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 http://www.mushroomexpert.com, 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.”