding the unique characteristics of this genus of mushrooms, deemed a desirable edible by many that can be and had been deadly poisonous. The goal of this PSA is to give you as many facts as I know (feel free to augment) and point you all in the direction of recommended reading so that I can be assured that you are all able to provide truly informed consent (rather than relying on tradition, old wives’ tales, or other apocryphal anecdata) when you choose whether to forage for Gyromitra.
    There are about 18 species of false morels, all members of the genus Gyromitra. They fruit on the ground and most species present (like the name “folded turban” implies) caps with distinctive, complexly infolded caps. The best known is Gyromitra esculenta (esculenta rams delicious), but the one in the post yesterday was likely G. gigas or the closely related G. korfii.
    Cap infolding, size (as large as 5 inches!), and color (from pale yellowish brown to warm, reddish brown to dark brown) all vary wildly between species and specimens. Some Gyromitra species even lack that distinct, brain-like cap, presenting instead as cup-shaped with only rudimentary stalks. But once seen side by side, a forager can never mistake a Gyromitra for a Morchella. They are indeed strikingly different.
    Ecology, Habitat, and Occurrence:
    In North America, Gyromitra season is in the spring. This is not to say that all Gyromitra appear at that time – Gyromitra infula, for example, is a mid- to late- summer mushroom in my region. G. esculenta, gigas, korfii, brunnea, perlata, caroliniana and montana all fruit in spring, often right as the weather is warming and emerging along the receding edges of snow banks. In New England, G. esculenta generally appears right around the same time as Morchella elata and continues to fruit through the first flush of Morchella esculenta. But it is important to note that there is considerable variation in fruiting times from south to north and as elevation increases. Apparently, in the Western US, these hallmarks of Spring will fruit as late a June at higher elevations!
    The most common species in my area is G. esculenta, which is often associated with white pines. G. esculenta was previously thought to be saprobic, now it is clear that they form mycorrhizal relationships with trees during at least part of their life cycle. This helps explain why they can be found in the same location in successive years.
    Toxicity and/or Edibility:
    False morels have been described as an edible mushroom that sometimes kills (see, e.g., Greg A. Marley, Chanterelle Dreams, Amanita Nightmares: The Love, Lore, and Mystique of Mushrooms (Vermont: Chelsea Greenn, 2010); Denis Benjamin, Mushrooms: Poisons and Panaceas (New York: W. H. Freeman, 1995)). This is because Gyromitra produce the compound gyromitrin, which – when hydrolyzed by boiling or the human gut – quickly converts to monomethylhydrazine (MMH) aka rocket fuel. Literally. Literally rocket fuel used to fuel rockets worldwide. The toxic and carcinogenic nature of MMH and likely a couple of successful OSHA claims prompted the military to foster a better understanding of handling and aftercare for victims exposed to MMH.
    So, MMH is pretty volatile stuff. It has a boiling point of 91 degrees centigrade and continues to be just as toxic in a vaporous state. In Europe, there have been several instances of poisoning by fumes given off during the industrial canning process used to prepare Gyromitra for commercial consumption. (Biskupek, H. Industrial poisoning by Gyromitra esculenta encountered in Poland III. Chemical studies of the volatile toxic substance. Bromatol. Chem. Toksykol. 1, 373, Chem. Abstr. 77, 1570, 1971). Apparently, airborne MMH is so volatile, it can enter a body through your skin!
    “But ArmchairEpicure,” you might say “OP didn’t die after her post!” This is true (thank goodness). In fact, /u/randomfemale and her family have been eating Gyromitra sp. for years! Even my esteemed colleague, /u/Hohenbuehelia mentioned that he regularly consumes mushrooms that require extra care (though imma just leave this here). But, here’s the rub with Gyromitra, it is the cause of 2-4% of all fatal mushroom poisonings worldwide. Between 1782 and 1965, Gyromitra was responsible for 14% of fungus related mortality in Europe. (John H. Trestrail, III, “Monomethylhydrazine-Containing Mushrooms,” in Handbook of Mushroom Poisonings, Diagnosis and Treatment, D.G. Spoerke and B.A. Rumack, eds. (Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press 1994) Over a 10 year period in Poland, 100 people were hospitalized, and 6 of those people died. In fact, even in Finland, where G. esculenta is sold commercially and all products MUST be accompanied (by law) by a proper preparation fact sheet, death by Gyromitra accounted for 25% of Finland’s mushroom poisoning deaths between 1885 and 1988. For whatever reason (and there are many speculations on this) eating Gyromitra is like playing Russian roulette. And the absolute worst part, just like Russian Roulette, we just don’t have enough information on how Gyromitra can kill so erratically.
