Mushroom hunting, a cautionary trade, has Auburn area roots

Recent poisonings spread ‘fear,’ importance of caution
By: Jon Schultz, Journal Staff Writer
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When three people died after eating soup made with toxic wild mushrooms earlier this month in Loomis, it provided a grim reminder of the dangers that come along with foraging for them.

The incident at Gold Age Villa, an eldercare home, garnered statewide attention on the issue during a time that coincides with experts say is a peak time for mushroom hunters in Northern California.

The California Department of Social Services is conducting an ongoing investigation of matter.

For those like naturalist Daniel Nicholson who never buy mushrooms from the grocery store, learning of the poisonings was sad on a number of levels.

“I’m certainly sad and disappointed any time someone gets sick and dies off of eating wild mushrooms because it broadcasts … more fear of wild mushrooms,” said Nicholson, a biologist with the Yuba Watershed Institute. “And, of course, my reaction is being sad and disappointed for both the people that got hurt and died and their families, of course, but also my other reaction is disappointment in that they hadn’t realized what mushroom was the culprit.”

He said he and his peers believe the culprit to be Amanita phalloides, or the death cap mushroom – one of hundreds of varieties that can be found in the area.

Every year, Nicholson participates in the Nevada City Wild Mushroom Exposition hosted by the Yuba Watershed Institute. The Dec. 9 event has presentations, displays and workshops on seasonal Sierra mushrooms and aims to educate those interested on proper foraging techniques.

“We’ll be training people and going up and sampling wild mushrooms,” he said.

Ask Nicholson, and he’ll say there’s a definite learning curve. Ask California Poison Control System Executive director Stuart Heard, and he’ll say save the risk, and buy them at a reputable store.

“It’s a very simple message: Don’t pick them and eat them, and don’t take them from anybody even if they think they know what they are doing,” Heard said when asked what advice he’d give to people about foraging wild mushrooms.

According to the California Poison Control System, 1,748 cases of mushroom ingestion were reported statewide in 2009-2010. The death cap is an example of one that could easily be confused with a perfectly safe mushroom in the same Amanita variety, Heard said.

“It’s very difficult to distinguish between those that are harmful and those that are not harmful unless you’re truly an expert,” he said.

On that point, Nicholson agrees.

For those willing to devote the time to learning how to property identify wild mushrooms, the Auburn region has plenty to offer, he said. With the main season just beginning, white chanterelles and porcini mushrooms can be found at 4,000 and 5,000 feet, he said.

The old forager’s adage of, “When in doubt, throw it out,” is a good starting point, but the ability to properly identify both what is edible and what is poisonous is “imperative,” Nicholson said.

“It’s respect for the possibility of running into a toxic one,” he said. “Positive identification is crucial and paramount. You can’t get by without it and that is going to take practice, skill and observation.”

Donald Simoni developed his love for foraging in his youth, providing the spores for thought that led to Mushrooms Adventures, his company based in Marysville that grows and sells about 500 pounds of mushrooms a week.

Though the ones he sells that can be found at retail stores and farmers markets such as the one in Auburn are not wild, he still has a heart for the hunt.

Mushroom hunting has strong cultural roots in the area, he said.

“When I was a younger boy, all the old Italian guys in the whole area used to head up toward Auburn and Colfax and out toward Grass Valley, and they picked porcini mushrooms, and (others),” Simoni said. “It was very common practice.  … But I think as a lot of the old timers died off, a lot of the younger folks didn’t get interested, and it just fell by the wayside.”

His advice to beginners is to find a good identification book, but even that can be challenging in-and-of itself.

“If they are sharp people and can follow and read and ID, then they might be OK,” Simoni said. “But the best way to go is to go with someone who has been doing it for years and can give you expert first-hand experience. That’s the trick.”


Jon Schultz can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Jon_AJNews