    Difficulty in understanding how Gyromitra kills comes from a number of different factors.
    Concentration of gyromitrin varies greatly across strains, species, location, age of mushroom when harvested, elevation of location, and how warm or cold the day was when harvesting. It is worth noting, however, that there have not been any studies to my knowledge (which is significantly limited as compared to say /u/alanrockafeller) that attempt to quantify this variance. At least one study on elevation as related to concentration does exist, and it does demonstrate that specimens grown at a higher elevation had lower concentrations than those at lower elevations. (Denis Benjamin, Mushrooms: Poisons and Panaceas (New York: W. H. Freeman, 1995)). BUT! (Can’t be that simple, right?) there is another study out of Finland that indicates that it is temperature that is the controlling factor over concentration. Greg Marley muses that the two in conjunction make a great deal of sense, positing that if it is UV radiation that is responsible for volatizing or neutralizing the gyromitrin, higher elevations with more sun might result in lower toxicity due to increased radiation caused by the thinner atmosphere. Promising PhD candidates might consider irradiating a ton of G. esculenta and publishing what I believe would be a clarifying paper, even if it merely dispels Marley’s very believable theory.
    It is also important to note that monkey studies (as depressing as they are) testing toxicity of MMH have shown that there is a remarkably narrow margin between a dose causing no observable symptoms and a lethal dose. This also appears to be true in humans, though no studies have been performed to test this hypothesis specifically. John H. Trestrail, III, “Monomethylhydrazine-Containing Mushrooms,” in Handbook of Mushroom Poisonings, Diagnosis and Treatment, D.G. Spoerke and B.A. Rumack, eds. (Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press 1994)
    Symptoms of Gyromitrin Poisoning
    Ok, so we know that it can kill you. But what’s that gonna look like? Like many of the deadly fungi, gyromitrin poisoning has a delayed onset. Symptoms do not generally manifest until 6-12 hours have passed. If symptoms start sooner, this indicates a more severe case of poisoning. Mild cases of poisoning last two to six days, but even mild cases can have severely detrimental effects on people with compromised livers and/or kidneys. Initial symptoms include bloating, gas, nausea, vomiting, cramps, severe headache and fever. More severe poisoning may result in signs of liver failure (jaundice, swelling of liver and spleen) approximately 36 hours after ingestion. Finally, very severe cases exhibit hemolysis, which is where your red blood cells explode (lyse). This increase of plasma proteins can overwhelm the kidneys that are already dealing with filtering the MMH, and can this cause renal failure. Finally, a lethal amount of gyromitrin may cause convulsions, delirium, coma, and death. This is a bad scene all around.
    So you still wanna eat these guys:
    I’m going to be honest with you and tell you that you are nuts. There are plenty of delicious fungi to eat without even an iota of risk. In fact, there are even plenty of poisonous mushrooms you can eat relatively safely with the right preparation. Even if you are eating A. muscaria for food, if you are healthy and not a member of a sensitive population, you are gonna be ok in case of preparatory fuck ups. Same goes for mistaking O. illudens for Cantherellus, eating blue staining boletes, or even mistaking C. molybdites for C. rhacodes. But I am pretty risk averse, IMO, just eat the Morchella and leave the Gyromitra.
    But, because I now feel comfortable with your knowledge on Gyromitra, and that a Europe sells the bloody things commercially, here is a link to Finland’s rules on preparation. However, note the disclaimer on prep of Gyromitra outside of Finland. And make sure your cooking space is extremely well ventilated! Sometimes a Gyromitra may be prepared perfectly for diners, but the cook gets ill due to poor ventilation.
    TL;DR: read the whole damn thing. Be safe, make informed decisions.

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